An Open Letter to the Producers of James Bond


A little over a month ago, the financial collapse of MGM Studios brought movie fans to deep sorrow when news came that the much-anticipated The Hobbit would be put on indefinite hold and that Guillermo del Toro would no longer be directing it. (Some relief is to be found in that original LOTR helmer Peter Jackson is heavily rumored to step back into his place.)

This development was so profound that it managed to completely overshadow the other big MGM-postponement news: As of right now, there’s no further development going on for the next James Bond movie. None. Meaning that it’s going to be a long while before we see Daniel Craig return as 007, if in fact it’s Craig at all when they finally get their act together. And according to a report on Ain’t It Cool News, which yes, I know, means it needs to be taken with a grain of salt, the situation is even worse than that.

The silver lining to this could be that the Bond producers might be able to take some time and figure out what the hell they want to do with the series, since Quantum of Solace rather clearly showed that they haven’t quite pinned that part down yet. And on the off chance that someone who can actually effect a difference in such things might read this, may I humbly offer some observations and advice? Beginning with:

James Bond Is Not Batman

Let’s just make this a default rule for movie heroes from here on out: “We already have Batman, so _______ doesn’t need to also be Batman.”

Look, it’s understood that in Hollywood everyone follows the leader, and ever since Tim Burton’s “Batman” put memories of Adam West (for better or worse) to bed by reminding us how tormented and tragic the Dark Knight was, every damn hero has followed suit.

Well, it doesn’t work for everybody. James Bond does not need a tragic backstory or even much external motivation to explain why he travels around the world shooting bad guys. He’s a British Intelligence Agent … it’s his job! “007? Go to this place, kill this guy.” “Right away, M!” There you go! Act one, taken care of! This is why they open these things with an extraneous action sequence, because the “story setup” takes about a minute and a half.

You want to tell a story? Tell the story of what happens when he goes to the place to kill the guy (or do whatever to whoever). Isn’t anyone else tired of the so-called “reluctant badass” or the “all about me” hero who only ever gets involved when there’s some kind of personal connection to himself or his specific issues and/or quest? Would it not be refreshing at this point if at least one good guy’s “rationale” for derring-do was “I’m getting paid for this, plus the benefits (license to kill, carte-blanche sexcapades in every port) are fantastic?”

James Bond Is Not American, Either

At their core, most American heroes of fiction are cowboys: men of simple means, plain-spoken (when spoken at all), dismissive of class, adherent to minimalist moral codes, “respectful of” (read: “confused by”) womenfolk.

James Bond is no cowboy. His means are posh. His speech is sophisticated and witty. He’s ever conscious of class, status and their attendant symbols. He has women pretty well figured out. James Bond is an (idealized) Englishman.

To fully understand why the James Bond fantasy was and remains so potent, you have to understand the unique British Cold War culture that spawned him. The brutality of WWII, and the subsequent realization that the foreseeable future would be directed by the unfolding staring contest between the U.S. and Russia, were the final crippling blows to the British (and specifically English) psyche in terms of Imperial self-image. The nation that had once dominated the known world, reduced to digging itself out from The Blitz and playing a supporting role in a clash of freshly-minted superpowers.

Ian Fleming, nothing if not a patriot, conceived in his James Bond character the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a new kind of British postwar relevance: The elegant avenger – a modern-day Knight, fighting for Queen and Country not with military force but with the uniquely English mix of wit and stiff-upper-lip endurance that some other heroes – for all their martial might – just didn’t have. This actually ties back in with the first point. The aforementioned reluctant badass is America’s rose-tinted view of its own power – the sleeping giant that only fights when provoked. There’ve been many English/British power fantasies, but that has seldom been one of them.

Bond is not just a well-dressed Rambo or a stuffy Bourne – he’s a projection of national self-mythologizing into modernity; a Knight of the Round reborn at MI6 just as Die Hard‘s John McClane is John Wayne displaced into the 80s. His English-ness isn’t just a superficial affect of his inception, it’s the key to his whole character.

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James Bond Is Fun

File this also under the “not everyone is Batman” tab. One understands that the world of today is terribly concerned with what is “serious” and what isn’t, to the degree that even videogames apparently need a line of designation between play that is “casual” and play that is “hardcore”.

As such, it’s become almost verboten to suggest that a movie hero might do some of what he does because he wants to, or because it’s fun to do. Everyone either has to be reluctant to do good or pressed into service by grim tragedy. Jason Bourne hates having his nigh-supernatural reflexes and super ass-kicking powers. He’d never use them, if only those evil agents would just leave him alone to be normal. We know this because he keeps telling us. He has to keep telling us, otherwise we might remember that a real person who could stage impromptu one-man stunt shows through narrow Eastern-European streets and was slick enough to kill a guy with a book would probably smile about it once in awhile.

Remember how in his first movie, Austin Powers (a James Bond parody, let’s keep in mind) was the butt of all the humor? He was lame, his unironic action-readiness was corny and his 007-style super-heroism-as-swinger-party lifestyle was political incorrectness in need of a fix? Funny thing about that – audiences wound up just plain enjoying Austin’s antics even more than they enjoyed laughing at him, and in the sequels Dr. Evil becomes the main comedy punching bag while “silly” Austin is the audience-indentification character, almost as though we were so hungry for a hero like this, we’d even take a satire.

James Bond movies used to get this. Yeah, the stakes were always high. Yeah, the world was always on the line. But, on the other hand, getting to travel to the most exotic places on Earth on MI6’s dime? Breakfast with opulent oil sheiks, dinner with kings and emperors? Sneaking into your enemy’s fortress, beating up a hundred or so of his goons, blowing the place to hell, taking off with his girlfriend, doing basically whatever the hell you want to whoever the hell you want and then getting away with all of it in the name of world peace? I dunno about you, but if that was my life, I probably wouldn’t mope around about it.

Y’know who gets this now? Iron Man. Save the world? Sure. Demons? He’s got a few. But he also knows how to party. Remember the reveal of his transforming private plane in the first movie? Here was the first superhero in almost two decades who was already the coolest guy on the planet before he got his armor and alternate-identity – no wonder people responded so strongly!

James Bond Does Not Live in the Real World

Here’s a good rule of thumb for fiction: A story is only as realistic as its first most-prominent unreal element. For example, Superman starts from the point of a godlike space alien living on Earth, and then makes said space alien its main character, so pretty much anything can happen from that point on. In all versions of James Bond, the first most-prominent unreal element is, well, James Bond himself.
Despite any fanciful stirrings caused by the discovery of the smokin’ hot Russian spy chick last week, in reality, spies are almost never slick, attractive, magnetic, only-person-in-the-room figures – after all, being noticeable is kind of counterintuitive to the whole inconspicuous intelligence-gathering concept. Forget metal teeth, solar-powered lasers and volcano bases, 007 jumps the reality shark the second it asks us to accept that a reckless, skirt-chasing, high-functioning sociopath who’s so worldly as to have a preferred method of drink-mixology is a reliable intelligence operative.

In other words – sweating over how relevant or believable this stuff is, usually, is a lost cause. Something you don’t need to worry about. Because anyone who’s still bothered over believability once “Bond, James Bond” is uttered is probably in the wrong movie.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.