The problem with James Bond…

Blurred Bond

…and specifically Daniel Craig era James Bond.

So – what’s wrong with Bond?

OK. Here goes: he is not just the embodiment of, but also a celebration of, everything that is wrong with being male. Here’s the thing… I think the character has ended up where it has as a result of a reactionary re-calibration in response to two very specific counter-franchise characters, and which has made him unacceptable. And offensive.

Those two counter franchise characters? Austin Powers, and Jason Bourne.

So. When I was a kid, I loved James Bond as much as the next guy. He was escapist, faintly daft, boys’ own kinda spy japes and quips, gadgets and gizmos and all the rest. And that was fine. There was a contract of absurdity between the stories and the audience that we all signed up to that made everything OK.

Then there was the double-whammy of Austin Powers and Jason Bourne.

Austin Powers took away Bond’s ability to wink at the camera. It took a character that was already faintly comedic/satirical (Roger Moore too much? Timothy Dalton not enough? Connery and Brosnan just right?), exaggerated it to farce, and thereby removed the original’s own comedy chops. It neutered him as a finely balanced joke. And so they had to go straight with Bond.

And then came Jason Bourne. Here we had a spy that was a machine. Would get into the down and dirty of post 9-11 political grey areas, and was a precision engineered cog in the global intelligence machine.

So team Bond went into their bunker and came out with a Bond Mk.2. This Bond was serious. He was brutal. This new Bond was nothing like Austin Powers, and could perhaps exist in the same (real?) world as Jason Bourne.

But unlike Bourne, whose whole franchise is predicated, quite literally on the motif of a ‘Bond’ waking up to what he is, being disgusted by himself and what he is, and then setting out on a journey to destroy every individual and agency that might think that what he is in any way acceptable – Bond has taken all of Bourne’s grit, but none of his conscience. If Bond were to walk on in the Bourne films, he’d be one of the bad guys, and we would cheer when Bourne dispatched him.

And because Bond is no longer allowed to wink at us, because there isn’t even the faintest sheen of satire, or boys’ own pulpiness, there’s no get out clause for us. We’re rooting for the wrong guy. We are cheering when we shouldn’t, and we’re presenting a monster to our sons as a hero.

But here’s a very specific example from Skyfall that for me highlights why, until Bond is re-thought, he will continue to disgust and offend me. In Skyfall he, as is tradition, identifies the femme fatale/’Bond’ girl. She seems to be in charge of a casino, and is his lead to the big bad guy. He joins her at the bar, and they have this whole elliptical conversation that is laden with espionage-y hints and inferences, and then she gets up to leave. He then dazzles her with his insight – he’s noticed she’s nervous of the bouncers. Therefore they are in charge of her, not her in charge of them. He’s also noticed the tattoos on her wrist which are sex-trade tattoos. Therefore, Bond concludes, she is in all likelihood the property of the bad guy, and an unwilling front for this evil ne’er-do-well.

So what does Bond do? Well first, he makes a promise to this victim of sexual slavery: that if she takes him to the bad guy, he will kill the bad guy and free her. Then, having dispatched the heavies in the casino, he heads to the boat of this terrified sex slave, and treats her like a sex slave – i.e. strips and hops naked into her shower on the assumption that that’s OK. Which it probably is, given that she’s a sex-slave and sex-slaves are cool with that. Then he takes her directly to the bad guy that ‘owns’ her, does precisely nothing to prevent her capture and torture and then, when asked what he has to say about her summary execution (which has unfortunately led to the spillage of some whiskey) quips, “Well that’s a waste of some perfectly good scotch.”

Really?! I mean really?! That’s OK? That’s not offensive? You see, in a Moore film, that line would have been crude, or symptomatic of Bond being a bloke-y arse. But there’s no defence for that in Craig-era Bond. They ditched that defence to move themselves away from Austin Powers. They wanted to occupy a Bourne-like world – but would Bourne have made that quip? Don’t think so – I seem to remember a whole Bourne film, in fact a whole two Bourne films (the second two) being triggered by the murder of a woman he loved, and wanted to protect, and when he failed to do that, he brought the whole world down. Bond wants some of that Bourne connection to ‘real’ emotion, but isn’t prepared to give up its old habits of women=fodder.

And what’s most completely unfathomable about this whole Bond thing is how no-one seems to mind. How otherwise intelligent film folk (Craig, Mendes, Mark Kermode) seem to be OK with this. It’s like everyone that grew up with Bond are prepared to forgive his now inexcusable traits, because, well, he’s Bond isn’t he? It’s like having a racist uncle – “well, he’s only a little bit racist, but he’s my uncle, what can you do?”

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