The 007 movie franchise has turned 50 with the release of “Skyfall,” one of the best in the series. It’s already breaking box-office records overseas.
The previous 22 Bond films have grossed around $5 billion, a sum that even Ernst Stavro Blofeld wouldn’t dismiss.
Daniel Craig, in his third outing, is as craggy as ever but he’s also more three-dimensional, thanks to a Scottish-orphan backstory and a Freudian flourish involving Judi Dench’s matriarchal M.
Sean Connery, for me and just about everybody else, remains the best of the babe-magnet Bonds. He had style to burn. The only time Craig dresses up is when he has to infiltrate bad-boy billionaire soirees. (There’s a lot of Bourne in this Bond).
Connery liked to swank it up because his James had a snobby sense of entitlement and he knew how good he looked in a tux.
Beginning in 1962 with “Dr. No” followed by “From Russia With Love,” “Goldfinger,” “You Only Live Twice” and “Thunderball” -- before he got a bit long in the tooth and loose in the flesh -- Connery had just the right curdling cruel mix of suavity and menace. Bond, he never let us forget, is licensed to kill.
Connery grew in stature as an actor outside of the series but he was never so brazenly priapic as he is in these films. Who else, grappling with crime-ring queen Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger” could deliver a line like “You’re a woman of many parts, Pussy” with a (sort of) straight face?
Still, the series was never dependent on Connery for its success. After Connery and before Craig, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan all had a go at it. The formula, always loopier than the Ian Fleming novels, has continually adjusted to the zeitgeist.
The early Cold War-era Connery films were top heavy with stateless master-race crazies seeking world domination. The “Star Wars” era resulted in the unfortunate “Moonraker,” with its zero-gravity laser battles barely mussing Moore’s cast-iron coif.
Nothing mussed Moore really, which is why he was the most freeze-dried of the Bonds -- a debonair hologram. Even Brosnan, also afflicted with blow-dry suavity, had his ornery side. Moore only became fully human in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” when Jaws’s chompers were bearing down on the aghast Bond’s jugular.
In the eighties, with the advent of the violent Stallone- Schwarzenegger pulpathons, movies like “For Your Eyes Only” and “License to Kill,” the latter starring the moody, Hamlet-esque Dalton, emphasized ground-level crunch-and-thud theatrics.
In “Skyfall,” Bond, who doesn’t seem to be especially computer literate, faces off against cyberwarriors. But throughout the series, no matter who his adversaries are -- blatant or shadowy, high-tech or lowdown -- Bond generally dispatches them the old-fashioned way: One on one.
He’s battled baddies with cast-iron pecs and poison-tipped shoes (Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya, respectively, in “From Russia With Love”). He’s fended off stainless steel incisors (Richard Kiel’s Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker”) and steel-rimmed bowler hats (Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in “Goldfinger”). Mads Mikkelsen in “Casino Royale” literally cried tears of blood.
He’s tooled around in autogyros, space-station shuttles, Aston Martins, Lotuses, even invisible cars.
The Bond series also has the distinction of being a pioneer in the dubious realm of product placement. Not for nothing was “Die Another Day” dubbed “Buy Another Day.”
Throughout it all Bond remains the avatar of “For King and Country” sangfroid. He leapt to freedom in “The Spy Who Loved Me” in a Union Jack parachute. To kick off the London Olympics, Craig’s Bond escorted the Queen herself from Buckingham Palace. It was a Rule Britannia joke the whole world was in on.
The Bond franchise has more global reach than the old empire ever did.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
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