Where next, Mr. Bond?

The new Casino Royale is a great movie, not because it shows us how Bond became Bond per se, but because that story is a compelling one. As has been much remarked, this new film is a “bold departure” from the formula of the last four decades, including the entries in the Bond canon that were themselves supposed to be bold departures but weren’t, really (e.g., The Living Daylights). Mick LaSalle gets it right in his review for the SF Chronicle:

He’s a working-class guy who has made his way into upper-class circles but retains some residual coarseness that will never smooth out.

So does Stephanie Zacharek in Salon.com:

We’re meeting Bond near the beginning of his career, just after he’s been promoted to double-0 status, and he’s clearly having trouble putting his thuggish instincts to use in international espionage.

He’s a super agent not because he’s the pinnacle of refined British gentlemanhood, but because he’s emphatically not and sees a chance to be — a tough guy with enough brains to know he can be more than just a tough guy, he can be dangerous, and wants to be. His dedication to Queen and country isn’t pure virtuous nationalism, it’s the dumb, grateful loyalty of a cared-for brute. It rings much truer this way.

In this new Bond is a conflict for the ages, one that can speak to all of us on some level: the struggle to balance our animal nature and our rational nature; to somehow put the id to work in the service of the superego without smothering it altogether, which is something we tend to do in our over-civilized culture. Indeed, watching Bond keeping his snarling id straining at the end of its leash — and occasionally letting it loose — was the primeval pleasure of the original Sean Connery Bond movies. New Bond Daniel Craig embodies that even better than Connery did. (There, I said it.)

This is a fertile new storytelling angle on James Bond. My fear is that, having taken this bold step and won over so many critics, moviegoers, and dollars, the Bond franchise will retreat to safe territory again. But there’s no reason the next story couldn’t expand on the themes introduced in this one. Just to pick one obvious example, a theme for the next film could be “you can take the man out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the man,” á là Tarzan, or even Pygmalion. Bond, having earned entrée to the high-class world of international espionage, is made to feel out of place somehow because of his humble origin, but in the end learns that to earn one’s place is more authentic than to be entitled to it. (This is all subtext, you understand, while Bond does violent, unsubtle battle with some dastardly mastermind, the world hanging in the balance as usual.)

Four decades of an impassive hero inhabiting a world of spectacular chases, willing women, and gee-whiz gadgets is enough, no matter how much aplomb he brings to the table. Suave and imperturbable may be “what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets,” and it’s fun to watch for a while, but story-wise it’s not that interesting. Here’s hoping that the most interesting thing in the next James Bond movie will again be Bond’s own psychology.

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