Spectre is opening tonight in the U.S. To celebrate this 25th movie (counting Never Say Never Again), I felt a nice retrospective on the entire franchise and its strengths was timely.
Indeed, over the past 53 years and 25 movies, James Bond has seen many directors, many actors, and many crewmembers apply their own interpretation of Ian Fleming's famous character.
Yet, there has always been one guiding hand in the whole 007 franchise: the Broccoli Family. And to them, it was more than a money-making franchise: it was a family statement, a token of their love of movies in general and spy action in particular. And if they were to create a far-reaching franchise, one that would last over several decades, they had to imbue their movies with 5 core strengths that are listed below.
So, here’s to James Bond’s next 25 movies!
5. The action sequences are (mostly) for real
Walking over crocodiles; driving a huge tanker truck/trailer on one set of wheels; blowing things up. Nobody takes action sequences and set pieces more seriously than Cubby Broccoli and his heirs. When things need to go BOOM, or BANG, just call on Guy Hamilton and his Second Unit. The top stunt men and action directors worked on the franchise, from the Dark Knight Trilogy’s Chris Corbould, to Indy’s double Vic Armstrong, to Remy Julienne’s crazy car chases and sequences, and Rick Sylvester’s record-breaking sky-dive. They all earned their wings on the 007 franchise, or used their arts to create some of the most breath-taking, suspense-inducing, spine-tingling and hair-raising action sequences out there… And for most of it, it was done in-camera!
What is equally amazing about the franchise is that it updates its stunts to the changing world, by including “new” fighting trends such as capoeira, or new “entertaining activities” such as Parkour. Unfortunately, it also included CGI a few too many times in the last Pierce Brosnan outings, but that’s for another debate (at the time, it seemed like a logical choice).
4. It has constantly reinvented itself throughout its 25 movies
Whether creating trends, emulating Star Wars, Bourne, or The Matrix, the Bond franchise has always taken inspiration from the best and most recent cinematic successes, to stay fresh and up-to-date.
Off the top, we can list, in “order of appearance”: Blaxpoitation, Star Wars, Charles Branson’s “aging avenger”, The Matrix, Bourne, as trends that the Bond franchise surfed on in order to rejuvenate itself and keep itself in the present. The most obvious reason why the franchise had to constantly reinvent itself is because it set the bar so high and so quickly on spy/action films, it created a whole genre that attracted many followers. And it’s because of this imitation, beyond it being a form of flattery, that there was also a risk for the franchise of losing its unique identity; so, the producers of the 007 movies needed to take in new fashions, up-to-the-minute new movie tricks and trends, in order to keep the imitators at bay and push them to be late-adopters, not first movers.
3. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet respects its audience
To me, the greatest moment in all of the James Bond movies is when Sean Connery opens his black diving suit to reveal a perfectly pressed and cleaned white tuxedo jacket. It’s just the 3rd movie of the franchise, and yet they’re already making fun of the tense and serious situation (following a “pigeon on a diving mask” moment).
This showed from the start, pre-credit sequence, that the producers and filmmakers were ready to show their audience that even if the movies were about world-shattering threats, they were just movies. Just 2 years before Goldfinger, at the time of From Russia With Love, the world almost got “broken in half” with the Cuban Missiles Crisis. After such a “close shave”, entertainment had nothing to show in terms of suspense and thrilling adventures compared to real life… Unless you add humor, tongue-in-cheek and one-liners that alleviate a death sequence. Maybe the problem with Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of the character, while closer to Ian Fleming’s ideas and paving the way for what Daniel Craig is doing today, was just too far removed from what Roger Moore had done for more than 15 years. Even though there were still one-liners, the humor was almost gone under the weight of this thespian’s seriousness.
And James Bond cannot live without a little bit of humor here and there!
2. The identity of the franchise is unmistakable
Despite Point 4., about constant reinvention, there is one constant: whenever you’re watching a Bond, you know you’re watching a Bond! Whether it’s the car, the girls, the tux’, the suits, the gadgets, you just need 1 minute to know you’re watching a Bond movie.
And that tells you a lot about the producers’ handle on the character but most of all the franchise: they were able to imprint an identity, common traits, that despite 50 years of movie evolution, still link all the movies together. Despite 15 different directors, 6 actors, dozens of different Felix Leiters, the crew was so consistent, the look so coherent, the big threats and high-concepts behind the movies so similar, that even though none were direct sequels of one another (bar Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace and Skyfall / Spectre) and none were shot “back-to-back” (yet), well, the Bond identity is still unmistakable. People say you can recognize a Spielberg movie even though each movie is in a different genre and about a different subject (yet all are about childhood, fatherhood, etc.). James Bond movies are even more identifiable: they’re one single and coherent franchise!
1. Everyone loves James Bond movies
In cinema history, how many franchises have outlived their main star? Everyone mentions Batman, Jack Ryan, Bourne or Hannibal Lecter as successful to mildly entertaining franchise successions. But it all started in the 30s, with Fu Manchu who was taken over by Boris Karlof from Warner Oland. It’s really the first modern example of a franchise being taken over by another actor. And let’s not go into theater, where most roles were created for famous actors, and were then “retired” when those actors died or retired themselves.
Looking at modern film history, James Bond is really the only example where not only 24 (official) films were done with a single producing vision, but also where 6 different actors played the role and still brought something to the franchise without taking something away. Sean Connery created the role, and brought danger, suaveness, and masculinity. George Lazenby brought a certain kind of vulnerability, but most of all (and people forget that), he actually proved that the role could be taken over by a completely different actor (with a completely different name, not Bruce Le, for instance!) without impacting the box office or the quality of the production. Roger Moore brought humor, self-deprecation but also a true British charm to the table. Timothy Dalton brought back the violence of Ian Fleming, but also the “grim & gritty” aspect of the era. Pierce Brosnan proved that a post-Cold War Bond could exist, but also brought a calculating humor and tortured violence. And Daniel Craig brought a Bourne-like modernity to the whole proceedings.
And so, again, despite 6 different stars that looked nothing alike, and didn’t even try to look alike (except maybe Lazenby who sported Connery’s hairdo and chest hair!), just as in Point 2., the identity of the franchise remains coherent and up-to-date despite its changing cast. And this identify has made all the movies loved the world over, by half of the world’s population, and over 53 years. Everyone has his own favorite James Bond, but what is great is that everyone has his own favorite James Bond!!