Opinion: Bond can beat any villain - including MGM
The sheer incredibility of James Bond will always lure suckers like me back to the cinema, says Simon Heffer in the Telegraph
Some people eat turkey every Christmas, even though they find it bland, dry and boring, because it is the traditional thing to do. Others keep going back to the same holiday resort because once or twice they had a really good time there, even though in recent years the tone of the place has declined, the best restaurants seem to have closed and the beach is more crowded.
My equivalent of this is to go, with a sense of religious devotion, to each new James Bond film when it is released. I haven't seen what I considered to be a really good one since the departure of the celebrated Scottish Nationalist Sir Sean Connery from the top of the cast list. There have been some that had their moments â I rather liked Pierce Brosnan driving a BMW by remote control at high speed round a multi-storey car park in Tomorrow Never Dies â but more and more have been real turkeys. And the last two, with Daniel Craig rather believable as a Bond for the 21st century (if that is not a contradiction in terms), were otherwise slightly weird, and radiated a strange sense of emptiness.
Bond has a licence to kill, but the films have always been a licence to print money. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that production of the 23rd Bond film has been suspended because of the parlous financial state of MGM, the business that now owns the rights to the franchise. The lion now squeaks rather than roars, it appears, and will only do that if there is cash up front.
It has been a long decline for this 86-year-old Hollywood studio. Its official motto, wreathing Leo the Lion, is "Art for art's sake"; its unofficial one was "More stars than are in the heavens", which was more or less true in the glory days of MGM, from about 1930 to 1950. Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford were among those under contract. MGM made The Wizard of Oz and distributed Gone with the Wind. It also had Laurel and Hardy on its books. As it fell out with or lost several of its big names in the 1940s, it kept on top by producing some of the best-known musicals of the era â Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, Show Boat and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers among them.
However, the golden age ended in a series of deals, mergers, takeovers and other attempts at leveraging that never quite worked out. One of these was the purchase, in 1981, of United Artists, and with it the Bond franchise. What has gone wrong with MGM is perhaps illustrated by its inability now to make a film that might actually make it some money. Perhaps at some point there will have to be a fire sale, in which its share of the Bond films might be the only thing that would give the firm's innumerable creditors something to look forward to.
Still, it is hard to imagine even the bankruptcy of MGM killing off James Bond on celluloid, something the world's leading villains have completely failed to do in nearly 50 years: he and his adventures are always going to be a most marketable asset for anyone strapped for cash. But perhaps the pause in normal service is an ideal moment for those who might shape the next Bond film to ponder on what it ought to be.
What I felt was missing from the last two Bond films â Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace â were jokes. Craig, as I have said, was believable as an MI6 agent; but that raised the question of how believable James Bond is supposed to be. He is a complete fantasy figure, and that is his appeal. In the real world, people do not jump out of aircraft at 30,000 feet, have a fight on the way down, and survive. They do not consume strong drink (and, in the old days, cigarettes) with the abandon that Bond does without ending up on a mortuary slab fairly early on. They do not drive performance cars round multi-storey car parks, while being shot at, using their mobile telephones to keep the thing on course. They don't jump from one building to another and inevitably land safely. Also, when most villains tell someone that they are going to be killed, they normally get killed pretty sharpish, and not after a theatrical delay that allows them to overpower their captors and make an escape.
Most telling of all, there is not top international totty waiting for them at every pause, with whom an astonishing degree of intimacy is immediately and profoundly established, with the best lobster, foie gras and finest vintage of Pol Roger to hand. It is the sheer incredibility of Bond that hauls suckers like me back to the cinema every time a new film comes out, and prises open our wallets in the cause of MGM's surviving for a few more months before the bailiffs come in. And I fear the last couple of films were not incredible enough, nor Craig sufficiently charismatic: not, I concede, that it is easy to exude charisma when an agent of a foreign power is smacking one's testicles with a knotted rope.
One of the most baleful features of much modern cinema is the ubiquity of special effects, and their use as a substitute for interesting plot, characters and dialogue. One of the things that has made Bond films stand out in the era of special effects is that they are so spectacular â especially the stunts â and they were often complemented by, rather than being the replacement for, jokes, good dialogue and a just-about-comprehensible plot.
Even before special effects as we know them today, in the Connery films, character was pretty weak. Apart from Bond himself, and the odd woman who was allowed to become more than one-dimensional (notably Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore), and of course the usual pantomime villain (chosen, one always thought, for his ability to convey the correct sinister inflection on the phrase "Meeeeestair Bondt"), everyone else was fleeting and cardboard. That hardly mattered; the film was not about them. But the original levels of invention and originality have not been maintained.
Perhaps it is hard to do so when the same old material has to be recycled in order to keep going: Ian Fleming, whose lifestyle was in some toxic respects similar to that of his creation, died aged 56, when the series was in its infancy. A lot of bricks have had to be made with very little straw since then. Stunts, gadgets, the parade of women and fabulous cars, and the defiance of certain death do, though, go a long way to cheering up those in search of absurd escapism. So may Bond be back, and may he show us next time that turkey can, if cooked properly, be surprisingly good.
Discuss this news here...