Bond Begins Again?

If you’re interested in the exploits of 007, then you probably already know that Sony Corporation, the which already owns Columbia Pictures and TriStar Studios, recently purchased Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio behind the long-running James Bond franchise. MGM had been in trouble for over a decade: the company changed ownership several times, sold off the rights to many of their classic films (like THE WIZARD OF OZ), and in general could not achieve the level of success that would restore them to their former glory. Considering all this, it’s clear that the one jewel in their crown, the asset that would make them attractive to Sony, was the superhero secret agent, whose last four films, all starring Pierce Brosnan, earned over $100-million each in the U.S. alone.
Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the sale, titled “Sony to Find ‘007’ Heirs Have a License to Kill.” The gist of the piece is that the new studio is eager to put their imprint on the franchise, but producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have the contractual clout to handle the films as they see fit, including casting the character, developing scripts, and hiring directors.

Claudia Eller’s article makes some interesting points. For example, Sony supposedly hopes to expand the appeal of the Bond character, aiming to match the blockbuster success of their recent Spider-Man films. How they expect to do this is not clear; apparently it has something to do with moving the character away from “explosions, careening Aston Martins, and buxom models”—that is, moving Bond away from everything that makes the franchise the international success it has been for decades. Thank goodness Wilson and Broccoli are there to prevent this kind of foolish tampering.

That’s not to say that the franchise doesn’t need some help. The Bond films fell into a routine sort of formula years ago, and they only rarely break out from it. Part of the problem is that they’re a factory product, assembled piece by piece by hired guns who are only allowed to put so much creativity into each new product. Maybe it’s time to hire a real specialist and turn him loose—someone like John Woo, who could bring a really distinctive visual style to the familiar action clichés.

Although the article is informative, it does raise some unanswered questions regarding the future direction of the Bond films—which apparently are about to undergo a substantial facelift. Although producers Broccoli and Wilson may resist some of Sony’s ideas, they are interested in updating the franchise in their own way. To reach today’s younger audiences, they want to drop 51-year-odl Pierce Brosnan in favor of a younger actor, preferably in his late 20s or early 30s.

It seems odd that the producers would cast Brosnan aside after investing so much time and effort establishing him in the role. After Roger Moore’s last, tired effort, 1985’s A VIEW TO A KILL, and the two Dalton films that followed, many viewers were ready to write off the character. A six-year hiatus and the casting of Brosnan helped generate renewed interest when GOLDENEYE was released in 1995, turning the film into a major hit. Although none of the Brosnan films have been up to par with the best of Bond, all have been worth seeing, and some have even shown hints of potential greatness to come. It’s sad to let him go before he fully achieved his goal, which in his own words was “taking the belt” away from Sean Connery, the first (and many feel still the best) actor to play the role in feature films.

“Connery`s got the belt; I want the belt. It’s as simple as that,” Brosnan told me during a press junket for one of the Bond films. “The whole bloody thing’s a game. You go in knowing that there’s only one man in the ring. There’s that analogy, which is kind of dramatic and makes for good copy, but there’s also just one’s own self esteem and respect for the character, respect for the millions of people who loved the character. Doing GOLDENEYE was huge. The tension was there from Day One when I put the phone down after my agents said, ‘You’ve got the job,’ right through to finishing the press junket. And Connery was the Man: he was Bond; he was the one I grew up on. You have this kind of thing of wanting to take the belt, but you also have to find your own path with it and not get too blind-sided by the competition and someone else’s performance.”

As odd as the departure of Brosnan is, odder still is the choice of material for the next film. Although production has been pushed back to allow time to work out all the details of the Sony acquisition, producers Broccoli and Wilson have, according to the Times article, chosen to base the next film on Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, which has been previously been adapted for the both the big and the small screen—but never as a part of the “official” James Bond film series. The rights to the book were not available when Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli (father of Barbara and step-father of Michael Wilson) started making their movies. The book had already been made into a one-hour teleplay, starring Barry Nelson. Then in 1967, Charles K. Feldman produced an adaptation of the book that was basically a campy spoof of the Broccoli Bond films, starring Peter Sellers, David Niven, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen, among many, many others.

Bond fans have long believed (rightfully so) that Casino Royale deserved a better big-screen treatment. The problem with turning the book into a film, however, is that the novel’s take on Bond is extremely outdated. In his first appearance, Bond is a burned out Cold War era spy who is starting to doubt that his license to kill is achieving anything worthwhile. In traditional dramatic fashion, the plot confronts him with some unspeakably vile, nearly inhuman Communist agents. With the evil of his enemy so clearly defined, Bond concludes, understandably, that he is doing the world some good by opposing them. As good as the book is, its action is low-key compared to that of the films, and it clearly would take some work to update the plot for a contemporary audience. Fleming fans may cheer that Bond’s debut appearance is finally getting a serious big-screen treatment, but how to make the story work for an audience expecting a fast-paced action adventure is anybody’s guess.

Michael Wilson seemed well aware of the potential problems in adapting the book. When I raised the question during an interview a few years ago, he told me:

“Well, Casino Royale is an interesting property. It happens to be the first book. It sets Bond up, in a way. But if you look at the structure of it, the first half is about the caper, and the second have is a love story where Bond ends up being betrayed by the woman. He kind of shuts down. It explains a lot about him, because up to this point he’d only done a couple of missions and they weren’t very complex. In that sense, it might be thought of as a coming of age story. So just shooting it as the novel is probably not what people would expect from a Bond film. It wouldn’t have all the elements that people like to see.”

Wilson’s take on the novel perhaps explains the decision to hire a younger actor. The idea seems to be to "set Bond up" as if he were an all-new character who has only done "a couple of missions" and "comes of age" during the story. Past experience has shown that audiences will accept a new Bond, but the Hollywood device of casting a younger actor as a new version of a familiar character is becoming tired. The Bond franchise already did it once before, replacing the aging Roger Moore with Timothy Dalton in 1987’s THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. More recently, Ben Affleck took over from Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, a film that failed to scale the box office heights of its predecessors. And director Christopher Nolan’s upcoming BATMAN BEGINS takes a similar approach, presenting Bruce Wayne' costumed crimefighter (Christian Bale) as if there never had been any previous Batman films.

Whether or not Nolan can re-ignite the Caped Crusader’s on-screen career, at least BATMAN BEGINS is a no-lose proposition: since Joel Schumacher ran the series into the ground with BATMAN AND ROBIN, there is no where to go but up. But the wisdom of replacing Brosnan is harder to gauge, because there is more to lose. The actor hasn’t been around long enough to wear out his welcome as Bond; if anything, he seemed to be hitting his stride as his advancing age helped him grow into the part, leaving the super-smooth Remington Steele television image behind. With Brosnan's box office appeal in the role still strong, a more mature Bond might have been one way to let the character grow without risking any radical changes. Instead, it seems that we will be given an all-new version, aimed at audiences who enjoy watching young superheroes (like Spider-Man’s Peter Parker) learning to ropes and making mistakes while on the job.

Maybe they can title the new 007 flick BOND BEGINS AGAIN. It has a certain ring to it.