I was 12 years old when I first encountered James Bond, a ripe age for grand pubescent crushes on fictional men. Yet the seemingly irresistible package of sophistication, sexual charisma, and bravado left me cold. Soon after, I picked up Bourne Identity and fell madly in love with another secret agent: Jason Bourne.
He was the ultimate anti-Bond. Where one man’s entire identity could be summed up in a single phrase — “Bond, James Bond” — the other didn’t even know his name. That tormented quest for identity — packaged in a tough-but-sensitive sexiness — had an obvious appeal for someone hovering on the edge of adolescent anxiety.
My lack of interest in 007 was not mysterious either. By the 1980s, the Bond version of masculinity was already several decades too old. With his tux-and-martinis chivalry and smirking air of superiority, he was a quintessential male fantasy, and an outdated one at that. The gals were on the sidelines, both on screen and in the audience. But for my generation of women, say, the Sean Connery version of macho read not as offensive but just silly. This was some Uncleji version of machismo, like in Diamonds Are Forever, when he jokes, “There is something I’d like you to get off your chest” — just before he rips off a woman’s bikini top and strangles her with it. Eye roll!
We didn’t need have to wait till 1995 for Judi Dench to tell us in Goldeneye that he is “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.”
Okay, so it was all supposed to be good fun, the characters and plots writ so large as to border on caricature. But what truly grated was the old Bond’s smug infallibility. He possessed no inner life, driven instead by a facile certainty of his rightness and inevitable triumph. It made him a bit flat, and entirely predictable. A 1970s Amitabh Bachchan playing the angry young man in Deewar or Zanjeer was a far more intriguing and appealing character than any Roger Moore outing. Apples and oranges, perhaps, but the fact remains that the rise of the conflicted modern hero made the original Bond quickly archaic.
Old-fashioned sexism aside, world events have not been kind to Bond either. The end of the Cold War spelled an end to the moral certainties, blurring the lines between the good and bad guys. The post-9/11 war on terror outlined the limits of blind patriotism, and being in her majesty’s service no longer seemed like a good idea. Maybe Robert Ludlum was on to something, after all.
It’s why history has been kinder to my old crush, the other JB whose movie versions have consistently outperformed the Bond franchise, and by huge margins. It’s why the 21st century James Bond is morphing into his darker twin. The first Jason Bourne movie released in 2002, which was also the year of the worst performing Bond flick, Die Another Day.
Call it the Bourne Effect, starting with Casino Royale, the Daniel Craig movies have each tried to blend in Jason-like elements: going rogue, disillusionment, emotional pain, inner torment et al. Skyfall even has Bond disappear, presumed dead, betrayed by his beloved M — whose moral choices become an issue. But where Bourne turned on his handlers, 007 has to remain true to the establishment. To do otherwise would be to cease to be James Bond. The gadgets have disappeared but the girls remain, but in an oddly obligatory manner. You can almost see Sam Mendes thinking, “Ok, have to do sex with hot chicks. How can I shove them in without making him look like an antiquated jerk?”
Skyfall also does its best to confront the bigger question: Does James Bond matter any more? The movie is infused with the themes of aging and redundancy. Do we need field agents in an era of technological warfare? Can “an old dog learn new tricks”? Does Bond-style patriotism matter in a world where the difference between right and wrong is hard to discern?
The movie’s answer to these questions relies on nostalgic affirmation. When M asks him, “Where are we going?” Bond replies, “Back in time.” So we jump into his old Aston-Martin and go back to his childhood home where he uses dynamite, a knife and a old hunting gun to defeat the enemy. But in retreating into his past, the movie also rewrites its hero. Bruised, weeping, and stripped of his certainties, the James who emerges from its ashes is also no longer recognisably Bond.
And I like this one better, much, much better.