Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Essay Day - "Bond on Bond: Quantum of Solace and the Illusive Case of the Bondian Ideal"

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for ‘Essay Day’ here at Fade to Lack. As explained here, I have written a large number of essays during my time at the University of Colorado as a student in film studies, and I thought it time to share the best of those with my readers, so throughout the summer, I’ll be posting a new essay every Wednesday, all focused on film in one form or another, but often incorporating other research and fields of study.

This week’s piece comes from one of my favorite classes I’ve taken at the University of Colorado – a summer course called “Genre, Theory, History: Lives of 007,” which, as the name implies, explored the cinematic world of James Bond. It was an extremely fun class, as one might imagine, but also an intellectually fascinating one, because exploring the 007 series from serious angles of film theory and history, cultural critique, phenomenological study, etc. proved to be endlessly engaging. The assignment for this final paper was, if memory serves, to create and argue a topic relevant to what had been discussed in class, using readings and films from the course. My topic stemmed from an interest in the genre theory of James Bond, which often leads criticism of the series down what I believe is a self-defeating path of trying to define what is and is not ‘Bondian’ – something that also came up during class quite a few times, particularly when bashing Quantum of Solace, a film I hardly love, but neither revile in the way many do, and which I certainly don’t think is the antithesis of ‘Bondian’ as many insist. That would be Live and Let Die. But more on that in the essay itself. Enjoy...

Read “Bond on Bond: Quantum of Solace and the Illusive Case of the Bondian Ideal” after the jump...

“The illusion ... is the thing that I have learnt from Cubby Broccoli ... that there are things that are Bondian and things that are not Bondian (Woollacott 121).”

In the fall of 2008, the James Bond film series was riding, to borrow a phrase from a theme song written 25 years prior, an all-time high. Casino Royale, the latest and most drastic brand reboot, had debuted two years earlier to near-universal critical acclaim and $599 million in worldwide box-office receipts, the highest in series history unadjusted for inflation (“Casino Royale”). With a darker, more down-to-earth 007 in Daniel Craig and a story adapted faithfully from Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, the film’s “‘back to basics’ approach” proved an unmitigated success on all fronts, strengthening the creative core of the long-running series while continuing the upwards commercial trajectory that had been enjoyed since 1995’s GoldenEye (Chapman, Licence to Thrill, 241). The follow-up feature, Quantum of Solace, arrived on a wave of tremendous goodwill and intense anticipation, in one of the most eager and optimistic atmospheres the James Bond films have ever experienced. 

Reaction, however, was decidedly mixed. While the film enjoyed similar box-office earnings as its predecessor ($586 million), responses in the critical and fan community varied wildly, from muted appreciation – “...we’ll just say you have some thrills and rough fun in store,” wrote Richard Corliss of Time – to outright doom-and-gloom vitriol, as in Joe Morgenstern of The Wall-Street Journal’s bold proclamation that “another Bond as drab as this could sink the franchise...” Or, for perhaps the most extreme version of Quantum-backlash, look to the late Roger Ebert, who began his review by emphatically begging, “Don’t ever let this happen again to James Bond.”

Debate over whether Quantum of Solace delivered a decent sequel or heralded series apocalypse aside, the one sentiment that crops up in every contemporary review and reaction, positive or negative, is that Quantum of Solace is a different kind of Bond movie – if it is a Bond movie at all. Overwhelmingly, viewer response indicated that Quantum failed to live up to the ‘Bondian’ ideal, whatever that might mean. Audiences have a mental image of what a James Bond movie is or should be, and for many, Quantum of Solace failed to hit that mark. As Dana Stevens of Slate put it, “we’re drawn by fantasy, pleasure, and fun, none of which figures on the to-do list of the new James Bond...”

