Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Spectre: A Pension of Nightmares

Off to the cinema to see Spectre, a terrific new action thriller starring Daniel Craig as James Bond, a swave and deboner British spy of mixed Scottish-English-Irish extraction who is ninety years old. Women love him, even when they pretend not to; some men wish they could be him; other men try to kill him; he kills them instead. It's a simple life. The Bond films are simple. Their appeal is simple and has endured remarkably well, although it has mutated since the 1960s.

Back then, Bond was the man you could never hope to be. For the price of a cinema ticket you could witness a lifestyle you would never have. In Ian Fleming's day foreign travel was expensive and awkward, Aston Martins were not sold to coloured gentlemen, and ordinary people like you or I did not have sex. In the 1960s real life for most people was nothing like the Bond films.

Fast forward to 2015 and the world is very different. Few things are out of reach of the truly committed and Bond's lifestyle is no longer particularly exotic. Even I have been to Rome and Morocco. I did not stay in top hotels, and I was taken there by Ryanair and Easyjet rather than BOAC, but I have been there nonetheless. Quite literally everybody reading this blog post has spent at least a year in Goa or Peru, and the world has run out of exotic, unattainable travel destinations. The early Bond films now look quaint but there is still something about them that can never be recaptured. Something that draws people to them. You or I might visit Istanbul, but we will never be Sean Connery sharing a coach on the Orient Express with Daniela Bianchi.

Nevermind that the train was a studio set. The Bond films, like all films, are essentially a mass of illusions designed to distract us from the drudgery of everyday life. If our Mondays were bliss, we would not need the cinema.

"Beware of the handshake that holds the snake"

Daniel Craig is eight years older than me, despite which he is an international sex symbol. It's great being a man. I can drink and watch television for the next seven years and still potentially be an international sex symbol myself, provided I work out a bit at the end. I wonder if women feel the same way about Gwyneth Paltrow. She is 43, which is very old for a woman - they age faster than men - but she is still thin and famous and everything. Women have at least until the age of 42 to pig out, at which point a simple crash diet and presto, they can potentially be glamour icons just like Gwyneth Paltrow. Yes but what's the film like? It's good. Not great. It's unusually long but consistently entertaining and never draggy. It feels less epic than the length suggests. It has weak villains and some odd quirks, but the time flashed by. It has one truly fantastic line, delivered with aplomb by Ralph Fiennes. I will not reveal the line but it is very rude and everyone in the cinema laughed.

I have often wondered if Bond screenplays begin as tough, plausible thrillers, and are then handed to a group of specialists who tear out anything that does not end with an explosion or an establishing shot, even if this makes the plot nonsensical. Spectre has all of the old Bondisms, delivered so blatantly and with such relentless force that the producers must have been double-daring us to mock the film. Bond is indestructible until the plot demands it, at which point he is knocked out with a pistol butt to the head. He is captured, but the villains don't think to frisk him. Instead of simply shooting him, the baddies reveal their plans and give him numerous opportunities to escape. When it makes sense for them to capture Bond, they send a man who tries to kill him; when they no longer need him alive, they let him live. Despite swearing an oath to protect an ally from harm Bond insists on bringing her directly into the villain's lair. Instead of tackling a man who is fleeing to a rescue helicopter Bond decides to leap into the chopper and punch out the pilot in mid-air, which goes about as well as you would expect. Bond actually comes across as a bit of a jerk at the beginning. He almost kills a lot of innocent people, and it's all his fault.

I don't want to give away specific plot points, but if I had built a villainous factory that could be destroyed with a single stray bullet, I wouldn't give the guards Kalashnikovs. I would give them highly accurate rifles and I would employ guards who could shoot straight or at least make an attempt to flank Bond instead of running straight at him. If I had the resources to build a giant explosive trap for James Bond, I would just blow up Bond and then gloat over his grave. Bond has probably seen The Dark Knight as well, he would be unimpressed with my dilemma. If I was the sub-villain, and I had essentially won, I would just keep my mouth shut and have the heroes arrested by the police for trespassing on government property. If I ever find myself tasked with following James Bond around on a train, I will ask whether I am supposed to kill him or capture him; in the former case I would shoot him from a distance or blow up the train, in the latter case I would wait for him to fall asleep and then pump gas into his carriage, because I've seen The Prisoner. The producers of Spectre appear to have seen The Prisoner as well, because one scene seemed to be a visual homage to Patrick McGoohan's TV spy oddity. If I was the chief villain I would ask myself if I was trying to kidnap Bond or his new girlfriend or both or what etc.

Despite having most of the ingredients of the old-stock, old-fashioned Bond films, Spectre feels very different. Bond in the cinema divides into pre-Daniel Craig Classic Bond and Craig's Modern Bond. Craig himself was one of the new ingredients rather than the catalyst. The real transformation happened behind the scenes, with a general overhaul of the series' entire filmmaking philosophy. For example, Spectre begins with a long tracking shot during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. We follow Bond as he goes to a hotel room with a lady who is probably famous in Spain or somewhere and will forevermore bill herself as "X, star of Spectre", despite having only two lines. Bond exits via the window and the camera continues tracking the suave bastard as he goes to work, sauntering over Mexican rooftops.

