The Sympathetic Killing Machine
An ingenious backstory lets the latest James Bond get away with murder.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE Directed by Marc ForsterWritten by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade
By Noah Berlatsky
November 13, 2008
The problem with a long-running series like the James Bond films is that the formula doesn’t mean the same thing in different eras. Bond movies have a simple reason for being: the spectacle of a supersuave, supersexy, supercompetent manly man shooting and fornicating his way across one exotic locale after another, defeating every bad guy, bedding every attractive woman, and always looking great. It’s male wish fulfillment of the most obvious, gratuitous kind; indeed, its obviousness and gratuitousness are its charm.
Or were. The classic Bond adventures with Sean Connery and Roger Moore can still be fun, but feminism and changing notions of gender have made their pandering feel garish. In 1964, when Connery starred in Goldfinger, Bond could rape Pussy Galore and still seem like an elegant moral paragon. Today . . . not so much. Over the years Bond’s mix of virtue and violence, of smoothness and misogyny, has gotten more and more difficult to package. Since at least 1973, when Moore took over the role, the Bond films have grown increasingly pointless, like a dishwasher running through its cycles over and over with the water disconnected.
Finally, though, the powers behind the franchise have figured out how to make Bond relevant again—by giving him a tragic backstory. In Casino Royale (2006), which introduced Daniel Craig in the role, Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British treasury agent who’s helping him investigate a shadowy terror organization. So smitten is Bond that he even decides to give up espionage for Lynd—only to discover that she’s double-crossed him and swindled the British government out of millions. Shortly after her betrayal, a guilt-stricken Lynd dies horribly in front of Bond’s eyes, and he learns she was forced into her treachery through blackmail. The betrayal and tragedy transform Bond from a vicious, sexy hunk into a vicious, sexy hunk with a revenge motive.
The Bond franchise is old enough that it has touched on virtually every possible permutation of male genre literature, and it’s certainly used revenge narratives aplenty—Sean Connery’s Bond, for example, avenges the death of his wife in the teaser sequence of Diamonds Are Forever (1971). But they’ve always been a bonus, not the motivating force of the series. The genius of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace is the recognition that the hoary revenge theme, taken seriously, could rejuvenate the hoary Bond series. Bond as perfect man may, in the present day, seem stupid and even distasteful; Bond as wounded man, though, can be forgiven anything. The dead he leaves in his wake—not only enemy agents but old friends, casual lovers, and innocent bystanders—just makes him more attractive, adding to the inner guilt and pain he keeps so nobly repressed.
Recent movie reviews:
The Lucky Ones
The sense of barely submerged emotions coupled with Craig’s nonchalant, smoldering brutality gives life to all the old cliches. The car chase, the boat chase, the foot chase through crowded streets, the walk through the desert in evening clothes—he plays them all with unnerving directness. Early in Quantum of Solace Craig and his opponent tussle in a bell tower, swinging from scaffolding and scrambling for two fallen guns. Hanging upside down by one leg, Craig secures one of the pistols. His face is nearly expressionless—not impassive, but relaxed, as if he were standing in line at a supermarket and had just thought of something amusing. Then he pulls the trigger.
The moment is compelling because it suggests depth. For Connery or Moore, surface was everything: the impeccable suits, the ready daring, the ready quips that turned death into a supper-club joke. But Craig’s mask, thanks to his backstory, makes you wonder what’s going on underneath. He shows little, but it suggests a lot. He’s got a soul.
The soul and pain together make Bond sympathetic again, absolving him, for example, of his casual seductions. Connery and Moore seemed to enjoy their bit of the other; with Craig, you can actually see him turning on the charm, consciously hitting the damsel of the hour with the full force of his attention and charisma. One nicely played minor character is an airline ticketer who dissolves into breathless flapping when Craig leans in and gives her a half smile. The fact that it’s a ploy only makes it more attractive. The poor man—he doesn’t want to sleep with all these women, but he must, for the sake of his lonely, bloody quest . . . sigh.
The tragic backstory also provides much-needed cover for the Bond movies’ chronic narcissism: it’s an excuse for keeping 007 at the center of the world. In Casino Royale Bond falsely accuses fellow agent Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), which leads to his torture; yet Mathis is so touched by Bond’s personal grief in Quantum of Solace that he follows him into serious danger and ends up getting killed. He even uses his dying breath to tell Bond, “Forgive her. Forgive yourself.” When the female lead, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who has her own big problems, walks away from Bond at the film’s end, she gives him a passionate kiss and tells him, “I wish I could set you free.” And in Bond’s intense encounters with his motherly boss (Judi Dench) and an American agent (Jeffrey Wright), the inappropriate sexual undertones are defused by our knowledge of the woman in Bond’s past. You can be as incestuous or homoerotic as you like, as long as you’ve got a dead lover to slap down on the table when questioned.
Camille may be the first Bond girl who neither sleeps with 007 nor dies, which makes Quantum of Solace seem relatively enlightened. The clubby tit-joke tone of the early Bond is gone—and with it, much of the series’s humor. But this is a movie in which the main female character is dead and offscreen. In place of woman as joke we’re given not woman as person but woman as excuse. The purpose of the Bond girl, and of the Bond film, is still to stroke the male ego. Bond changes just enough to stay exactly the same.