Indeed, Quantum of Solace is unquestionably an outlier for the series. Largely bereft of humor, glamour, gadgetry, and showcasing an unfamiliar attitude towards action, espionage, geopolitical issues, and, of course, women, the film often runs counter to our communal definitions of what makes up a James Bond movie. But this is not the first time such deviations have occurred, nor shall it likely be the last, for the fact of the matter is that assigning any holistic, unitary definition to the James Bond film series is a thankless and futile task. Bond does not exist as a singular, static figure, nor are his adventures, formulaic as they often are, subject to wholesale unitization. “...The figure of Bond has been differently constructed at different moments in the Bond phenomenon,” writes Bond scholars Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott. “‘James Bond’ has been a variable and mobile signifier rather than one that can fixed as unitary and constant in its signifying functions and effects (31).”

The problem, then, is clear: If one is to dismiss an outlier like Quantum of Solace as ‘anti-Bondian,’ one must have an easily defendable definition of what ‘Bondian’ means in the first place. And the same goes the other way around – labeling any piece of the series ‘Bondian’ or ‘non-Bondian’ automatically implies a larger, series-wide understanding of what does and does not conform to the ‘canon.’

I argue that such definitions are largely illusory, but not entirely so. For the 007 phenomenon to exist and have meaning as a developing whole, there must be at least one constant among the many, many variables the series has played host to. In using Quantum of Solace as a case-study for what I shall call the ‘Bondian outlier’ – and comparing it to other, similar moments of identity crisis in the life of the series, namely 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1973’s Live and Let Die, and 1989’s Licence to Kill – what emerges is a realization that while technology, style, politics, production methods, and even genre are all subject to change, what remains constant across the 23 canonical Eon film productions is James Bond himself, and that the series remains versatile and resilient because Bond can be heavily reworked and recontextualized without losing sight of a recognizable core.

The Quantum Checklist

As Janet Woollacott notes, the term ‘Bondian’ originates from Eon itself, “used by (producer Albert R.) Broccoli and other members of the production team to mean ‘in the spirit of James Bond’ (119).” Not just the character – the films as a whole “were seen as a distinctive formula, a specific genre of film (Woollacott 119).” There is nothing else quite like the James Bond films. They are unique, for reasons that cannot easily be nailed down. What it means to be ‘Bondian’ is so elusive, in fact, that the clearest Saul Cooper, publicity director for the series, could come to describe it was by explaining “that there are things that are Bondian and things that are not Bondian (Woollacott 121).” It is not something that can be resolutely defined – one simply knows it when one sees it.

And over the years, the boundaries of what is and is not Bondian have changed and grown increasingly complex, a reality not only of the series’ exceptionally long-life span, but a requirement for continued success. As James Chapman explains, “the Bond movies have to find the right balance between repetition and variation, between continuity and change, so that they can simultaneously provide the sort of entertainment pattern which audiences expect while at the same time providing new thrills, new set pieces, new variations on old situations (“A licence to thrill,” 112).” The ‘Bondian’ ideal, therefore, is comprised of an ever-changing relationship between constants – the James Bond ‘formula,’ in the simplest sense – and variables, such as individual storylines, settings, action, etc.

Over time, the gap between the two has grown increasingly stark. What was once constant may have morphed into something else entirely – the evolution of the Bond girl from attractive accessory in the Connery years to essential sidekick and relative equal starting with 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me – and what may have appeared variable once upon a time – a story in which the villain steals a dangerous weapon and threatens world powers with it, for instance – has since been subsumed into the series formula as a constant. Because the world has changed so drastically in the 50 years the series has existed – consider how the political attitudes of the films have shifted in tandem with the real world, from the stark Cold War tensions of the 1960s, to the dètente attitudes in the 1970s, to hostile East/West aggressions in the 1980s, to the capitalistic or anarchistic threats of the 1990s and 2000s – there are probably more variables to the James Bond series at this point than there are constants, even if the general trademarks of martinis, girls, and guns remain. Times change, attitudes change, and the cinematic landscape is very rarely static. The James Bond series is successful because the producers have been both observant and prescient enough to react to changes in the world around them, maintaining hold over the series’ foundations while simultaneously allowing for increased variation in how those foundations are represented or reshaped. As Chapman puts it, “the films have remained at the forefront of popular cinema because the producers have followed a strategy of continually modernizing the formula (“A licence to thrill,” 113).”