Nothing really happens during all of this. The credits don't appear, there are no cuts back to headquarters. The sequence doesn't add anything to the plot. It's pure style, and it's awesome. Cinema with a capital C, the kind of meaningless pointless artistry that makes the best art films come alive.

I would name it after the first woman I killed. But I didn't stop to catch her name.

The classic Bond films would not have had this sequence. They were not Cinema, they were instead efficient, expensive-but-cheap-looking action films. Classic Bond would have opened with a stock shot of Mexico city, followed by a few flavour shots of people dancing in skeleton make-up, and then we would cut to Roger Moore looking worried and the film would begin. Spectre has numerous moments that go nowhere and aren't even symbolism, but they work because they make the film seem like a real motion picture. At one point Bond threatens to shoot a mouse, in a moment that is both comic and surreal and hard to describe; it advances the plot a little bit, but it's one of those little things that sticks in the mind. The old Bond films never had little things. Little things would have been excised during the storyboarding process.

And there's the camerawork. Modern Bond is shot in the modern style, with everything handheld. Not shaky-cam; there's enough stability that it doesn't get nauseous. The camera is always moving. In a sequence on a train the camera tilts a bit in a way that seemed accidental, and was probably a consequence of the setup - the characters are filmed from the top of an adjacent table, past the pepperpots and beyond the ketchup - but it felt natural and added to the general looseness of style. Unless you're looking for it, you don't notice the camera prowling around and hunting focus, but it gets to your subconscious. The film is directed by Sam Mendes, who has a short but memorable body of work consisting of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, some other films that nobody talks about, and Bond. Perdition was famously good-looking, Spectre has a cleaner, less gothic style. If I remember correctly it has a loose day-night cycle, beginning in daylight before moving to night, daylight, and night again; it ends in darkness.

Everything ends in darkness. I'll give one thing away. Typically in Bond films there are two Bond girls. The mistress of the villain longs to be released from captivity, when Bond appears she betrays the villain to Bond and is dumped into a piranha tank for her trouble. There is also a second Bond girl who is less interesting and doesn't die, although she is constantly in jeopardy and has to be rescued time and again by Bond. The series has played with this formula now and again, but without much commitment (Goldfinger had two doomed Bond girls and a lesbian judo pilot; For Your Eyes Only had a Bond girl who was almost literally a girl; On Her Majesty's Secret Service folded both Bond girls into one character).

As soon as it was announced that Monica Bellucci was one of Spectre's Bond girls I remember feeling sad that she was going to die - I envisaged her floating dead in a swimming pool - but, to my surprise, she... well, if she dies, it happens off-screen. She's only in the film for a very short time, perhaps because her English isn't very good, but she makes a strong impression. Doubly so because I am a man, and I like to think that God created Monica Bellucci so that my life would have meaning.

It's easy to spell Monica Bellucci's surname. Just remember that she is hyper-woman, so she has two Ls, two Cs, and of course only one I, because women only have one eye. I have no idea if she is married, or if she loves her husband; if she is, and she does, that man has something more valuable than money. Monica Bellucci is modern cinema's Sophia Loren, in the sense that she can't act in English and thus has never really had a memorable role in a Hollywood film, but she looks fantastic and exudes the essence of Cinema from every pore of her beautiful face. She is even older than Gwyneth Paltrow, and if she could distill her essence into a beauty cream she could retire from acting tomorrow.

Skyfall was the official 50th anniversary Bond film, Die Another Day the fortieth. Both of those films had little homages to the Bond canon; there hadn't been an opportunity in 1972 or 1982. Spectre has not been released on the anniversary of anything, unless perhaps you count Goldeneye. It has been twenty years since Goldeneye. Two whole decades have gone by since I read a review of Goldeneye in the newspaper; two decades since I paid £7.50 or however much to see it at the cinema. Twenty years and half a lifetime ago. I'm going to have another drink now. Martini of course, although not as James Bond preferred it. He mixed it with something called Kina Lillet, which is apparently no longer made. You will never be Sean Connery riding on the Orient Express with Daniela Bianchi. They dubbed her, because in those days they cast Bond girls for their looks, no other reason.

Bianchi isn't the most famous Bond girl and she never had a gimmick, in fact her character was a simpering weakling who was presumably arrested by MI6 the moment she was no longer useful and deported back to Russia, comma, something or other but she was the most beautiful. Other Bond girls were sexier, some were prettier, some seemed more fun to hang out with - Diana Rigg is top of that list - but Bianchi was the one that would have caused Greek sculptors to pause and thank whatever Gods the Greek worshipped that women existed. Men admire attractive women with different parts of their bodies; some women cure impotence, some cause the heart to race, others strike a man's soul, fill his mind with visions of the desert and of the landscape that existed before human beings. It's all hormones, really, just chemicals secreted by glands inside the body. Certain visual stimuli cause the body to secret hormones that have a mood-altering effect. The same is true of films in general, indeed much of human life is devoted to stimulating these glands. I was talking about a film, a long time ago.

