Nobody Does Bond Better, 005: Pierced Through the Heart

After numerous false starts and (failed) attempts to maintain the hoity-toity façade of arguing “nobody does Bond better” for this current entry, I have decided to take a somewhat different approach this time out. Many readers announcing themselves as genuine Bond fans found it quite easy to leave remarks like “Roger Moore was a wimp,” or “Lazenby was a zero,” or other ungenerous comments about anyone other than Sean Connery, but I must say, I’m the one having a hard time here.

I’m just gonna say it, even though it is actually almost physically painful to write it plainly:

The Pierce Brosnan James Bond films are very disappointing to me.

There. It’s over. Now work with me here a little while I worm my way around to the part where I say his four films as 007 still have some awesome things about them, not to mention the fact that Brosnan’s tenure in the role is actually a very poignant one, seeing as how his real life has more in common with the literary Bond than that of any of the other stars who played him.

First, and this might sound a little silly, but Brosnan never even got to “own” a single Fleming title to himself. The World Is Not Enough? Close, but no cigar. As a matter of substance, I know that’s a zero, but as a powerful symbol of how his Bond outings bore the least resemblance to anything Ian Fleming, it explains things very well.

I hear you—The Spy Who Loved Me had nothing to do with Fleming either. True, the Bond folks were legally (if unfortunately) obligated to use only the title and nothing else from the novel, but the film turned out to be a pretty nifty remake of You Only Live Twice. And, it has Jaws, so there. And, it has Barbara Bach, so…yum.

(Will we wait forever for the appearance of Vivienne Michel? That’s what Fleming wanted, so my guess is yes. Maybe look for her onscreen around the time a movie of Catcher in the Rye comes out.)

Brosnan liked the Bond of Fleming, and wanted to do justice to him, and while most of us aren’t really crying “Oh, thank God I’m not Pierce Brosnan, and have to deal with the disappointment of never truly being the ‘Fleming’ Bond,” we must understand that Brosnan is an actor, and thus an artist, and thus vulnerable to–no matter the amount of personal wealth and professional privilege–feeling honest disappointment at unfulfilled artistic ambition.

Pierced Through the Heart

GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day

Good grief, just look at those titles. They do bring to mind that old even-odd-numbered Star Trek theory, where it’s only the even-numbered Treks that are quality films. In this case, though, it’s the odd-numbered Brosnans that not only have the better titles, but are, in fact, the better movies.

When Brosnan was first asked to play Bond in the late ‘80s and take over from the retiring Moore, the producers of his hit series Remington Steele got the bright idea to screw him over and keep him on television as Steele longer than they’d agreed. They then proceeded to make a few highly aggravating Steele adventures, introducing a rival character named “Tony” and a completely unconvincing love triangle with Laura Holt. Tony was a macho jerk (no offense, Jack Scalia, I’m sure you’re a decent guy), and because pretty gals reliably get all weak-kneed over macho jerks in the movies and on TV (and occasionally in real life), Laura inexplicably had a case of the hots for Tony. (He was a jerk but not a wuss, an important distinction that explains why Laura never fell for Murphy, who was also sort of a jerk, but lacked the curly hair, hairy chest, and aggressive Indiana Jones impersonation) This made for truly nauseating fare as the mystery stories—always McGuffins for the Steele-Holt romance anyway—took on a new queasy twist, and the viewer couldn’t help but get the impression that jerkface Tony might just be groomed to become the “new” Remington Steele.

As Brosnan was forced to endure this revolting extension of his until-then-terrific show, Timothy Dalton became a really cool James Bond in movies that strove to be like the “good” Bond films. Great stories, a minimum of silly humor, etc. He got to make two of these before MGM/UA got into all sorts of financial mayhem that delayed the next Bond for six years.

Dalton out, Brosnan in.

Except that, by that point, the Eon folks had already made good on most of the “usable” Fleming titles. The ones that didn’t headline movies had already been squeezed into the films in other ways—“The Property of a Lady,” for example, was a crucial element of Octopussy—so, feeling like “The Hildebrand Rarity” and “Risico” weren’t going to have any juice, they had already started making the titles up themselves.