An examination of the constants and variables that fuel the James Bond phenomenon is, then, the simplest and most effective way to gauge the Bondian parameters – and, subsequently, judge whether or not a film like Quantum of Solace exists outside of them. As we shall see, it is when the balance between continuity and change appears ‘off,’ weighted in favor of the variables rather than the constants, that a James Bond film may appear to audiences as ‘non-Bondian.’   

We shall first take a look at the general constants, laying them out as clearly as possible as a foundation upon which to judge outliers like Quantum. The simplest and most practical place to start is with the formula itself, which Umberto Eco has conveniently laid out for us as a series of thematic, literal, or narrative oppositions conventional to Fleming’s original work. While the film series has veered from many aspects of Fleming’s writing since the very beginning, the 14 oppositional relationships Eco identifies – including Bond-M, Bond-Villain, Villain-Woman, Woman-Bond, Great Britain-Non-Anglo-Saxon Countries, Love-Death, Perversion-Innocence, and Loyalty-Disloyalty – are all central to the framework of the Eon pictures, which add additional oppositions, such as Bond-Q and Bond-Moneypenny, that are absent in the novels (Eco 36-7).

Fleming’s literary habits are plenty fleshed-out on their own, but by the time of Goldfinger in 1964, Eon had fully developed their own mainstay of narrative and cinematic conventions that would serve as the ‘formula’ for everything to come, and established a unique cinematic identity in the process. These conventions, listed below for subsequent reference, are the most commonly used tools to gauge what makes up a Bond film. The question we must ask when looking at them is whether the ‘Bondian’ concept is based solely in a checklist of conventional elements, or in issues more complex and substantive.

Narrative Conventions
  • The establishment of the mission parameters through meetings with M, Miss Moneypenny, and Q.
  • A central villain of foreign descent with a distinctive personality, and often a physical deformity and/or sexual dysfunction.
  • An early encounter between Bond and the villain to size each other up, often through an amiable challenge mutually accepted
  • The ‘Freak Assassin’ – powerful henchman Bond shall fight who have physical deformities or personal oddities, such as Red Grant, Jaws, Tee Hee, Nick Nack, Oddjob, or Xenia Onatopp.
  • Two to Three women for Bond to romance and, usually, sleep with. One is always good or becomes good, another is typically bad, and a third might go either way. At least one shall die at the hands of the villain(s).
  • Humorous dialogue comprised of sexual innuendo and double entendres, as well as pun-based quips following fights.
  • Silly, tongue-in-cheek names for female characters, like Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder, Plenty O’Toole, or Holly Goodhead.
  • Self-referential humor and in-jokes, usually to the James Bond series itself (but sometimes to the filmmakers, like the ‘Bwana’ gag in From Russia With Love)
  • Other countries depicted as ‘beneath’ the United Kingdom. The United States consistently portrayed as subservient, with typical American stand-in Felix Leiter always serving as an ‘errand boy.’
  • The climatic destruction of the villain’s lair, usually involving an elaborate and over-the-top explosion
  • High-class drinks – usually cocktails.
  • Scenes at the card table; Bond playing Baccarat, Chemin de fer, etc.

Cinematic Conventions 
  • The introductory gun-barrel walk
  • An elaborate pre-credits sequence, often involving an elaborate stunt or set-piece disconnected from the main narrative
  • A musical main-title sequence, filled with nude or scantily-clad women, typically in silhouette, set to a song named after the film and performed by a popular musician
  • The elaborate villain’s lair, typically a post-modern design in the style of Ken Adam (or, from 1990s onwards, a more ‘functional’ design a la Peter Lamont)
  • Real, physical stunts, practical pro-filmic effects, miniatures and models, etc.
  • Exotic international locations
  • Use of the wide Anamorphic frame (2.40:1, used in all but five features)

