With what can now safely be called the Bond Begins trilogy coming to a close, as Skyfall ends, in essence, right where Dr. No commences (at least thematically if not quite chronologically), the logical question becomes, where does James Bond 007 go from here? Absent any hard information about Bond 24 for the time being (save a confirmation of Skyfall’s John Logan returning as screenwriter), 007 fans will return to their usual far-fetched speculation about titles, creative personnel and theme songs, while every D-list actress and reality starlet’s publicist will plant specious stories about their perpetual wannabe clients being pursued by “desperate” 007 producers to star as the new Bond girl (can we collectively agree going forward that after stacking up massive critical acclaim – including five Oscar nominations – and grossing over a billion dollars on Skyfall, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are anything but desperate?) What is of interest to me is not the minutiae of who plays whom and who directs what; it’s what will be done with the character of James Bond. With the ghosts of Vesper Lynd and M laid to rest, anything is possible for the next chapter. But will the producers slip lazily back into formula, or will they push through to something new and untested? Even Skyfall borrowed from previous Bonds, using a facially-scarred former MI6 agent as the villain (Goldeneye) and centering the plot on M’s dark past (The World is Not Enough). There is an obligation now, it seems, to outdo past glories yet again, lest the disparaging reviews write themselves (“Well, it’s no Skyfall, but…) Is James Bond finally trapped by his own success into running aimlessly like a tuxedoed mouse on a wheel? I’m sure no one wants to return to the era of Bond in the 80’s, where an aging star creaked his way through formulaic plots assembled lazily by committee with no deeper insight into Bond’s character.
I’ve lurked on the message boards of major and lesser-known James Bond websites for years, and it’s always mildly amusing to read the ideas that are pitched for future adventures. Some are quite awful. Others are simply impractical. A great number are recycled, whether deliberately or in subconscious plagiarism, from what has gone before. What is most interesting though is the almost uniform approach these well-meaning fans take – to whit, the place from which they begin: the villain and the plot. The bad guy should be this, that or whatever (usually a fairly one-dimensional stock madman) and his plan should be to threaten to do this. And in fairness, some of the plots that are concocted are fairly elaborate, if awfully familiar. The biggest question that arises when reading these synopses is, where is James Bond? (He often isn’t plugged in until the third paragraph, usually in afterthought: “…and Bond has to stop him.”) With apologies to my fellow Bond fans, they’re all missing the most crucial ingredient for any story that draws inspiration from the classical hero’s journey – what is that journey? Why is he taking it? What will he learn about himself along the way? How will he forever be changed by it? Anyone trying to dream up a realistic Bond 24 plot needs to answer these questions before they start dreaming up cheesy names for seductive, large-breasted henchwomen.
To resolve the issue of where does Bond go, we have to look back at where he’s been over the last three films. He has loved and been betrayed (Casino Royale), he has learned the futility of vengeance (Quantum of Solace), and in Skyfall he has buried his “mother.” What do you take away from the man who’s lost everything? I mentioned in one of these 007 posts somewhere along the way that there is a theme running through the entirety of the Bond series – less pronounced, perhaps, in some of the more pedestrian efforts – that being James Bond withers the soul; that his life, despite its exotic trappings, is not one to be envied or emulated. What keeps Bond going is what Silva mocks him for in Skyfall: “England, the Empire, MI6… so old-fashioned.” Even in Quantum of Solace, as Bond seeks to strike at the organization responsible for Vesper’s death, duty remains paramount in his mind, cemented by his final declaration to M that “I never left.” The films have never touched on in any great detail where Bond’s sense of duty comes from. As an orphan he seeks to identify with any parental figure, and given that governments are frequently described both in positive and negative terms with parental analogies, it’s not too difficult to see why such a “maladjusted young man,” as Vesper calls him, might gravitate toward public service – first, as indicated in Bond’s official biography, in the Royal Navy, and ultimately in its Secret Service. Queen and country is what drives Bond, ironically, even with his “pathological rejection of authority based on unresolved childhood trauma.” In reviewing The Man with the Golden Gun, I talked about the oddity in the construction of the plot that had Scaramanga scheming to create a monopoly on solar power that would drive the oil companies out of business – something of a laudable goal, not your typical supervillain scheme that threatens the entirety of humanity. Yet Bond is still driven to stop him by any means necessary, out of fidelity to England. Scaramanga himself points this out when he tells Bond, “You work for peanuts… a hearty ‘well done’ from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that, we are the same.” Skyfall literalizes this sense of duty to country by personifying it as M, and yet, even after her death, Bond’s England soldiers on – as does he, recommitted fully to his work and arguably, his destiny, as he happily accepts a new assignment from M’s successor before the final fade out.
But what if this were all taken away?