GoldenEye is not so bad, as far as made-up Bond titles go, a nod to the name Fleming gave his Jamaican estate. Brosnan’s first turn as Bond was, in fact, his best overall. The Eric Serra score even works, more or less, and isn’t the abomination many fans have labeled it. But it’s downhill from there.

The Cold War had ended by the time GE came out, and we were reportedly living in times after history had “ended” (what a ridiculous claim) and had not yet, well, “re-started” with the events of 9/11. Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough are sporadically fun, and while it’s important to remember the Bond films were never particularly known for being “edgy” to begin with, these installments feel maddeningly irrelevant. The Bond producers made their first stab at recapturing gritty relevance, post-September 11, with Die Another Day, which didn’t quite cut the mustard because everyone was too busy making it a 24-frames-per-second Trivial Pursuit celebration of movie Bond’s 40th anniversary.

Brosnan played a suave Bond, a Bond who meant business, a funny Bond, and yes—a “vulnerable” Bond. His version of 007 is a little too emotionally overwrought at times for my tastes. His “issues” are a bit too visible. But then there’s this:

Bond Girl Cassandra Harris in For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Like the literary Bond, Brosnan wasn’t really raised by his parents, but by others. Also like the literary Bond, Brosnan lost his wife to tragedy. When he first came to the attention of Albert R. Broccoli, he was visiting the set of For Your Eyes Only, where then-wife Cassandra Harris was portraying the Countess Lisl von Schlaf. Harris was one of the most beautiful, most alluring Bond women ever, in one of the best Bond films ever. When she passed away from ovarian cancer in 1991, Brosnan’s biography was forever grafted to the fictional life story of 007, in that his spouse was taken from him in an awful, untimely way.

Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan have all had to play the “Tracy moment” at least once. Watch Brosnan’s Tracy moment in TWINE. It’s the most delicate and subtle of any of them, and was surely a tough beat for the actor to play, though he certainly must have wanted to confront it onscreen, being a Bond fan himself and wanting to make his portrayal faithful to the spirit of Fleming.  It may not be the biggest or most memorable of those moments, but in all fairness, let’s get on with it and accord the Brosnan era the respect it’s due:

Best in Suit

Connery had the baby blue terry-cloth jumpsuit; Lazenby the kilt; Moore the brutally dated, four-pocket leisure suit (The Man with the Golden Gun), and, for those who objected to it, the actual clown regalia. Just try to find one of Brosnan’s outfits from his time in the role that’s an equal misfire, just one that isn’t perfectly tailored and completely stylish. Brosnan wore Brioni, Omega, Ballantyne Cashmere, Turnbull & Asser, and nobody wore it better. The problem with this singular achievement is that it often kept us from believing that this 007 would ever get significantly roughed up. I mean, look at him. Every single hair of that “black comma” accounted for. He has a few bloody good dust-ups in his films (his brutal fistfight with Sean Bean in GE comes to mind), but then there’s that straightening-the-tie gag that comes across a little Dukakis when he’s in the tank, and a little repetitive (if not absolutely nutty) when he does it underwater in TWINE. Most of the time, it’s pure James Bond, but every so often, it comes across a little Macy’s catalog.

Best Original Cast Replacement

Judi Dench as M

Robert Brown made a fine M, first taking over the role in Octopussy after series stalwart Bernard Lee made his final appearance in Moonraker (there was no appearance by M in FYEO) and continuing through the Dalton films. When Brosnan became Bond, the decision was made to recast the support staff at MI6 (with the exception of Desmond Llewelyn’s Q). The advice was to go for a star, so they found one of the best. Her tough relationship with 007 is a highlight of the four films, even though the scripts started to stretch credibility in the service of maximizing her screen time.

And the Bond Girl Oscar Goes to…

Halle Berry

Like it or not, Ms. Berry is the sole “Bond girl” to have reached the elevated status of Oscar winner. (Dame Judi, not a “Bond Girl,” doesn’t count. Ditto Basinger, kids.) I like it, even if her sadly one-dimensional character in the film leaves me really cold, because I think she’s a terrific actress. None other than future Bond helmer Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) was responsible for getting her to the podium by way of her searing performance in Monster’s Ball. She’s not just the gal from BAPS and X-Men.