What makes Quantum of Solace such a fascinating case study in dissecting the nature of ‘Bondian’ is that it conforms to nearly all of these basic series conventions. The mission begins with M and her orders, even if Bond will disobey them frequently; fancy drinks are repeatedly drunk; innuendo and quips abound, if more muted and infrequent than is standard; the villain is distinctly foreign and his relationship with Camille suggests impotence or sexual anxiety; two major female characters factor into the proceedings, one who dies and one who is initially aligned with the antagonist (though Bond only sleeps with Agent Strawberry Fields, who strongly conforms to both the silly name and horrific death conventions); and the United States is not just made subservient, but depicted as so morally wayward that they team with international criminals out of greed (poor Felix Leiter has no choice but to leak American intelligence to Bond, knowing he is on the ‘wrong side’). All the standard cinematic conventions are present as well, from the pre-credits sequence (featuring a spectacular, if poorly edited, practical car chase in Siena) to a focus on real stunts (minus the CGI-assisted airplane set-piece), to location shooting around the world. The villain even has an impossibly elaborate lair – the desert hotel that houses the climax is certainly not a common sight – and in typical Bond fashion, its fiery destruction is a centerpiece of the third act.

From the checklist, what Quantum of Solace lacks is relatively minor – no freak assassin, no Moneypenny or Q (both yet to be introduced in the Daniel Craig era), no physical deformity on the villain – and with the exception of the gun-barrel walk being moved to the end, there is precedent for these particular conventions being omitted over the course of the series (Moneypenny is absent from Casino Royale as well, Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have no freak assassin, Q sits out Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only has a physically normative villain, etc.).

Were the issue of ‘Bondian’ versus ‘not-Bondian’ as simple as hitting points on a checklist, though, there would be no question of any 007 film’s place in the canon. The constants are constant because we see them again and again and again, and even a piece of ‘revisionist’ Bond like Quantum of Solace is unlikely to abandon them. Not every film in the series fulfills every point – and as mentioned earlier, certain ‘constants’ evolve over time – but each installment satisfies most points.

Yet here we are, debating the issue of what does and does not feel ‘Bondian’ for neither the first nor last time, because the degree of variables introduced into any given Bond film is far more likely to change. In the case of Quantum of Solace, the obvious variables are tonal, as the film features an atmosphere unlike most of its predecessors. Bond films can and have been serious – From Russia With Love and The Living Daylights are both fan-favorites for playing things relatively straight-faced, the Connery films rarely lacked for dramatic tension, and Casino Royale is executed as epic tragedy – but Quantum of Solace is positively grim, and that is not necessarily something we have seen before.

A direct sequel to its predecessor, picking up only an hour or so after Casino Royale left off, the film is reflective of Bond’s current state of mind: Sad, angry, confused, and brutal after the death of Vesper Lynd. Dealing with themes of loss, trust, and revenge, Quantum is an extremely dark film, where redemption seems illusive until the very end, and moments of satisfying triumph are rare. Bond does not merely exercise his license to kill this time around, but often kills indiscriminately, making for some of the most graphically violent fight scenes and executions of the series, moments that do not necessarily seek to thrill or entertain the audience, but to shove the viewer’s face in the ugly brutality of the situation.

Certainly this stems in part from Casino Royale, which established a decidedly non-flippant attitude towards violence and character study (with 2012’s Skyfall now in the mix, this is gradually becoming less a variable and more an era-specific constant). But where that film had a large amount of glamour in the Montenegro setting and card-table narrative thrust, alongside a healthy dose of wry comedy – all tonal constants across the series – Quantum of Solace is almost entirely devoid of humor, and its occasional presentation of glamorous settings is never meant to come across as alluring or aspirational. While Casino Royale focused on the duality of Bond – a handsome face and cultured personality masking the deeply disturbed assassin underneath – Quantum of Solace deals exclusively with the man’s violent side. Vesper’s death sends him spiraling into his own darkest depths, meaning the sense of humor, capacity for romance, and other ‘attractive’ qualities so key to the brand’s long-lasting appeal are willingly left by the wayside.

