The death of James Bond came in 2002 with the release of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity. Within just a few months, depending where you were on the planet, came Die Another Day, the absurd fart that tragically rounded out Pierce Brosnan’s squandered turn as the world-revered British spy – 2 hours of silly invisible cars, laser-shooting satellites and Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning cleavage. The franchise had turned so far in on itself, aware of and responding to the very clichés and set pieces that it was responsible for bringing in to existence, that the whole thing was just a sad, self-conscious farce. Like with many celebrities, and franchises even, fame was not healthy for James Bond. People only went to the cinemas to see Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, I believe, to try and remember what Bond used to be, like picking up a picture of your beloved great-grandparents before they went mental and died.
In the awkward, collar-fiddling echo left by our 60-year-old protagonist lying on a beach picking flawless diamonds from the belly-button of his delicious, mocha-skinned, 30-year-old sidekick, Jason Bourne woke up on a fishing trawler in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with three bullet wounds in his back and no idea who he was, and all of a sudden the way in which we engaged with action movies changed. We left the world of self-assured, glossy action, where our heroes may well take out a battalion of nameless henchmen without even getting a trace of gunpowder residue on their cravat, and had suddenly been thrown in to a world where our hero didn’t even know who he was, let alone how action heroes should behave in his, or any, situation.
If I may go so far: Bourne’s amnesia beautifully symbolised the action genre itself waking up from a deep sleep, full of fantastical, far-fetched dreams, in to the real world. In this world, our hero’s abilities are indeed still fatal and slick (and thus, still entertaining to watch), but he is unaware of these abilities’ origins, he is reluctant to use them, and there is no back-catalogue of movies, spin-offs, video games or fan fiction to inform him or his writers how they should be applied. The knowing wink, the cheesy green, the hat-off to tradition and the reflexive nostalgia have all been, quite literally, forgotten.
Similarly, our villains are no longer cartoonish millionaires stroking cats in underground lairs, or platoon after platoon of uniformed cannon-fodder. Instead, the enemy is the government, the enemy is a result of one well-meant experiment that went terribly wrong, and the people responsible are just as unsure of how to handle the whole affair as our hero is. Compare this dissonance and underlying sense of governmental ineptitude to, say, oh, I dunno, a film called On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Times do change indeed. Our hapless henchmen, the supporting villainry, are now either innocent policemen simply doing their jobs, or, if we’re lucky, full-blown, well-rounded characters the likes of Clive Owen’s extraordinary and compunctious hitman who goes after Bourne in a tense farmhouse seige, then reflects with Bourne on the nature of their pointless, violent, shared existences before dying a meaningless death—as meaningless as the deaths of any of the hundreds of jumpsuit-clad Japanese henchfolk in the volcano climax of You Only Live Twice, but at the same time profoundly meaningful, because there is only the one of him.
Essentially, Bourne is an action hero in a world where action heroes quite simply don’t exist, and therefore there is no well-trod path to follow (should one wake up in the Mediterranean Sea as one). It is this contextual shift which allows Bourne’s adventures to delight, excite and amaze, through their tension and innovation, by exploiting moralistic grey areas surrounding notions of nationalism and duty, and throwing our characters in to real, recognisable cities where the people around them aren’t just women prime for the shagging and second-class enemy spies ripe for the garrotting, but hell, just real people, oblivious to the death and turmoil and subterfuge having taken root in their world. It’s as exciting as it was the first time Mr Bond donned that white dinner jacket, saved the world and won at poker, all in time for tea. But just for very different reasons.
The Bourne Identity was shot and edited, almost expressionistically, in a manner befitting the psychological conundrums of its protagonist. The action is gritty, fast-paced and extremely brief but, like real-world violence, when it arrives it is unmistakeable and incredibly watchable. Even Bourne’s specific martial arts style, a Filipino discipline known as Kali, is based on the implementation of everyday objects in combat, allowing us the pleasure of watching Bourne putting down Euro-trash hitmen with kitchen knives, flower vases, telephones and rolled up newspapers alike. Like the film itself, Bourne in combat is drawing from the real world to make everything a little more practical, a little more down-to-earth, to suspend the disbelief of increasingly well-entertained and film-literate audiences just that little bit more convincingly. What’s more, the action and intrigue is all there to illustrate a personal and harrowing character journey; throughout the Bourne trilogy (let us pray they leave it at that), Bourne will discover who he is, the things he has done, and he will fight to redeem himself, even if it kills him. It all makes the emotionless, patriotic mass-murder of the enigmatic Mr Bond sound like rather bad cinema, doesn’t it.
Of course, let us not overlook who was hired as director to round out the Bourne trilogy. Identity was a hit, but ostensibly a fluke – it was Paul Greengrass who really nailed this rebirthing of the genre in The Bourne Supremacy. Paul Greengrass, known also for Bloody Sunday and United 93, both films of extraordinary emotional impact, detailing with profound grit and realism two shocking events of cultural and historical significance; the 1972 Irish civil rights massacre and the 9/11 terrorist attacks respectively. Amusingly, the clout and seriousness with which Greengrass approached the Bourne films seemed to trigger what I thought an absurd advertising campaign for his and Matt Damon’s next collaboration, Green Zone, labeling it as “Bourne Goes Epic”. It seems the masses are more willing to accept the world of Jason Bourne as credible and watchable than they are the Iraq War.
And look, that’s all fine. But the fact remains that Bourne killed Bond. And I liked James Bond.
