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Buying Bonds

A history of 007, and why Daniel Craig is the most believable Bond ever

Yeah, I thought it should’ve been Clive Owen, too. How could you not after seeing “Croupier”? Owen was dark, sexy, cool to the point of being cold, and he looked great in a tux. The BMW ads sealed the deal. When Pierce Brosnan became too old for the role, I thought, surely Clive Owen would be the next guy to say, “My name is Bond. James Bond.”

Wasn’t to be. On October 14, 2005, Daniel Craig was announced as the new 007. Howls of protest followed and nasty Web sites went up before a foot of film was shot. “He’s blonde,” they complained. “He’s blonde.

There were other arguments besides hair color in favor of Owen. Owen is taller (6-foot-2 to Craig’s 5-foot-11), and, at the time of the announcement, more of an international movie star. Craig’s one advantage seemed to be youth — he’s 38 to Owen’s 42 — even though, in general, youth has never been a factor in choosing a new Bond. True, Sean Connery was 32 and George Lazenby 30 when each became 007. But that was the last time Bond was even in his 30s. Pierce Brosnan was 42 when he took over the role from Timothy Dalton, who had been 43 when he started. Roger Moore, meanwhile, was 46 at the start of his reign, and an astonishing 58 at its weary end. No callow youth, or any other kind, for the world’s most famous secret agent.

Then I heard that the new movie, “Casino Royale,” the first of Ian Fleming’s novels, would detail how Bond became Bond, and for that, yes, a bit of youth would help. Then I saw “Munich,” in which Craig plays the most intense of the Mossad assassins, and thought, “You know, he could work.” Then I saw the dynamite summer trailer for “Casino Royale” and thought “Wow.” Then I saw the film.

First, a history lesson.

Sean Connery

What’s startling about watching the first Bond movies again is how tepid they are. Since each Bond must inevitably trump the Bond before it — bigger stunts, wilder gadgets, crazier villains — it makes sense that each preceding Bond is, well, trumped. We’re used to Bond whizzing all over the planet, but in the first film, “Dr. No,” Bond flies to Kingston, Jamaica, boats to Crab Key island ... and that’s it. The fights are early 1960s judo flips, the “stunt” a car chase along a mountain road. A tarantula is unleashed in Bond’s hotel room, which he kills by pounding with his dress shoe — more frightened husband, really, than secret agent.

The early films had a sense of continuity. In “From Russia with Love,” the adventures of “Dr. No” are referenced, and Bond shares a picnic lunch with Sylvia Trench, whom he first met at the baccarat table in “Dr. No.” She’s almost his girlfriend. In every film he tosses his increasingly outdated (and rarely worn) fedora onto the hatrack in Miss Moneypenny’s office, and in every film, save “Goldfinger,” the villain is SPECTRE and its leader, Ernst Blofeld, whose hand is always seen petting a contented Persian cat.

The films quickly established a formula and kept to it. In the pre-title sequence we’re shown evidence of Bond’s previous adventure and/or his new opponent’s villainy. After the titles, Bond is given his assignment and gadgets. In an exotic locale, he meets his local, ethnic contact, who usually dies halfway through the picture.

There are chases, attempts on Bond’s life, meetings with the new villain and the new villain’s super-powered henchman. He beds three women: The inconsequential one at the beginning, an enemy agent in the middle, and then “the Bond girl,” with whom he shares the final assault on the enemy’s fortress. There, captured, he learns the villain’s diabolical plot to a) blackmail the West, b) start World War III, or c) both. Left to die, he escapes, kills the henchman, blows everything up, and winds up with the girl on a raft in the middle of the ocean, a double entendre on his lips, sex on his mind. Cue credits and “James Bond will return in...”

Nobody had seen anything like it. Its closest rivals were Mickey Spillane-like detective stories, but those were gritty and small while these were urbane and international. People ate it up. “Goldfinger” was the third highest-grossing film of 1964 and “Thunderball” held the same place the following year. Adjust for inflation, and “Thunderball” is the 26th highest-grossing film of all time — ahead of “Love Story,” “Spider-Man,” and “Home Alone.” And that’s just in the U.S., where Bond’s appeal has never been as strong as it is internationally.