Whether such tonal and thematic choices engage the viewer is a matter of personal taste, and irrelevant to this discussion. Like it or not, these elements of Quantum are variables, and they are so central to the foundation of the film that they tip the traditional scales from continuity towards change. Never before have Bond’s actions been so deeply rooted in personal history – at least, personal history that we saw in another movie – nor has his general mood lent the film around him such a grim, despondent atmosphere.

The action set-pieces are not a huge deviation from the series norm – contrary to Roger Ebert’s insistence that “James Bond is not an action hero,” 007’s penchant for death-defying stunts and dangerous, bullet-riddled scenarios is absolutely a constant – but the way they are shot and edited, coupled with the bleak and gritty tone, makes Quantum of Solace feel like something out of a different genre, or at least a separate sub-genre. If being ‘Bondian’ means to prescribe to the unique genre that is Bond, Quantum of Solace exists on the outside. It is still a spy thriller, to be sure, but its rapid editing style, handheld camera work, obsession with government communication technology, and paranoia of intelligence agencies abusing their power suggests the film belongs not to the James Bond brand, but to the realm of an entirely different action hero.

The Jason Bourne trilogy, released from 2002-2007 and having reached its pinnacle of popularity just as Quantum of Solace went into production, had largely re-written the rules for American action cinema in the 21st century. They rejected the outlandish, over-the-top stories and characters of the 80s and 90s in favor of a protagonist who, while extraordinary, was still recognizably human, and action that thrilled not with excess, but gritty, realistic precision. Fueled by post-9/11 paranoia, Jason Bourne and his exploits hit a nerve with audiences, and grew increasingly successful as the decade progressed. A slew of imitators quickly arrived – the ‘shaky-cam’ craze of the mid-2000s can be at least partially attributed to The Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass’ then-novel implementation of documentary aesthetics in action scenes – and the James Bond series quickly took notice. Martin Campbell avoided fast cuts and kept his camera still and steady throughout Casino Royale, but the demand for ‘realism’ and dark protagonists the Bourne films helped usher in clearly played a part in Eon’s choice to re-ground 007. Quantum of Solace simply dived in head-first, far over the deep end, to the Bourne-esque aesthetics audiences were now accustomed to.

Bond does not need to be ridiculous or outlandish to feel comfortably ‘Bondian,’ but I would argue it must feel unique – and by playing by a different action franchise’s rules, Quantum of Solace stepped outside the Bondian sub-genre. More than any other variable, this is what makes Quantum and other Bondian outliers feel so remote. Genre – or, at least, a loose conception of genre – should be a constant for this brand, and it becomes immediately apparent when something as foundational as genre suddenly shifts into variable territory.

But this is not, of course, the first time Bond has stepped into a different cinematic realm, nor is it uncommon for the Bond films to subsume the popular filmic culture of the time. Moonraker, produced in the post-Star Wars space fantasy boom, is the easy example, though not the valuable one, given that the lighthearted refinements of the Roger Moore era rendered 007’s mission to space par for the course. No, there are other examples much closer to the curious case of Quantum of Solace – and in them, we might just find the constant that connects both series outliers and classics alike.

From a View on the Outs

Quantum of Solace may be the popular punching bag these days for examples of improperly balanced Bond films, but it has absolutely nothing on 1989’s Licence to Kill, the strangest, darkest, and most abjectly cynical entry in the entire series. Like Quantum, it is a revenge film, though one of an even bleaker variety. The film sees 007’s eponymous license revoked when he goes after drug lord Franz Sanchez, who, in a scene taken from Fleming’s original Live and Let Die novel, fed Felix Leiter to sharks on the man’s wedding day, shortly after raping and murdering Leiter’s bride. If the set-up isn’t horrifying enough, the follow-through most certainly is, as Bond’s vengeance prompts him to destroy Sanchez’s entire operation piece by piece, killing dozens upon dozens of people in the process (and manipulating one underling into a position where he is graphically executed, the single most violent moment in the entire series) and ultimately immolating Sanchez alive without pity or remorse.