Spectre is cobbled together from bits of older Bond films, in a way that is clever rather than desperate. Léa Seydoux is essentially Diana Rigg from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but without the death wish. Her character is the daughter of the friendly villain; she grew up in the company of people who would kill her if they were ordered to. The Day of the Dead sequences borrow some of the iconography from Live and Let Die, thankfully nothing else from that film. There is a fight on a train that is the spit of a similar fight in From Russia with Love. A sequence in which the Bond girl takes a rest while Bond guards over her is cribbed from Tomorrow Never Dies. The villainous hideout put me in mind of Quantum of Solace, and the underlying plot of a threat to MI6 is reminiscent of Skyfall, although on reflection I suspect it's because Spectre is a direct continuation of that film rather than a homage. Bond drives an Aston Martin and carries a Walther PPK. He also seems to moonlight as a travelling salesman for SIG, and if I lived in the United States I would be tempted to look up used P226s on Gunbroker or something. The film has been criticised for its product placement, but in general it's subtle and in any case even the novels were full of product placement. Fleming felt that it wasn't enough to tell us that Bond enjoyed a drink and carried a gun, he wanted to show off his impeccable taste by having Bond drink the right drink and carry the right gun.

One thing about the product placement worries me, though. Early in the film there is a lengthy chase between Bond in an Aston Martin and a villainous henchman in a Ferrari, at least I think it was a Ferrari. The chase feels surprisingly sanitised, un-dangerous. There aren't many stunts, and neither car appeared to accumulate any damage. Even the Fiat that Bond pushes out of the way ends up almost unscathed. It felt safe, as if Aston Martin and Ferrari and Fiat had forbidden the producers from showing their vehicles in a damaged state. Presumably the Dornier or Fokker that Bond destroys later was fair game because both of those companies are defunct.

The chase also highlights the film's wandering tone. Modern Bond has to strike a deft balance between absurdity and a kind of Hollywood realism. Christopher Nolan's Batman films succeeded well at this. They were absurd, but at the same time they felt like gritty crime dramas. The early Bond films tried to pull this off as well but threw in the towel after From Russia with Love. Spectre generally succeeds at the smaller silly things. Bond teleports from Morocco to a safe house in London at just the right time to meet M, but that's okay because it would be boring otherwise. In one scene there is a desperate fight on a train that demolishes several carriages, after which everything is right again and they have a nightcap, but later we learn that they were going to be captured anyway so it doesn't matter. The Aston Martin's ejector seat however takes things too far, and isn't even necessary to advance the plot; it's a throwaway gag. That and 009's mood music. The car chase is towards the beginning of the film, and on reflection I think that Spectre gets better as it goes along. The first half feels like a lightweight Moore-era homage, albeit with a single instance of surprisingly brutal violence; the second half is a much bleaker action thriller.

Other problems? The council of baddies meets in a large mansion that appears to be guarded by just three people. The chief villain himself is unmasked late in the game, and does surprisingly little thereafter (in a break from tradition he doesn't even have a memorable death). The whole Empire Strikes Back aspect is baffling. Is it really that easy to shoot a helicopter with a Walther PPK at a range of several hundred metres from a fast-moving speedboat? Is the headquarters of Britain's intelligence services unguarded at night? How is it that so many villains are able to fly helicopters around Britain without attracting attention? Yes, these are all gripes, and I should really just sit back and let the film wash over me - I want to stress that I wasn't jotting all this down during the film, I was instead munching popcorn and wondering why people go to the toilet immediately after the film begins. Why do people do that?

Above all this, the plot tries to deal with contemporary fears of mass surveillance but can't form a convincing argument because the Bond films simply aren't capable of dealing with weighty issues. Ralph Fiennes' M makes a passionate defence of the double-oh section's licence to kill by arguing that a man with a gun pressed into the face of another man is not likely to make a mistake. I remember that they shot Jean Charles de Menezes seven times in the face; his skull must have looked like a broken china cup when they finished with him. If the Met's surveillance had been better, if the men who commanded the police had been competent, if the police had been allowed to exercise their own judgement, if their judgement had been correct, if and but if but de Menezes might not have died. A film could be made out of this. Chris Morris' Four Lions had a go. Spectre is out of its depth. Raising the issue of a licence to kill also highlights the enormous age of the Bond films. In Fleming's day you had to be a very important man to be given a pistol by the government and authorisation to use it. Nowadays even lowly policemen have a licence to kill.

Ralph Fiennes is, incidentally, excellent in his limited role as an action M. I assume he was asked to play the role as if he was in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Up the page I mention the Batman films. Beyond its obvious Dark Knight homage, Spectre ends with a band-of-brothers-in-occupied-territory sequence reminiscent of The Dark Knight Rises. The final shots reminded me of that film as well. It would have been easy to make Spectre Bond's final adventure. He seems ready to settle down with Léa Seydoux's character and have lots of Bond babies, which would be possible because even though he is 47 and thus an old man, she is only 30. That's still quite old for a woman, but she is presumably still fertile. Women love older men, I know this from the Bond films.