2008′s Quantum of Solace was essentially indistinguishable from its trailer -
- but trailers are supposed to be rapid-fire, non-sequitous shots of things exploding in places you don’t know the significance of. In fact, the only real time the film slowed down long enough for me to recognise goodie from baddie was a scene in which Bond spills his heart to the smouldery love interest Olga Kurylenko, about his lost love from the previous film, and his pain, and his mission for revenge, and she nods, and agrees that revenge is awesome. I am able to catch my breath, yes, but then it also hits me – what the fuck is going on here? You’re James Bond, dude, if she’s the good girl, then just shag her already, and if she’s the bad girl, then just shag her now and casually allow her to die in some horrific fashion later. You can even make a quip about it, so what’s the hold-up? In all seriousness though, I don’t actually have that much of a gripe with the content or plotlines of either of the post-Bourne Bond films, Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace – if crying about your feelings in a cave in the South American desert is what it takes to redeem the franchise, then hey, go for it.
But as well as taking the majority of their emotional cues from Bourne, modern action films, of which Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are two very profitable ones, also seem to be copying and pasting Greengrass’ visual style, and herein lies the real problem. If the scene is a lonesome, troubled hero, throwing down with a lone assassin in a kitchen somewhere in Berlin, then please, by all means, put the camera on your shoulder, whip-pan till your fingers fall off, shoot tight, cut fast, give the viewer a scintillating mess of immersive action. We are here in the character’s mind, in the real world of Robert Ludlum, Doug Liman and/or Paul Greengrass, where these things don’t actually happen, so to approach the scene with a level of naturalism is perfectly acceptable, even admirable.
If the scene is James Goddamn Bond, throwing down with a billionaire Eco-terrorist in an exploding hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, then put the camera on a fucking tripod and let us see what the fuck is going on. Quantum of Solace, though I found it immensely enjoyable, forgot that it was a James Bond film, and forgot that James Bond can be done well, but still be a romp, a hedonistic delight. We are never going to know James Bond, because he is a myth, a role played by many actors, who has appeared in film, literature and video games since 1953 and most likely will ad infinitum. He stands for enjoyment, the birth of blockbuster cinema, even. How can we ever, possibly, in the space of 100 minutes come to know him? And if we do not know him, then how can we ever enjoy his exploits without being shown their true scale and spectacle? The neo-Bond films stole the Bourne formula, but tried to retro-fit it to a cinematic emblem that is too strong and recognizable to be changed in a few short years by one minor trend. It only curdles the milk.
It is not only the Bond franchise that believes itself capable of Bourne’s “thinking man’s action film” heights. Just the other day I sat through The Expendables, Sly Stallone’s puzzling excuse for him and a few other aging pals to wear Ed Hardy, blow up some Spics and smash a crate or two of creotene in between every take. But plot aside, you’d think maybe the reason for assembling a dozen of the badassest living action icons on one soundstage would be so that they could do all their own stunts, you could shoot the shit out of it, and at the end of the day you’d have a real meal of an action film on your hands. Yeah? Yeah?
No. Despite its wheelbarrows full of mindless action, The Expendables was shot as if by a blind boy holding a camera phone at a Prodigy concert. Our dear cinematographer seemed content to hold one extreme close-up shot of Mickey O’Rourke’s quivering lips for his questionable-at-best character monologue, but as soon as Meathead #1 threw a fist at Meathead #2, no-one knows what the fuck’s going on. Occassionally you would catch a telling glint from off of Eric Robert’s silver helmet of hair amidst the enormous explosions and animated squibbage, but other than that, no dice.
The trend only gains momentum. And it pains me greatly to broaden the circle of perpetrators to include one of my absolute favourite filmmakers, but…
Batman Begins: awesome film, wretched fight scenes. The Dark Knight: incredible film, let down only by fight scenes that, whilst decent, still belonged to a lesser film. And now, the almighty Inception: absolutely extraordinary film, but again, I found the action sequences themselves visually lacklustre. A friend of mine pointed out, following our second viewing of Inception, that Christopher Nolan had created an action film where you sat patiently through the obligatory action scenes and car chases, waiting with baited breath for another scene of people talking about stuff. Go figure. But he was right. For a film so thoughtfully and magically executed, and with cash coming out of its ears, I expect more than a slipshod chase down a few snowy mountain slopes where I literally cannot tell our hero from the henchmen. Wally Pfister and Chris Nolan upped the ante on nearly every cerebral level with that film, but, alas, the action scenes were shaky, wide-angled, edit-fucked ring-ins.
Does Nolan lack confidence? Or is he merely following the trend? Have a gander at the final showdown from Batman Begins, a flurried assortment of juicy foley effects and slick cutting. You know who wins in the end, but you have no idea how it happened. Could they not afford a real fight choreographer or something? Just follow this link right here that I have highlighted with a rather funky blue.
In conclusion, I suppose, when a franchise or a genre kicks on for long enough, it must adapt to the changing times in order to remain hip, profitable and further sustainable. But this assimilation may require the selling of that franchise’s soul, like the resurrected James Bond, and the technicalities of such a trade may defy the well-loved and long-established hallmarks of that genre. Francois Truffaut said that the first James Bond film, Dr No, marked the beginning of the age of decadence in film and the death of true cinema. What shall we do, then, when that decadence that killed true cinema dies also? Action films, spy films, films that aim to entertain for entertainment’s sake, are usually safe from the definitions and physics of the dreaded real world; that’s what makes them decadent. But now that the real world is inherently trendy, we might see even the modern age of pleasure-seeking cinema fade in to a de-saturated, hand-held ether, purely for the sake of the hip-pockets of the male American 18-25 demographic. May they all collapse in simultaneous epileptic fits the next time Daniel Craig raises so much as an eyebrow, my sorry self included.