Now that “Skyfall” has been officially certified as the biggest James Bond movie ever – $869 million in box-office receipts worldwide, and counting – it’s prompted some interesting ruminations about the enduring cultural significance of this remarkably durable character. Not many icons still have a spring in their step, and a twinkle in their eyes, at fifty years of age. James Bond has somehow managed to remain iconic for better than half the lifetime of cinema itself. What’s he dong right?
It helps that Bond has proven very adaptable. He’s not at all the same character he used to be. The early Sean Connery movies are a time machine into a Cold War era that must be explained to younger viewers. Different actors have brought significantly different interpretations to the character; even making allowances for the time frame, it’s hard to watch a Roger Moore film and believe you’re seeing the same guy Daniel Craig is playing. Few Western pop culture figures have proven so adaptable. Give him another cycle of movies and Batman might get there.
I’ve got a soft spot for 007 because “Diamonds Are Forever” is one of the first movies I can remember my father taking me to see. I was mostly interested in the moon rover. I remember feeling a bit downbeat during the 007 doldrums of the Eighties, before and after Timothy Dalton’s two outings as the super-spy. The last few Roger Moore films were pretty bad, and there was a long interregnum from Dalton to Pierce Brosnan. Action movies had gone in other directions, and the Cold War was coming to a close. Friends only a few years younger than I was had a hard time understanding what the big deal about James Bond ever was.
But now Bond is back, and bigger than ever. This is partly due to Daniel Craig’s excellent work. I had some quibbles with “Skyfall,” but it had nothing to do with the actor – in some ways, I think he’s yet to find a script worthy of his performance. But I’ve got my own little pet theory about the enduring appeal of 007, and it says something about American and British culture.
People love James Bond because he gives them the fantasy of the millionaire lifestyle without guilt.
The one thing about Bond that has never changed is his elegance, and the lush extravagance of the circles he moves through. He’ll spend a little time in back alleys or gator-infested swamps, every now and then, but most of his adventures are five-star living all the way. His adversaries tend to be sinister billionaires – in service to global totalitarian control during his early adventures, but later they were generally greedy and/or insane free agents. Such enemies must be hunted through castles, mansions, and yachts. The stunning Asian casino in “Skyfall” is just the latest example.
James Bond wears the finest clothes, drives the most amazing cars, and travels first class all the way. But he’s not a greedy millionaire himself, a point “Skyfall” drives home during its look back at his childhood. He’s a dedicated public servant. He moves among the global jet-set, but he is not of them. He’s completely at ease in virtually any exotic locale. He doesn’t even have to worry about doing the work that would normally be necessary to finance such a lifestyle – and the James Bond version of espionage involves a lot less drudgery than the real thing does.
A big part of the Bond fantasy has always been the indulgence of luxury in the complete absence of guilt. He’s sipping champagne with flashy women in the world’s most expensive clubs because it’s his job. And besides, the man saves the world on a regular basis – he deserves a little high living, doesn’t he? One of the interesting things about Craig’s interpretation of the character is that he’s got some genuinely repellent characteristics. He moves through his diamond-studded world of luxury like a great white shark – a “blunt instrument,” as his boss has been known to call him – and he might not really be enjoying any of it. It’s just edgy enough to be interesting without spoiling the Bond fantasy.