Saturday, November 15, 2008

Will James Bond Return?

"James Bond will return." The words scroll up the screen as the last end credits song slowly fades out and the movie is over. I, along with millions of other people around the world had gone to see 'The Quantum of Solace' on opening day yesterday, and the experience left me with a mixture of joy and sadness. I have seen 'Casino Royale', and now 'Quantum of Solace', but I haven't seen James Bond since 'Die Another Day.' All I've seen in these last two films are a man that might some day be James Bond. He has high James Bond potential, but he is not James Bond.

When I was in high school, the cool thing to do was to listen to grunge rock. The point of such 'rock' (and I am using the term very loosely here) was to sound as depressed as possible, sing about how much life sucks, and make the music sound as gritty and dirty as possible. And all the high schoolers in the 90s heard it and said, "Woah, I identify with this because I feel depressed and life is hard!" And the music consequently became very popular. Epitomized by such bands as Nirvana, grunge music proved un-selfsustainable when all of it's contributors commited suicide and there was no one left to play the music.

So the Grunge fad faded from the scene and was replaced by other 'rock' movements, some with a bit more emotional range, some without (see: Emo) but the sole consolation to me was that Rock could become fun again. 'Rock' would never be that uniting force it was in the 70s and 80s, in fact you couldn't even call it 'Rock' anymore, but at least it was more fun to listen to.

Now we arrive at the early 2000s. Just when I thought we had finally seen the end of 'Grunge', the fad suddenly moves to the film world. In 2002, a movie called 'The Bourne Identity' comes out, a film that told an old and cliched story in a new way. It was dirty, it was gritty, and it focused on how much it's hero's life sucked. Hmm, sound familiar to you? Me too. I like to call this style of filmmaking 'Docu-Grunge,' as it seems to utilize the documentary style of filmmaking while applying a grunge ethos to it's visuals and content. Now, I want to pause here and say that I have nothing against this style on principle. I am not trying to make blanket statements and be a 'hater'. But I can't help but cringe when all of a sudden the word 'realistic' is commonly associated with this style, and it is implied that all other styles lack realism. Is it realistic to be depressed ALL the time? I'm not depressed all the time, does that make me unreal, or fake? The trend seems to be that in order for something to be good, it has to be uber-dramatic, dirty, and depressing. But in the long run, I'd rather watch Speed Racer than The Dark Knight.

But back to James Bond. Casino Royale was a 'reboot' of the James Bond franchise, which seems to mean that the producers looked around and said, "what's cool these days?" They found the Bourne films, and decided that in order for James Bond to be cool, he had to be presented in the all new 'Docu-Grunge' style. Gritty. Dirty. Depressed. At least when Martin Campbell directed Casino Royale, he preserved some of the visual flair that is characteristic of James Bond films with his sweeping camera movies and allowing the action scenes (though few and far between) to play out in longer shots and impress the audience with their excellence in execution. But now in Quantum of Solace, the camera has to be shaking and zoomed in as far as it will go and any one shot can't last longer than 1.5 seconds, reducing the film to a series of energetic bursts that force an intensity onto the situation instead of more subtle methods and allowing us to enjoy the scope of the visuals and appreciate the action. In trying so hard to copy the Bourne films, Bond has inherited the problems of the bourne films, and reduced itself to a bunch of camera tricks and gimmicky action scenarios. Ian Flemming intended his books to be a form of escapism, something more fun than realism, and the apple has seemingly fallen far from the tree.

Now, I don't want to sound too pessimistic here. The Quantum of Solace had a lot of things to like about it as a Bond film. Exotic locales, hints of the James Bond theme, plenty of action, and they finally re-introduced the silhouetted dancing ladies during the opening credits. But those things are only part of the combination that made Bond films awesome. Bond has always been different from other action heroes. Characteristically smooth and suave, while still calculating and precise, the way the films have been presented has always reflected this, and Bond has never had to 'compete' with other action heroes, and I don't feel like he should. Now, there are hints here and there that these last two films, since they are prequels about Bond becoming Bond, that they are slowly transitioning back into Bond being the awesomely suave and the coolest action star ever, and I dearly hope that they do, because I want my James bond back. I want the real James Bond. And I am hopeful that someday he WILL return.


Brian said...

Thank you! I wouldn't have thought there were others out there that shared my dissatisfaction with BOTH Bourne and the new Bond movies. I guess I never would have pegged before that they shared the same problems, but I think you're right. I think a characters' remorse (so aptly played by the actors in both films) is justified by the story showing is clearly what that character wants and why it sucks that he/she isn't getting it. And that is what was primarily lacking in both of these films. Was it love? Was it success? Was it a weird hybrid of the two? Totally unclear.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the Bond films have moved to the often maligned "gritty and realistic" style of filmmaking, but I can't say that I find it surprising. I think both Casino and Quantum have faults, but I'm not certain if this style is one of them.

If there was one thing that I think describes film-making in the past few years, it would be "excess". Anyone who saw Die Another Day had to come to the conclusion that the filmmakers had become just a bit drunk on CG effects. It didn't result in a good movie.

Likewise, we saw this in the superhero franchise. The Shumaker (sp?) Batman films were an orgy of effects, often to the extreme detriment of the actual movie. The natural result of this kind of "drunk on hyper-unreality" is the opposite: hyper-reality. And that means more than just toned-down colors and angst.

In the case of James Bond, it nearly guts the franchise: we don't have the crazy wheelchair bound villains in super-hideouts anymore. We don't have Q in the latest movie (ironically), because he brings an unreality to the film. We don't have huge set-pieces (well, at least not as huge) because they do the same thing.

Luckily, I think that just like the old era, this one will be over. Probably in a film or two. But I think we should look to see how to change the style, mood, and overall aesthetic *well* rather than just *change it*: something that I think the "grunge" crowd doesn't always do.

Kevin Christensen said...

Curtis, you have very good points, and a well thought out analysis of the film style. I agree with you on most of those points, and as I said in my blog, I have nothing against the style itself. I know it's a reaction to overbloated BAD films like Batman Forever and such.

But the amount of CG effects in a film doesn't make it bad, it's simply that they are too often used as an excuse for poor storytelling, which is tragic. My favorite film this year was 100% hyper-realistic effects: Speed Racer.

Most people didn't go see that movie because they thought it looked overbloated and 'unrealistic', but they didn't realize that they missed an excellently told story and an extremely fun movie.

What I think is even funnier is that Batman 2, Bourne, and now Batman are toted as 'realistic' when they are very clearly NOT realistic.

But as I said, even though I have certain personal preferences, I still have nothing against the 'hyper-realistic' movie style that we are seeing a LOT of these days. My problem is that they are doing it to a Bond movie. Bond has ALWAYS been about fun, it's ALWAYS been escapism, the books are written that way! It's Bond BECAUSE of the wheelchair villains, the enormous set pieces, and above all, Q! That's WHY I loved Bond, and that's why I always wanted to watch Bond.

So, if you want to have a movie that uses an age-old revenge plot dipped in the hyper-realistic grunge style, be my guest, but please change the name of the character from 'Bond' to 'Bourne' so I don't have to see one of my favorite movie characters adulterated into something he's not.

I agree with you, however, that it does seem like a fad, a phase, and that it shall hopefully soon be over. I wish we could do away with these movie mood swings and just make films that are well-told stories told in whatever style that best suits them. Here's to good movies.