What has never been examined in any great detail in any of the 007 films is Bond’s moral compass, absent his loyalty to England. What if England itself was the enemy? Who is Bond then? What if Her Majesty’s loyal terrier is compelled to break off the leash – what if doing the right thing means betraying queen and country?
Some might argue that Licence to Kill touches on this briefly, as Bond walks away from M and England to pursue private vengeance, but the film features only one brief scene set on British soil (not even filmed there, ironically) and Bond never actually questions or betrays his fidelity to his homeland, he just considers retribution for Felix Leiter to be more important at the time. So as far as I can tell, this is completely unknown territory. (Quantum of Solace did flirt with this idea of Bond being considered a rogue by his own government, but the screenplay was so underwritten it never took the time to explore this idea to its fullest extent. In that movie, despite pretensions of being on a mission of vengeance, Bond is really doing Her Majesty’s work his own way, and simply not stopping to file the required TPS reports.)
I’m not saying I expect Bond 24 to follow this line of thought. Such questions tend to veer into the realm of the political, and Wilson and Broccoli, like her father before them, shy from making political statements. Villains of a particular nationality are usually portrayed as rogues, with a sympathetic character from the same homeland always included to disavow all official connection with them – witness the genial Soviet General Gogol versus the crazed General Orlov in Octopussy, or the conciliatory North Korean General Moon against his megalomaniacal son in Die Another Day. From Russia with Love’s adaptation changed the bad guys from the novel’s Soviet Union to the stateless SPECTRE. Yet you can see the groundwork laid for an exploration of these shadows in Quantum of Solace – the usually reliable CIA (at least in the Bond movies) are portrayed as willing accomplices in a Bolivian coup d’état, and one of the leading members of Quantum is a “Guy Haines,” said to be a top advisor to the British Prime Minister, and whose fate is left unresolved at the end of the film. And the worldwide audience is at a place now where trust in government is at a record low. Corruption and incompetence is expected and tolerated; democracy is an exercise in spending rather than ideas. And yet one can see the threads of the greatness that once was drifting in the cynical wind – hope has not been extinguished yet. Where is Bond’s Britain on this new political map? Is David Cameron meant to be the “PM” whom Q, Tanner and Mallory worry about in Skyfall? Does Bond worry about what cuts to the National Health Service may mean for his martini-damaged liver?
In Skyfall, we saw a James Bond who wasn’t sure he wanted to be 007 anymore – addicted to painkillers and doing tequila shots at a beach bar, before family loyalty called him back into service to try and regain his classic self. The man who stumbles around in exile in the first act, drinking Heineken (horrors!) as he can barely be bothered to notice the beautiful girl lying next to him, is a man without purpose. At the end, as he stands on the rooftop of Regent’s Park contemplating the promise of the morning sun and the Union Jack soaring in the breeze, Moneypenny hands him his final gift from M – her prized porcelain British bulldog; bequeathing M’s sense of duty to a greater calling that she knew in her dying moments that he shared. A powerful gift – and if it is somehow taken away from him, what becomes of Bond then? Bond vs. England to save it from itself would be a powerful story, with Bond forced to question everything about who he is and whom he’s chosen to align himself with. From this seed, the rest of the story can spring forth. Then you can start figuring out the shape of the ideal, modern villain who could somehow turn Bond against his own homeland, and a love interest who can help Bond smash the conspiracy and restore honor to his life.
I should be clear – I am not interested in a rehash of the exhausted “one man must clear his name, the villain is his former mentor” trope that was every action movie released in the late 90’s. Nor do I want to see Bond turn into Jason Bourne, pursued relentlessly by agents of the organization he is trying to leave behind. This would be Bond choosing to betray his country for a compelling reason, and the consequences of that betrayal. Testing whether Bond’s loyalty is truly to Her Majesty or to a deeper moral code, hidden somewhere in the murky ambiguity that accompanies a licence to kill. Stripped of any issues of loyalty, where is James Bond on the grand divide? Can a man who murders people for a living be, fundamentally, a good man? That’s the question my hypothetical movie would want to examine, and my starting point for developing the screenplay. If, you know, I got the call from Eon. That phone can ring anytime, guys.
Wherever John Logan, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli choose to take 007 next, just as a fan I hope for two small things, both involving the leading lady – first, I really hope we’ve seen the last of the “Bond’s equal” female spy, a la Jinx, Wai Lin, Anya Amasova, etc. As I’ve said before it’s an unimaginative stock character that gets shoehorned in when there is no more logical reason for having a love interest in the movie. And second, after three movies where Bond ends his adventure alone, it would be nice to see the poor guy have a walk-into-the-sunset moment with a gorgeous companion at his side, in a cleverly-written scene that doesn’t involve puns about how many times Christmas comes in a year. Everyone Daniel Craig’s Bond has slept with has died, and he’s earned an old-fashioned Connery-in-the-raft ending, methinks.
Sigh… long wait to November 2014.