Friday, October 5, 2012

50 Years of James Bond Films

Fifty years ago today, author Ian Fleming's famous British spy with a license to kill James Bond debuted on film and megalomaniacs with dreams of world domination and secret volcano lairs have been owned ever since.

The first Bond film adaptation, Dr. No, starred Sean Connery as MI6 Agent 007 and his six official films in the series made him the essential Bond to many fans.  However, I was introduced to the world of James Bond on Halloween of 1976 when television network ABC aired Roger Moore's first Bond film Live and Let Die after an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.

I remember watching the movie with my parents and being thrilled with scenes of Bond leaping across several crocodiles to escape certain doom and being chased across the Louisiana bayou in speed boats.  Some pretty cool stuff for a 7-year-old, mind you, and I made a point of catching Moore's next two movies, The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me, when they aired on ABC as well.

In 1979, Star Wars was still the only thing that mattered and Bond producers wisely decided to make the next film, Moonraker, more sci-fi to capitalize on the trend.  The plan worked (at least as far as I was concerned) because I somehow persuaded my parents to take me to see the movie in the theater.  My first big-screen James Bond experience was a fun one, which also clinched my lifelong fondness for the character.  Space shuttles, something barely thought of in 1979, blasting away at one another in outer space was just the thing a kid like me wanted to see.  And hey, how can you not love a giant henchman with metal teeth like Richard Kiel's Jaws?

In addition to catching up on Sean Connery's movies and the underrated George Lazenby classic On Her Majesty's Secret Service whenever they aired on ABC, and absolutely loving 1981's For Your Eyes Only, I started getting into James Bond books with a paperback of John Gardner's first novel License Renewed.  This encouraged me to track down paperbacks of the original Ian Fleming novels, which had been reissued in conjunction with License Renewed and Gardner's second novel, For Special Services.

The summer of 1983 was big for Bond fans with the release of Roger Moore's official film Octopussy and the unofficial return of Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, an updated remake of Connery's fourth film Thunderball.  I remember one of the local newspapers asking at the time, "Which movie will YOU see?", a question ridiculous to any real Bond fan who would obviously go see both even though Octopussy crushed Never Say Never Again at the box office.

By this time, Roger Moore was in his middle fifties and starting to look too old to continue as Bond, so of course he ended up doing one more, A View to a Kill, in 1985.  This prompted the producers to finally recast the role, bringing in Timothy Dalton for The Living DaylightsBy this time, I had just finished high school and really enjoyed the intensity Dalton brought to the role over Moore's cheeky humor.  Unfortunately, Dalton's follow-up Licence to Kill (Gotta have the British spelling) was cheap-looking and dreadful and legal disputes delayed his third film so much he quit the role in 1994.

So along comes Pierce Brosnan, who almost became Moore's replacement but was prevented because of his contract on the NBC TV series Remington Steele.  Brosnan debuted in 1995's GoldenEye, which brought in the first female M with Judi Dench and a post-Cold War freshness to the series thanks to director Martin Campbell.  Here at last was a Bond with Dalton's intensity, Moore's charm and Connery's overall natural Bondness.  And thankfully, Tomorrow Never Dies continued the franchise's revival with another successful outing.

I think a lot of Bond fans had real hopes for Brosnan finally taking the title of "Definitive James Bond" away from Sean Connery, but 1999's The World is Not Enough was mainly worthwhile for saying a sad goodbye to Desmond Llewelyn's Q.  2002's Die Another Day, meanwhile, was intended as a 40th anniversary tribute to the film series but FUBARed the moment the great story idea of Bond being captured and tortured in a North Korean prison for over a year is abruptly abandoned for an embarrassing plot involving a death-ray satellite and a North Korean bad guy who surgically alters himself into a posh white Brit.

With Brosnan turning 50, negotiations for him to return for a fifth film broke down in 2004 and he was eventually replaced by the younger Daniel Craig a year later.  Craig encountered considerable criticism in the press and on the interwebz, but managed to shut most of them up with his superb performance in his first film, Casino Royale.  By adapting Fleming's first James Bond novel with a new lead actor, this gave producers the ability to essentially reboot the film series and show Bond just before he becomes a Double-O. 

The end result was a solid success, with Craig and returning director Martin Campbell bringing a more realistic approach that reflected the tone of Fleming's novels.  Once again, there was talk of comparisons  to Connery, but 2008's Quantum of Solace caused fans to step on the brakes a bit.  While Craig's performance appeared just as solid as before, attempts to turn Bond into shakycam Jason Bourne, a seemingly rushed script, and the lack of a formidable central villain helped add to the mediocre final product. 

After a four-year break to resolve studio MGM's financial troubles, Bond is about to return once again in Skyfall, which appears very promising based on trailers and TV commercials.  Early reports of the film suggest replacing Judi Dench's M with Ralph Fiennes and bringing in a new, younger Q played by The Hour's Ben Whishaw, so this could be a very pivotal film for the series and Craig's future as Bond.

And here we are, fifty years of martinis, girls, gadgets and guns.  Here's hoping that Bond keeps his license and stays alive for another fifty...

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