I'm warming to OS X. If you want to type é, you just hold down the "e" key until a pop-up menu appears with accents, and then you hit 2. Obviously you can't type eeeeeeeee without turning this option off, but how often do I do that? Not very often. The idea of holding down a key and having an accent pop up is simple and very effective. Ö, there you go. This is fun. N̈.


That's Spectre over and done with. Let's talk about the Bond franchise. It has drifted in and out of fashion since it began way back in 1962, with Dr No. In the 1960s the likes of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were the highest-grossing films of the day, but as the franchise became larger and more extravagant it seemed to collapse in on itself. Bond spent the first half of the 1970s in a moribund state. All of the films turned a profit, but early-1970s Bond was in danger of entering a cycle of diminishing returns leading to diminishing budgets leading to oblivion. So the story goes, the producers took out a huge bank loan for 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, which they extended for Moonraker; those two films made Bond a blockbuster star again.

Bond remained popular in the 1980s but the franchise felt tired, and it ground to an awkward halt at the end of the decade. It's possible to enjoy the early Bonds as period pieces, but 1980s Bond is hard to like. The films have their moments but the series wrestled with an identity crisis. Roger Moore's lightweight action adventures were popular but naff; Timothy Dalton's dour realism was less popular, and still a bit naff. The Dalton-era Bond films, all two of them, tried to be contemporary but ended up feeling like imitations of Miami Vice, a kind of affected imitation of realism.

Nonetheless the series was relaunched successfully with Goldeneye in 1995. As a reboot, Goldeneye is odd, in that it didn't have a grand concept; unlike On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Licence to Kill it didn't try to pay homage to the past or introduce a radically new style, it was simply a classic Bond film executed well. In the gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye there had been a flurry of Die Hard rip-offs, and perhaps audiences in 1995 wanted something big and silly again. Goldeneye was a huge hit and for a while Bond was hip again. Alas, the franchise gradually ran out of ideas and inspiration, culminating in the odd disaster of Die Another Day (2002). An odd disaster because, on paper, it was a huge success, grossing almost half a billion dollars, but it received generally poor reviews and felt like an excessive, muddled mess. I remember watching it at the cinema and feeling sorry for the cast.

Another hiatus ensued. At the time this seemed to last forever, although the gap was only four years; not much longer than the natural gap between Bond films. Something changed in those four years. Action cinema changed. Hollywood changed. In 2002 there was talk of a rivalry between the Bond franchise and xXx, an action spy film built around a musclebound extreme sports enthusiast compelled by the US government to become a spy. There was talk that the Bond films were fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned, and that the future belonged to hip young skateboarders like xXx's Xander Cage, or maybe the gravity-defying ninja vampires of Blade, or the physics-defying characters of the Matrix franchise.

But as it turned out xXx and The Matrix and Blade were not the future at all. It was hard to care for heroes who were invincible, hard to care for drama that took place in a cartoon world. Instead the future of action drama belonged to a pair of haunted, uncompromising professionals, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, one adapted for the cinema from a series of books, the other an original creation for television. Television spent its first forty years in the shadow of cinema, but over the last two decades some of the best writing in motion picture drama has been for television. Bauer's 24 was controversial for its depiction of torture and its decision to grapple with the issue of Persons of a Certain Religion, which is generally a no-no in cinema, because films are released all across the world and are not supposed to offend anybody.

Bourne and Bauer were pensive, modestly-built government agents who did not enjoy their job; men surrounded by death, trapped in a world of pain. The Bourne films made late-Brosnan-era Bond look ridiculous. They were successful not just because they felt more serious than the competition, but because the producers seemed to care deeply about them. The acting talent was top-notch; the action choreography, the fisticuffs and foot chases and stabbings had visceral power. The Bourne films balanced realism and thrills without becoming morose or overpowering. They still took place in an unreal world, but it was a world that had an air of verisimilitude. When Clive Owen's villainous assassin is mortally wounded in the first film there are no quips, just a mournful acknowledgement that his time is up.

Bond’s producers had wrestled with realism before, never very successfully. In Goldeneye Judi Dench’s M characterises Bond as a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, but in the very next film she asks Bond to pump a ladyfriend for information, and there’s a strong implication that she doesn't expect Bond to literally insert a bicycle pump into the woman's fanny, she instead expects him to seduce her, although ironically inserting a bicycle pump into a woman's fanny is the kind of thing that real-life intelligence agents probably do - Jack Bauer would probably do it as well - so in that respect perhaps Tomorrow Never Dies had a darker tone than I remember. This paragraph has gone on long enough. The next film after that had paragliding assassins who came out of nowhere and Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist.

