** Aside from the usual holiday children’s animation, two films meant for grown-ups are holding sway at the box office. Both are products of British culture, one even more quintessential than the other. I’m speaking, of course, of the the brilliantly transgressive comedy Borat, created by and starring Oxbridge comedian Sascha Baron Cohen. And another movie, with that James Stock fellow.
I was still very tired when I saw Borat a couple of weeks ago, so didn’t enjoy it perhaps as much as I might now. After watching Borat video clips (and Ali G and Bruno, Cohen’s other comic creations) for months as a break from the not infrequent tedium of the elections, the thing in feature length was a bit anti-climactic.
Borat is a brilliant conceit, the quintessence of British put-on humor. A suspiciously faux Russianesque (Russians are all over London, as we see in the latest news) TV reporter supposedly from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan (the Kazakh scenes are actually shot in Eastern Europe), Borat Spetsnaz or whatever his last name is pushes the contradictions of life in hilariously anti-PC ways. Cohen, who has great timing, is especially hysterical when speaking in media officialese, denouncing other former Eastern Bloc lands and extolling the extraordinarily dubious merits of a Kazakhstan which exists only in his mind. And, as you may have heard, in bringing out the frequently horrible prejudices not far beneath the surface in many Americans, all of whom seem to live in red states. Nevertheless, he is a great favorite of most of my Republican friends.
The other fellow, the one named by the eminent post-war cynical romantic Ian Fleming after an ornithologist, really is the other fellow this time. He is the fifth other fellow, actually, following in the very large footsteps of Sir Sean Connery.
The very first movie I can remember watching, out of all movies, not just Bond films, starred Connery. A little film called Goldfinger. Connery, of course, is the definitive non-ornithologist, by long held popular acclaim. Large though his footsteps are, and having met him, he does have large feet, he may finally be meeting his match in the new fellow.
A new era deserves a new Bond, and Daniel Craig is certainly that. Not that there was anything wrong with the latest old Bond, Pierce Brosnan, who himself rebooted the franchise in 1995 with the very enjoyable GoldenEye. Before Brosnon, Bond had languished for some time. Timothy Dalton was good, but his movies were not. And Dalton, who I liked a lot, seemed for audiences to lack the dash and/or danger that they require in Bond. Before him, spanning most of the time of my growing up, there was Roger Moore. Like Brosnan, who is now quite an environmentalist, Moore is a very gracious man to meet. But his movies were, looking back, generally pretty awful. I’m sure they say a lot about the 1970s, but we’re not there now.
Craig seems a man for the new century. He is probably the best actor to assay the role. (Brilliant as a coke dealer in the little-known British crime drama Layer Cake and as a poet opposite Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia Plath in Sylvia, and as a Mossad hit man in Steven Spielberg’s Munich). And perhaps the least handsome. His selection caused a firestorm of pissy criticism on the Internet, which is especially good for that sort of thing. His ears were ridiculed, his hair color ( a sort of sandy blonde, as though that matters) dismissed, he took a lot of flack for saying he didn’t personally like guns and for wearing a life jacket riding up the Thames in a Royal Navy assault boat for his introductory press conference as the new Bond.
Seeing the film now, it’s called Casino Royale, and if you care at all about Bond, you should, makes it clear what a nastily irrelevant thing much of the blogosphere can be.
Casino Royale is an essential reboot of Bond, even more so than GoldenEye, which merely explained that the Cold War was finally over, although it featured two fabulous, and brainy, Russian women. (Who, naturally, were not really Russian.)
This Bond resonates with the post-9/11 world. Style and looks-wise, Daniel Craig’s Bond is a cross between Connery and Steve McQueen. He wears the Italian suits well, but he is not the male model Brosnan is. He’s Jack Bauer in a dinner jacket.
Entertainment Weekly put it very well: “He speaks to an age of desperation, when the cosmetic barely holds sway over the cutthroat.”
This is a much more raw Bond. He doesn’t quip as he kills — well, he does at the beginning, but it’s more pointed and less tossed off — he rips as he kills. Played in the past as a former Royal Navy officer-turned-gentleman spy and assassin, Craig’s Bond seems to be a former SAS (Special Air Service) commando.
Casino Royale, the first of the Fleming novels, finds him at the beginning, so presumably Craig’s next efforts will see him adding to his existing polish. Like all the Bonds, he is a patriot of sorts. But it’s not entirely clear what sort. Craig in real life counts himself a regular reader of the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian, and perhaps as a result his Bond is more than a little sardonic in his view. Yet he is not only a tough and ruthless figure, he is a frequently brutal figure. He does what he thinks it takes. But he’s not sure where it’s all going.
The Bond character has often been called a relic of the Cold War, but that’s not really true at all. For one thing, Russia was hardly ever the enemy, giving way instead to some of fiction’s most fabulously flamboyant and apocalyptic villains. Bond was really a relic of the fall of the British Empire, of which Ian Fleming was in real life an exceptionally well connected and traveled elite member, both as a former intelligence officer and as a journalist. Fleming’s novels are fascinating artifacts of the 1950 and 1960s, which coincided with Britain’s decline from one of the great victors of World War II into a decidedly middleweight world power, at best, before making something of a recent comeback.
The very notion of James Bond, that of the endlessly assured, omnicompetent gentleman professional (not gentleman amateur, another British tradition), saving the world once again was crucial to the maintenance of Anglo power in the Anglo-American power equation. The “pros from Dover” really were the pros from Dover, after all. It also fed into the cultural overhang of Imperial Britain, resonating with people around the world as a result.
Bond is a very important fantasy figure in many respects. And essays can be written on all of them. For the current moment, he is just as important as ever, as we move forward into the blurry world of the 21st century, beset by challenges, real and imagined, which seemingly can’t be solved either by force of arms or by appeasement. Perhaps one man, in the right place at the right time, can save our empire. Or so we would like to think.