Quantum of Solace may be dark, but its tone is at least contextualized within the diegesis of the series, and the film builds to a human-scale ending of absolution and forgiveness that resolves Bond’s arc of violent, depressive behavior. This lends it at least a modicum of constancy within the series, as Bond’s action and the ensuing tone are recognized as aberrations, and Bond is normalized back towards the realm of status quo at the film’s conclusion.

There is no such context to Licence to Kill, nor any serious attempt at viewing the variables through the prism of constancy. Bond simply snaps, goes on a mad international killing spree, and promptly returns to martinis and lovemaking when the carnage is complete. This certainly offers 007 fans a (very) unique look at their favorite hero – and the film undeniably plays to Timothy Dalton’s strengths, considering his interpretation of Bond is easily the darkest – but on the whole, it only occasionally feels ‘Bondian.’ These movies may be largely consequence free, but when coupled with the sheer excess of the film’s nihilistic brutality, Bond’s lack of accountability in Licence to Kill becomes a major variable, feeling spiritually closer to the violent American cop dramas of the 1980s, like Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, or the television series Miami Vice.

It is one of the clearest examples of the 007 films subsuming the filmic culture of the period, abandoning the brand’s typical genre identity for something that exists outside its boundaries. Of all 23 films, it also happens to hit the lowest number of points on the checklist. As Chapman writes, the film “significantly remodels the generic conventions of the Bond narrative so that many of the expected incidents and situations are missing from the film (Licence to Thrill, 207).” Chapman points to the lack of mission briefing between Bond and Q, and removal of flirtation between Bond and Moneypenny, but there are many more missing pieces – no physical or sexual deformity on the villain, no freak assassin, no silly names or in-jokes, and a distinct lack of perspective on where the British Empire fits into this American-centric story – and the formulaic elements that remain are heavily reworked. Q, for instance, is reconfigured as a sidekick and lead supporting character, rather than his normal operating capacity as a piece of narrative establishment. Sexual innuendos are few and far between, Dalton is bound and determined to make every last quip come across as a psychotic death threat, and even the cinematography, music, and production design are grimmer and grittier than usual.

In short, Licence to Kill is almost all variables, and seriously jarring as a result. As with Quantum of Solace, “critical reaction ... was sharply divided. Indeed, of all the latter-day Bond films it was the one which most polarized critical opinion ... (Chapman, Licence to Thrill, 209).” As we move back through Bond’s history, it is clear that the most critically controversial moments are those in which variables take precedent, and constancy seems secondary to adopting styles and attitudes foreign to the James Bond brand.

Take 1971’s Live and Let Die, for instance, which was greeted by mixed reviews and a general sentiment that “the Bond films had now become action comedies rather than action thrillers (Chapman, Licence to Thrill, 141).” The film’s stark shift in genre identity is even more apparent today, with an extra forty years of perspective, knowing that while the Moore years were a fairly lighthearted and family-friendly period for the series, they were not, on the whole, defined by a ridiculously silly slapstick atmosphere. Moonraker may take Bond into outer space, but at its very goofiest, that film is far more grounded than Live and Let Die, which abandons any and all pretenses of building tension, presenting danger, or challenging 007 on fair terms in favor of producing cheap, low-brow laughs.

Humor is of course an essential part of the James Bond formula – a tonal constant, to varying degrees – but the films are not ‘comedies.’ The series aims to amuse, but amusement can come in a variety of fashions, and laughter – the explicit purpose of comedy – is only one piece of the entertainment puzzle these films set out to deliver. We are also amused by what we find exciting – death-defying stunts, miraculous special effects, exotic locales, etc. – and even by being scared or feeling a simulated sense of danger. As action thrillers, the James Bond films are uniquely poised to amuse in all these different ways. They offer thrills, excitement, and danger alongside exoticism and humor.