In my opinion it wasn't just the Bourne films, though. It could have been Saving Private Ryan, or the failure of Batman and Robin and Die Another Day and the new Star Wars films - cartoonish travesties all - or the popularity of the slow-paced, epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, or 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq, or a wave that passed through the world, but for Casino Royale (2005) Bond’s producers tried hard to change the general tone of the Bond films. To really do it this time. The Bond films have always been about tone. They have a certain tone that is hard to characterise, but although there are elements of Modern Bond in the Classic Bond films, they are tonally incompatible and really belong to separate franchises. The producers almost blew it with the anonymous, campy Quantum of Solace (2008), but redeemed themselves with Skyfall (2012), which had a decent villain, some good lines, and an exciting action finale.

Spectre was preceded by little advertisements for forthcoming films, including a David Brent vehicle that I will not be going to see. There was the final instalment of The Hunger Games, which looks perfectly okay but I haven't seen the other films so I won't be going to see this one.

There was The Revenant, which is a survival drama starring Leonardo di Caprio, who has rocket launchers on his shoulders that can fire homing missiles (the homing missiles have smoke coming out of them). The film is a cross between Jeremiah Johnson and the cinematography of Terence Malick's The New World. The film looks fantastic. It has a distinctive style - everything is shot with wide angle lenses, with the characters leaning at the camera, and there appears to be no fill light, so it has a look that is simultaneously beautiful and harsh. I will probably go and see it, although my hunch is that it will be a terrible flop - I can't see it appealing to women or children.

And there was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The fourth Star Wars film. Given the huge success of the original Star Wars trilogy you'd think Hollywood would have revived the franchise already, but no, this is the first new Star Wars film since 1983. It has a restrained visual style and surprisingly low-key music. It baffles me that they hired Lupita Nyong'o and then rotoscoped her. Why hire the most beautiful person in human history and turn her into CGI, especially given that the film is supposed to have as little CGI as possible? Of course I will go and see it. Not because it is Star Wars, but because it looks interesting on its own merits. I felt a little disappointed when the Star Wars logo appeared. I don't know why.

Exciting action finale. The Bond films take place in a fantasy world where the authorities are fundamentally good and everybody else is bad and evil. Bond’s job is to ensure the survival of the existing order by destroying the forces of chaos. In Fleming’s day, Britain was a major world power that had brought enlightenment to the world with a combination of Roman discipline and British fair play and also masses of ships. The British Empire saw off the evil forces of first the French - who practice sodomy and allow their dogs to shit in the street - and then the beastly Germans, and by the 1950s we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our American friends against the socialists who wanted to take money away from rich people and use it to help poor people breed.

Of course, by the time of the Bond film franchise Britain had become merely the northern part of the eastern part of NATO, and nowadays we are basically a lot of banks, a tax haven for foreign gangsters, with a military that could in theory challenge one of the Middle Eastern states with a good chance of winning, but we would be unable to do any more than smash up their armed forces and only then if none of the other powers complained, and for what? We would be bankrupt at the end of it and would have to withdraw, as we did fifty years ago.

The Bond films are often mocked for ignoring Britain's diminished world role, although I have always assumed that in the background of Thunderball and Octopussy there were CIA agents saving the world from dastardly plots we never hear about, and that on the international stage Bond was small fry. The modern Bonds have avoided this by giving Bond relatively modest challenges, but even in classic Bond there were nods to the absurdity of a British secret service agent as the world's only hope. The conflict in Tomorrow Never Dies, for example, is between Britain and China, with an implication that China would wipe the floor with the Royal Navy, and although American CIA agents are often portrayed as cheerful but not particularly bright, they generally have better toys than us. I often wonder if Tony Blair modelled himself on Brosnan-era Bond. The general stereotype of the Anglo-American relationship in Britain is that they have the money, we have the brains, and that they need us to do all the clever stuff because we had an empire when they were still fighting about slavery. This element actually survives into the modern Bonds, although to be fair the British government does not come off particularly well either.

The Bourne films, on the other hand, presented the CIA as a murderous, corrupt conspiracy that had no qualms about killing children. 24 was similarly equivocal. I can’t remember exactly what the CIA wanted to achieve throughout the Bourne films - the ongoing plot to kill Bourne was essentially a gigantic side quest - but it probably didn't involve the greater good of humanity.

American films often feature a fundamentally decent President who is unaware of an evil conspiracy amongst his intelligence chiefs, indeed the plot device of a corrupt CIA offshoot was a cliché even before Watergate. Bourne presents this in an unusually direct manner; Bourne's tortured psyche is living proof of the CIA's villainy, and they don't bother trying to arrest him, they just want him dead. There are parallels in the bleaker works of John le Carré, where the British government is shown to be amoral, but in Carré's fiction the government is pragmatic rather than downright evil. There is an implication in Carré's books that, somewhere down the line, there is a plan to shorten the Cold War and thus prevent more death. In the Bond films the government is presented in a similarly pragmatic light and there are occasional suggestions that Bond is not just expendable but potentially disposable if it should come to that. The fundamental difference between the two universes is cultural. In America the people are supposed to be horrified that their government is mean; in the United Kingdom we accept that we are ruled by bastards.