Best Crew Replacement

Composer David Arnold

Series composer John Barry will always be a tough act to follow, though many composers did serviceable or even stellar jobs subbing for him on the films for which he was unavailable (Martin and Hamlisch come to mind for me). David Arnold not only fearlessly took the Barry “sound” and legacy and celebrated it, simultaneously adding his own distinctive style to the mix, he’s now earned the distinction of being the only composer besides Barry to score more than one 007 film (Barry did 11; Arnold will have six at the completion of Bond 23). Listen closely to “White Knight,” the first significant cue for Arnold’s debut 007 score, Tomorrow Never Dies: You’ll hear not only the exciting “Bond is Back” horn blasts first heard in From Russia with Love, but the swirling strings from the main theme of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the welcome return of the wah-wah trumpet riffs that manage to afford the listener retro pleasures without coming across as terribly dated or comic (as they had been so brilliantly parodied in the Austin Powers films). I think Arnold is best when he tones down the electronica (which reached its extreme in DAD…pretty much like everything else about the film), and I’d like to see him work further into the moodier and more melodic and romantic elements of the Barry sound, but Arnold has quickly become nearly as indispensible an asset to the series as his predecessor.

Best Hotel Entrance

Many fans regard DAD as one of the weaker entries in the series. I’m one of them. Still, I’m forced to award it the honor of having the best hotel entrance in the franchise. Bond is forever checking into swanky hotels, getting immediate, first-class service while casting an eye towards a gorgeous female passerby and coolly receiving her lustful admiration. Here, Brosnan repeats a little gag that I seem to recall him playing out first on Steele, where he thinks nothing of strolling into a spotless, shiny establishment a filthy mess, head held high, class miraculously intact. Only the Brosnan Bond can appear this disheveled…and still sell his billion-dollar status.

Sexiest Moneypenny

Samantha Bond

The Bond producers decided to strengthen the feminist elements of the series not only by casting iron lady Dench as M—they also elected to make 007’s ever-faithful flirting partner at the office a little more sassy, a little more sexy, a little more capable of giving just as good as she got. Listen to Ms. Bond’s Moneypenny during the limo briefing in TND; she really goes out of her way (along with M) to mock the way the service uses Bond’s attractiveness to their advantage. (M: “…and then pump her for information.” Moneypenny: “You’ll just have to decide how much pumping is needed.”) Ms. Bond also enjoys what I would call the greatest “fan fiction” moment in all of the Bond films, when she puts the virtual reality machine designed by faux-Q “R” (John Cleese) to steamy good use.

Best Music Video for a Rejected Bond Song

Swan Lee, Tomorrow Never Dies

Just for fun:

YouTube Preview Image

In closing: Brosnan’s quartet of 007 films, blockbusters all, nevertheless feel very “thin” to me, and that’s not his fault. He’d expressed the desire to make the official film of Casino Royale. Too bad, Pierce. You didn’t get to do that, either. Maybe it was expressing a preference for Quentin Tarantino as director. The Bond producers will never, ever hire a director whose style and personality will overwhelm Bond.

But Eon, you kinda owe him, because it’s largely on the strength of his charm that his films are as good as they are. My dream is for Brosnan to have a Never Say Never Again moment. Anything’s possible in this era of filmmaking, where goofy trailers become full-on crazy features (and great ones, at that). Why not let some enterprising filmmaker—OK, even Tarantino, if you want him—make a compelling short film of, say, “007 in New York,” and let Brosnan be Bond one more time?

You don’t even have to ditch the reference to Solange, seeing as how you’ll be putting this “meta” project in a fashionable alternate universe, maybe releasing it in between Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche this year and Bond 23 in 2012.

But if you must make some sort of substitution for the already-used name…how about calling her “Viv”?

After all, it was that kind of thinking outside the box—way outside the box—that soon brought the series out of the dregs of creative exhaustion and back to explosive new life.

James Bond Will Return With: Nobody Does Bond Better, 006: A Craig-Like Face

Previously: Nobody Does Bond Better, 001: The Connery Craze / Nobody Does Bond Better, 002: George Lazenby, A Model Bond / Nobody Does Bond Better, 003: Moore, Roger Moore / Nobody Does Bond Better, 004: The Dangerous Timothy Dalton