The problem with Live and Let Die, then, is that it prioritizes comedy to such a degree that any real thrills or excitement quickly disappear. The film does not aim to produce ‘39 beats’ of excitement, but several hundred beats of humor, with the relentless joke-joke-joke rhythms of parody. There are plenty of technically impressive stunts and set-pieces, like the infamous third-act boat chase, but they cannot be called ‘exciting,’ because they are constructed as outlets for further comedy, bursting with slapstick, goofy reaction shots, and even loud, obnoxious side characters (like the deplorable Sherriff J.W. Pepper) who are present only to undercut the action for a laugh.

The amount of comedy on display in Live and Let Die is indeed a variable, for it foregoes the tonal constancy of the series both up to that point and in the future. Like Quantum of Solace’s adherence to Bourne-like aesthetics, and Licence to Kill’s adoption of Miami Vice ethics, Live and Let Die is overwhelmingly variable in that it abandons the brand’s genre boundaries in favor of not one but two other genres – Comedy, and the then-popular Blaxploitation film.

Live and Let Die is not entirely blaxploitation – as Chapman notes, “its hero is a white male and (it) is set only partly in a black mileau” – but it adheres more closely to the tenants of blaxploitation than it does those of the 007 brand (Chapman, Licence to Thrill, 138).” Like Quantum of Solace and Licence to Kill, a popular cinematic trend of the period had been subsumed by James Bond, and temporarily taken over as a new, temporary brand identity. The majority of the series checklist is present and accounted for – narratively, Live and Let Die is the formula personified – but as with those films, it is the tone and style that becomes entirely variable. James Bond would never again find himself in a blaxploitation adventure, nor had he before, and when coupled with the film’s general comic thrust, it is tough to view this film as anything but a major aberration, at least when it comes to assessing the general genre parameters of the series.  

But if the variables of these three films all pertain to genre, tone, and style, is there an equally visible element on the side of constancy that binds them together? With the exception of the anarchical Licence to Kill, the Bondian outliers adhere fairly strictly to the checklist of conventions. Yet as critical reaction to these films has proved, those basic, minutiae-based constants are not enough to make a movie feel ‘Bondian.’ The ideal remains illusive, but it is clear certain variables have a greater impact than others. Does that then mean there is a constant with similarly intense weight we have not yet touched upon?

To answer this question, we must take one more step back, to the point at which the critical question of constants and variables first came into play. 

Shaken, Not Stirred

In 1969, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first installment in the series to throw audiences for a serious loop, in part because the recasting of Sean Connery for George Lazenby allowed for the first significant opportunity for previously established constants to be challenged.

Examining the film now, it is unquestionably Bondian. Not only is the majority of the ‘checklist’ satisfied, but the tone, while more serious than many previous and subsequent entries (though no moreso than From Russia With Love, meaning there was already tonal precedent), is not egregiously different, and the focus on serious romance and in-depth spy-work paved the way, in part or in whole, for future installments like For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, Tomorrow Never Dies, and the entirety of the Daniel Craig era to date. Meanwhile, the variables the film offers – monogamous Bond, tragic conclusion, an unusually intense sense of patriotism – are serious and unique pleasures that are never overbearing enough (as in the Bondian outliers) to detract from a 007 fan’s enjoyment.

In short, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service can now be seen as striking the ideal Bondian balance between comfortable familiarity and unpredictable variation. It offers a highly pleasing equilibrium of continuity (the history of the series up to then is repeatedly referenced) and change, and feels singular without coming across as separatist. The film is a model for how to innovate and surprise within the boundaries of what we might call ‘Bondian.’

Yet at the time, following five Sean Connery films that had simultaneously established the constants and paid strict adherence to them, any major variables – elements with little chance of precedence – were going to stick out. Most notably, even something as simple as a new actor playing James Bond was technically a massive variation at the time, even as periodic recasting is now an accepted, constant element of the 007 brand identity. As Chapman notes, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not panned or universally loathed upon its initial release, as is so often assumed, but the reviews were mixed, and the key source of critical discomfort was indeed rooted in Lazenby – not necessarily because he was weak in the part, but because reinterpreting the main character on the heels of a performance as iconic as Connery’s challenged everybody’s perception of what this series was, and what it could be (Chapman, Licence to Thrill, 118-9).