(Another thing strikes me about the Bourne films. The Bond films acknowledge the existence of the CIA, and have done ever since they begin, but the Bourne films don't portray the British secret service at all, because Britain is an anonymous irrelevance on the international stage. This is something that British people cannot comprehend. Again, I often wonder if Tony Blair imagines crowds in the Middle East, America, all across the world thanking God that Britain exists, because in my travels abroad I don't remember encountering any manifestations of Britishness at all. In the days of Empire we made things, and our Empire bought them because we had forced them to sign a trade agreement that compelled them to buy our things; and later we made things, and foreigners bought them because the factories in China hadn't got up to steam yet; now we no longer make things, and although our banks are the envy of the world it is awfully jarring to find that there is no Tesco in Italy or Spain. We may have the world's sixth-biggest economy, but if we vanished from the Earth we wouldn't leave much behind.)

Bond is, fundamentally, a bastard. Bourne is a metrosexual new man who cries whenever he treads on a butterfly. He would be fun to hang out with provided you didn't say anything bad about blacks or muslims or gays or the Irish or women, in which case he would punch you. Bond, on the other hand, loves to kill. He is thrilled to be a government assassin; when his masters try to stop him from killing villainous drug kingpin Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill, he resigns so that he can kill Sanchez in his spare time. He is angry when they take away his licence to kill and happy when he gets it back. I like to imagine that during the weekend Bond kills people on a freelance basis. Perhaps the Duke of Westminster hires him to clear poor people from some of his properties so he can rent them at higher rates. It says something about Britain that, although it is illegal to hunt foxes, there is nothing in British law that explicitly forbids the hunting of poor people.

Bond is an unusual modern hero in that he is not our friend. In Fleming’s mind Bond worked to defend Fleming’s class against THEM; for the average British person of the 1950s and 1960s, Bond was our superior but he was nonetheless one of US. In multicultural, post-Suez, post-Beyond the Fringe Britain of 2015 Bond and his world are separate from our own. The illusion that the authorities have our interests at heart is no longer tenable, and it is hard to accept that the authorities represent us, or that they are our moral superiors. If they're so good, why are they so bad? For British people of 2015, Bond defends THEM against THEM. His world has no connection with ours, indeed from his point of view some of US are THEM and the rest of US are probably in league with THEM. At the end of Skyfall Bond stands triumphant against the London skyline, in an image that was presumably supposed to make the British audience cheer; as long as Bond is around there will be warm beer and cricket forevermore. At the end of Spectre he... incidentally it should be SPECTRE, because it's an acronym for "Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion", but at the end of Spectre he drives off in his Aston Martin with his girlfriend, but I was left wondering how a civil servant can afford to live in London; what connection does this man have with my reality? None whatsoever. Q mentions his mortgage, and again how does a relatively junior civil servant afford a mortgage in London? What connection would a real-life intelligence agent have with my reality? Again, none.

The old Britain is gone, it was a sham in any case, and the message I had from Skyfall’s final shot was that they are in control, and we had better not have ideas above our station. The British State is essentially a small group of wealthy landowners who will do anything to ensure that they stay that way; all of British law is designed to maintain their position, and they are prepared to sacrifice the rest of the country - to the last man, woman, and child - to maintain their grasp on the levers of control. Bond and his superiors act to save themselves, not us. The illusion that the State worked for the people of Britain was cracked by the Great War, and although the Greater War that followed tested the limits of their power they slowly resumed control and, in 2015, are as powerful as they ever were. This is another area where modern Bond falls apart. The global conspiracy of Quantum and Spectre cannot be destroyed by killing a few henchmen and blowing up a factory, and in any case if the authorities are complicit in the conspiracy - as Spectre makes clear - who is Bond fighting for? Some kind of ancient Knights Templar revival, a cricket club, the Masons?

In real life Bond would be embedded with Shell Oil in Basra, or he would be working for an anonymous outsourcing company in Pakistan while simultaneously spying on the local population. Or he would be a local politician in Bradford, passing on information about his voters to the authorities; and in real, real life he would just make up a lot of stuff in order to get paid, and the authorities would raid the house of someone who is completely innocent and accidentally shoot that person, and there would be an inquest that clears everybody. In real life Bond would have cause to meet and perhaps work with civilians on a daily basis. In the Bond films, however, Bond appears to have no life outside of work, and during his day job he only ever meets government employees, diabolical masterminds, their henchpeople, millionaire heiresses, and perhaps the occasional air stewardess. Spectre gives us a glimpse of Bond's home life, which suggests that he sits alone at night drinking away his sorrows. He is not one of us and doesn't want anything to do with us. He is an unusual modern hero in that respect.

Typically, the modern action hero is an ordinary man thrust into an adventure he did not anticipate, or he is a policeman or specialist confronted with something far greater than anything he has had to deal with. In the modern action film, professionals like Bond are called in to deal with the villain - and are almost immediately killed off, because the villain outsmarts them. The modern action hero is a regular guy we are supposed to identify with; after the professionals are defeated, we wonder how our hero can succeed, and we enjoy watching him do so. Bond is unusual from a dramatic point of view in that he begins with all the aces and a general plan of attack.