Imitators popped up everywhere: Matt Helm, Derek Flint, “I Spy,” “Get Smart,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Most were American and forgettable. The best was British and anti-Bond: Michael Caine as the bespectacled gourmand Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File” and “Funeral in Berlin.”

But the pressures of international stardom and the incessant marketing got to Connery, and after “You Only Live Twice,” he bowed out. George Lazenby, a TV commercial actor, took over. Assuming the series had run its course at the end of the sixties, he, too, left after only one fling.

Roger Moore

In a way it made sense. Bond was an establishment figure, given to fine clothes and fine champagne, while the heroes of the time tended to be anti-establishment and rumpled. Think “Easy Rider” and “Billy Jack.”

Even when the producers coaxed Connery back for one more turn, Bond lost some of his polish. He didn’t play baccarat in Monte Carlo wearing a tux; he played craps in Vegas in his shirt sleeves. Jill St. John became the first American Bond girl, and, despite Women’s Lib, or perhaps because of it, she was both less innocent and dumber than the other Bond girls. Bond calls her a twit and slaps her. He rides a three-wheeler through the desert and leads police on a car chase through Vegas. The cops keep crashing into each other. It’s a lot of yee-ha fun, but not exactly high-class.

So it would be throughout the Roger Moore ’70s. Bond was now less imitated, more imitator. SPECTRE, cigarettes and the baccarat table all disappeared, while car chases (a la “Bullitt”) and car jumps (a la Evel Knievel) became essential. “Live and Let Die” was the blaxploitation Bond; “The Man with the Golden Gun” contained elements of “Enter the Dragon.” Bond fought a henchman named Jaws two years after the success of “Jaws.” Bond went into outer space two years after the success of “Star Wars.”

The movies even began to repeat themselves. In “The Spy Who Loved Me,” a megalomaniac is bent on destroying our corrupt civilization and building a better one undersea. In “Moonraker,” a megalomaniac is bent on destroying our corrupt civilization and building a better one in outer space. In “Golden Gun,” a car becomes a plane; in “Spy,” a car becomes a boat; in “Moonraker,” a boat (a gondola) becomes a car and Bond drives it through St. Mark’s Square, where the pigeons do double-takes.

It was all fairly cartoonish ... and lucrative. Bond films would never be as influential as they had been in 1965, nor as popular in terms of getting asses in the seats, but thanks to inflation, they did begin to make more money. “Live and Let Die” was the first Bond film to surpass “Thunderball” in terms of worldwide box office, while “Moonraker” was the first Bond film to surpass “Thunderball’s” U.S. box office take.

Timothy Dalton

Which meant, to the producers, time to retool. The pre-title sequence of the first 1980s Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only,” includes Bond visiting the grave of his widow, Tracy, and finally killing the unnamed Ernst Blofeld. It was a startling return to continuity and sobriety after the light-comedic ’70s.

Unfortunately, the last Moore films are horribly uneven. In “Octopussy,” Bond is hunted, physically hunted, through a jungle, and there’s panic in his eyes; a second later he swings from tree to tree to the soundtrack of Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan call. In “A View to Kill,” he escapes killers on one ski down a mountainside to the refrains of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” The filmmakers didn’t know whether to be gritty or goofy, and went both ways.

With Timothy Dalton, they went gritty. Movie theaters were increasingly filled with action heroes in the Bond mould — Indiana Jones, Schwarzenegger and “Die Hard” — and Dalton’s Bond responded by becoming more like them rather than like himself. His tastes became pedestrian. He favors leather jackets rather than tuxes. In “License to Kill,” a girl orders a Bud with a lime and Bond, the man who thinks it’s a crime to drink Dom Perignon ’53 above 38 degrees, tells the waitress: “Same.” He made headlines by becoming, in the age of AIDS, monogamous (for him: one or two girls per film, instead of three), but the bigger story was missed: this Bond hardly flirted anymore. Dalton has a shy smile, and he employed it with women in his films. He was almost ... puppyish.

For some, it was about time. Broadly, Bond’s goals with both villains and women were the same — to infiltrate the seemingly impenetrable fortress, make things explode and then get away — and many feminists thought him a misogynist. Yet if you look at the early films, sex is one of the ways Bond differs from his villainous counterparts. The bad guys were either clumsy around women, like Goldfinger, or asexual beasts in starched Nehru jackets, sublimating their sexual desires by repeatedly petting cats. The meta-message was that sex was good. As soon as it was denied, well, you began thinking up ways to destroy the planet.