Yet people flock to the cinema to enjoy his adventures. I imagine that audiences in the United States do not aspire to work for MI6, any more than audiences in Huddersfield or Derby aspire to having a job, and yet his adventures are popular throughout the world. Audiences are thrilled by Bond's narrow escapes and derring-do. They admire the style of Bond, his clothes and his cars and his easy way with women. I have often wondered how black audiences respond to the Bond films. If I ever meet a coloured gentleman I will have to ask him. The idea of wearing a sharp suit and having tonnes of girls and a neat car transcends race, but what did black audiences think of jolly-good-show Roger Moore or tight-assed pursed-lipped Timothy Dalton? On a socioeconomic level the actors who have played Bond were drawn from the working classes, but on screen only Connery retained his working class edge. He gave the impression that he would have been barred from posh hotels; he tried very hard to be upper-middle-class, but there was always the animalistic brutality of the working classes underneath his suit and tie. He was supposed to be Commander Bond of the Royal Navy, but he came across as a stoker who had spent his youth hanging around with well-dressed spivs, which would explain why he was good with his fists.


Several actors have played Bond. When British people discuss the Bond films conversation inevitably turns to the question of which actors was the best. The obvious answer is Sean Connery. For some people this is too obvious. It's like saying that Viva Hate is your favourite Morrissey album, or that Mozart is your favourite classical composer. It's tempting to pick one of the other actors to show that you have thought about your choice, rather than picking the first name that cames to mind. The problem is that the other actors are so grossly inadequate that it would be absurd to choose any of them, so Connery it is. But Connery is too easy. And yet the other choices are no good. This kind of thing keeps people awake at night.

I sat "grossly inadequate". Perhaps I'm being unfair, but ranking the Bond actors is a bit like ranking the actors of Star Wars; if we assume that Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were guest stars, the list would consist entirely of Harrison Ford, because none of the other actors were in the same league. The Bond actors are apparently great guys in real life, but only Connery had genuine screen presence. He had poise and grace, and it was fascinating to simply watch him; Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan had a little of what made Connery special, but only a little, and it was always overwhelmed by the film.

The older Bond films cost a fortune to make but always looked cheap. The model effects were almost uniformly awful, and even when it was obvious that millions of pounds were up there on the screen - the giant sets of You Only Live Twice or The Spy Who Loved Me, for example - the films looked as if they had been shot by television directors. I have always assumed that the production staff, like the actors, were chosen for their expendability. Until the modern Bonds, the directors were not notable outside the franchise. The only members of the creative team that seemed to have major independent careers were the composers. If Brosnan and Moore do not stand out, it is because they were not really supposed to.

Sean Connery retired from acting several years ago. It's hard to evaluate him as an actor, because he always played a variation of Sean Connery. He wasn't entirely one-note, however. His character in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is Sean Connery, but it's not the same Sean Connery that appears in The Man Who Would be King or The Untouchables. Connery was genuinely good as Bond, and is the main reason that the franchise still exists. Sadly he was often wasted in the role. He might have pulled off a more nuanced, more book-like portrayal of the character, but Connery's films became progressively sillier until Bond was a trivial appendix to a bunch of sets and explosions. He eventually grew frustrated with the role and left, and then came back, and left, and several years later came back, and left again. There have been occasional rumours that he might appear as a villain or as a supporting character but they have come to nothing, and I imagine the next time he appears in the newspapers it will be because he has passed away.

Connery was worried that Bond would be the end of him, and in a way he was right. During his time as Bond he struggled to establish a parallel career as a leading man - despite getting to work with Alfred Hitchcock - and throughout the 1970s his star power waned. In the 1980s he was reduced to supporting roles, which ironically saved his career; he had a short cameo in the cheap but enjoyable Highlander (1986), and thereafter became one of Hollywood's most in-demand supporting actors. Without Bond it's hard to see how his career might have gone. A decade earlier he might have had some of the roles that went to Stanley Baker, but there wasn't much demand for uncomplicated action heroes in British cinema of the 1960s, and without the Bond persona he wasn't urbane enough to become a young meteor along the lines of Terence Stamp or David Hemmings. His hairy-chested, woman-slapping masculinity was embarrassing even at the time. Unlike Michael Caine he didn't really embody the new upwardly-mobile working class, and he had no desire to do stage work, or branch out into a singing career. I have no idea how Connery would have paid the bills without Bond.

George Lazenby's career is fascinating. He was Sean Connery condensed into a single act. He began as a male model and appeared in a few commercials; with a supreme effort he willed himself into the role of Bond. Connery's casting was a fluke, but from that point onwards the producers decided to pick actors who were not famous enough to demand a huge salary. Actors who could be disposed of, and who were aware of this. Lazenby was the apotheosis of this trend. When he became disillusioned with film stardom the Bond producers let him go and didn't ask him to come back. George Lazenby had the good fortune to appear in one of the best films of the series, one of the few that would work as a general action thriller outside the Bond canon; he is good in the fights but feels very one-note otherwise. Lazenby concluded that the Bond franchise had no future, and in his defence the next few Bond films were terrible - if he had not left he would have gone on to star in Diamonds are Forever, which is awful, and perhaps Live and Let Die, assuming the series had continued that far.