If there’s misogyny in the Bond films, it has to do with that middle Bond girl, the enemy agent, who, more often than not, defects to Bond’s side after he seduces her. She’s won over not by his cause (“Queen and country”) but by his sexual prowess. Men in the audience, identifying with Bond, cheered him on, but it also played upon their great fear: that a better lover could come along and take away their woman like that. It’s a small step from Bond convincing Pussy Galore to betray Goldfinger via a romp in the Kentucky haystacks to the raging, misogynistic paranoia of Sam Peckinpah movies, in which women always abandon weaker men to cling to the (usually ultraviolent) alpha male.

By the 1980s, mainstream movies didn’t allow themselves such thoughts. So how does the new, bashful Bond bring the beautiful enemy agent over to his side? In “The Living Daylights” he tells the girl the truth. And in “License to Kill” he’s just, well, a nice guy.

Nice guys and truth-tellers around the world are already shaking their heads. Yeah, that’ll work.

Pierce Brosnan

In 1995, Pierce Brosnan brought back the true cinematic Bond. In the first 20 minutes of “Goldeneye,” he 1) seduces a reluctant girl, 2) wears a tux, 3) plays baccarat in a French casino, 4) says “Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” and 5) tells a lovely enemy agent his name is “Bond. James Bond.” No pussy-footing around here.

Arguments can be made that Brosnan is the most quintessentially Bond of all the Bonds. He has the intensity of Connery and Dalton, and the light comedic touch (although drier and more muted) of Moore. He’s even given a rationale for Bond’s playboy ways. This is a Bond who tries not to love, who tries not to care, because loving and caring get in the way of work. “How can you be so cold?” Natalya Simonova asks him in “Goldeneye.” “It’s what keeps me alive,” he responds, almost helplessly.

All of it worked. Globally, “Goldeneye” nearly doubled “Moonraker’s” previous Bond record, making $353 million, and audiences rose back to 1970s levels.

So it was throughout the Brosnan 1990s; but by “Die Another Day,” Brosnan was beginning to show his age, and the film, despite its boffo box office ($430 million worldwide), was uneven in the way of the last Moore films: shifting, with nary a blink, between the grittiness of North Korean torture to the video game improbability of surviving a gigantic, glacier-melting tsunami in Iceland by surfing to safety. Don’t even get me started on the “What took you so long?” dialogue.

So. Time to retool again.

Daniel Craig

With “Casino Royale,” they’ve done more than that; they’ve bitch-slapped the series. Bond, originally borne of WWII, and long steeped in the Cold War, is here remade as a post-9/11 secret agent who never knew the Cold War. The film begins in stylish black-and-white with the two kills that make Bond a double-0 secret agent, and it never stops. Neither does Craig. His Bond is physical and relentless. He bulldozes past everything. Sometimes literally.

The action scenes are torrid. In Craig, the series has something it hasn’t had since Connery: a Bond believable as both roughneck and sophisticate. And while he doesn’t quite have the “wicked twinkle” that Honor Blackman attributed to Connery, he does have a good smoulder, which, as my girlfriend will tell you, is essential in a James Bond.

The film isn’t just grittier and bloodier than previous Bond movies; it’s deeper. All of those elements lampooned in “Austin Powers” (“All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism”) are gone. No giant underground caves with steel elevators and monorails. No absurd women’s names. No bad puns after killing someone. No “Q.”

It’s an origin movie — a kind of “Batman Begins” or “Smallville” — and there’s small pleasures when familiar elements are introduced in unfamiliar ways: Oh, so that’s why the Aston-Martin. Ah, so that’s why the vodka martini. These small pleasures, coupled with the new-found grittiness, actually make the movie feel like the reality upon which all of those other, more cartoonish Bond movies are based. It feels like they took the adventures of this guy, the Craig Bond, and gave us those crazy Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan flicks.

Which is to say: http://www.danielcraigisnotbond.com/ got it completely wrong. Not only is Daniel Craig believable as Bond, he’s the most believable Bond ever.

—Erik Lundegaard will return next month with a thrilling new article. This piece was originally published November 11, 2006 on MSNBC.com.