It is difficult to write about Daniel Craig's performance as Bond. As with Christopher Eccleston in the rebooted Dr Who, or Christopher Lee's Hammer version of Dracula, there is nothing to compare him with. He plays Bond with a wry detachment, as if he has seen it all several times before. He is a block of granite. Craig successfully plays a man who has a human core locked behind a wall of granite. So successful that on the few occasions his version of Bond is shown to lose his cool, it still feels like acting. In contrast Connery was granite all the way through, and Roger Moore just seemed uninterested in his surroundings. Craig gives the impression that he could, with an effort of will, become a normal person again. My hunch is that Craig's Bond is scared of growing old and weak, scared of ending up like Mr White, sitting alone in an unfurnished flat just waiting to die. Every so often there is a news story about a pensioner who died in his flat and was not discovered for weeks. Bond strikes me as a man who would end up like that. Assuming he did not die in the line of duty, he would outlive his superiors, outlive his organisation, and end up as a lonely old man with a pension of nightmares waiting for him.

Roger Moore is a great mystery to me. He was James Bond on the telly when I was a kid, and perhaps because of this I can't step back and view him objectively. In his first couple of films the producers tried to make him a cruel hard man, but it simply didn't work. He was never a convincing man of action, and as an actor he never struck me as any more complex than George Lazenby. In my opinion a good Bond actor needs to have four attributes. He should look good in a suit; he should be convincingly tough; he should be irresistible to women; he should act like a dedicated professional. Bond is, after all, continually beset with temptations, and could probably use his position to become a multi-millionaire crime boss, but instead he is a civil servant for Her Majesty's government earning a relative pittance. This element makes him fascinating. Harry Palmer was drafted into the intelligence services against his will, but Bond volunteered, and deep down he is driven by something other than greed or hate. Bond has no close friends or family, so he's not driven by a desire to protect his loved ones; in fact he doesn't love anyone. Does he fight for Britain because he believes in Britain, or because he detests foreigners? Is he simply an overgrown boy for whom MI6 is a surrogate father? Didn't Kingsley Amis write a book about this? I haven't read it.

Timothy Dalton was in two Bond films. The first had been written for Roger Moore, the second was an original story. There was a great show of making Dalton's version of Bond more complex and truer to the books, although this only came through fitfully. Licence to Kill has something of the modern Bonds but feels small, something it shares with Quantum of Solace. A case of right idea, wrong pussy; despite a nifty truck chase the execution was dull. Dalton had all of the characteristics of modern Bond but they didn't gel. If he had been a member of the Royal Family he would have been Prince Edward.

There were plans for a third Dalton film set in Hong Kong to be released in the early 1990s, but this fell through and the series instead entered a six-year hiatus. Dalton seems not to have cared overmuch about losing the role, so I have to assume he was paid a fortune for his two films and didn't have to work again. He isn't blamed for the long hiatus, but in general not many people miss him as Bond. He took himself very seriously and came across as a pompous windbag.

It's fashionable nowadays to shit on Pierce Brosnan. In publicity for his films he came across as a timid corporate man who was eager to toe the line; post-Bond there was an air of melancholic bitterness about him, but he still comes across as a man who has signed a contract forbidding him from uttering certain truths. He is the only Bond to have been sacked from the role, which is doubly unfair because his last film made a tonne of money and its failings were not his fault. Nonetheless he woke up one morning to find that another actor had been hired as Bond. I mentally associate Brosnan's Bond with the Sony Playstation and the Spice Girls, and of course Tony Blair, although Goldeneye was actually released when John Major was Prime Minister. Still, when Tony Blair thought of James Bond, he thought of Pierce Brosnan. Perhaps this is why Bond fans hate Brosnan so much. He promised and lot and delivered one great film and tantalising glimpses of greatness, but just like Tony Blair he was necessary and then it all went sour. If he was a Batman film, he would be Batman Forever.

It's hard to appreciate just how much impact Goldeneye had at the time; even the computer game was awesome. The post-modern synthesiser score was infamously divisive and hasn't aged well, but on the whole Goldeneye is one of the series' best films. Along with Tomorrow Never Dies it sold a lot of DVD players. Tomorrow Never Dies, the next film, had an awful villain but was otherwise almost as good, with a neat Bond action girl and an exciting opening sequence. Brosnan's third film, The World... have I missed one? The problem is that Brosnan's films were competent action thrill rides, but I find it hard to separate them.

Pierce Brosnan was an amalgam of the actors that had come before him. He was good-looking, charming, bland. Mildly upset, mildly amused, occasionally perturbed. There was an odd, fake air about him that may or may not have been clever acting - Bond is a facade - and given that he tends to give cryptic answers to interview questions, we may never know. The Bond films don't have time for character studies, and in any case complexity of character is not Bond's defining attribute. He is a do-er, his actions speak louder than words. Spectre acknowledges as much in a pensive moment when Bond's latest squeeze asks him what he will do if he stops; he admits that he hasn't thought about it, and the conversation moves on. What is there to say about a man who is not real?