Thus, what the reception to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service indicates is that of all possible constants in the 007 series, James Bond himself is clearly the most important one. He is also, not coincidentally, the most important variable. For the franchise to have survived its first and greatest hurdle of replacing Sean Connery, James Bond, as a character, was tested, the question being whether or not he was as rich or resilient a creation as could withstand recognizable reinterpretation. Bond could not change wholesale when the time came to alter his physical manifestation, because then there would be absolutely no core to continue building an ongoing series around. Nor could he stay exactly the same; otherwise, there would never be any getting past Connery. Bond had to be at once varied and constant for the series to progress, and audiences had to feel a compelling and inviting balance between continuity and change for the foundations of the brand to remain strong, recognizable, and uniquely ‘Bondian.’

Audiences clearly had trouble with this in 1969, which is why Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli went running back to Connery with a record-breaking salary in hand. But the point remains valid, for if Eon had not found an actor capable of carrying the Bond identity forward without slavishly recreating Connery’s work, there would be no ongoing series to celebrate 50 years later.

Indeed, what I have purposefully left out of this analysis so far is any in-depth exploration of James Bond himself, and the varying ways in which he is presented within the outlier films. For when one examines a canonical 007 film, be it an outlier like Quantum of Solace or a universally accepted classic like Goldfinger, there is a shared constant more meaningful than anything on the checklist, and that convention is James Bond himself.

Consider, for instance, the ways we commonly describe the outlier films in passing. For Live and Let Die, we may say that “Bond has wandered into a blaxploitation film.” Licence to Kill can be described as “Bond stepping onto the set of a Miami Vice episode” Of Quantum, we of course say “that Bond has walked into a Jason Bourne movie.” The similarity in these sentiments, or the descriptions we share of any major variation to the 007 formula, is that we assign James Bond himself as the constant, the core standard-bearer and connection we have to the series, while highlighting the tone, style, and genre of the individual film as the variable.

It is a simple mathematical principle, really, and it can be backed up in examining the ways in which Bond is portrayed in these particular films. The James Bond of Live and Let Die is a simpler one than we have seen before – Roger Moore would not truly ease into the role, or even have a strong opportunity to demonstrate what he could do with the part, until The Spy Who Loved Me – who is primarily differentiated from Connery and Lazenby’s Bonds by seeming somewhat disinterested in espionage. But like the Bond we have come to know and love, he is quick on his feet, sharp of wit, good with a quip, well-dressed, and irresistible to women. Does the James Bond we see in this film holistically represent every facet of the James Bond persona? No, but everything he does certainly stems from the many possibilities that larger persona holds, and he is consistently recognizable as the character. The overwhelmingly comic tone and blaxploitation content are completely foreign, but Bond is familiar, just as he should be.

Similarly, Timothy Dalton’s Bond in Licence to Kill is devoid of several defining characteristics – sanity, for starters – choosing instead to focus on the character’s physical and intellectual fortitude, his skills with a firearm, penchant for vodka martinis, and, again, irresistibility to women. The sheer depths of Bond’s dark side mined in this feature were hinted at in The Living Daylight, but are otherwise unprecedented within the film series – though it can be argued that Dalton’s interpretation here is a reasonable extension of what we occasionally see in Ian Fleming’s novels (more on that in a moment). In any case, while much of Licence to Kill is an absolutely nutty aberration, James Bond is not. A bit more extreme, perhaps, but not a different character – and with this element firmly in place, Licence to Kill, like Live and Let Die, feels of a piece with the series, at least in some small (but not insignificant) sense.

Finally, coming back around to our starting point, we have Quantum of Solace, and a Bond who exhibits a frequently showcased high capacity for pain, an unchecked ego, a strong sense of determination, an aptitude with vehicles of the land, air, and sea, and a continuing irresistibility to women (even those sent by the government to apprehend him). Moreover, as Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale, and considering how faithful that film stayed to Fleming (particularly in the characterization of Bond), the Bond of Quantum is inarguably rooted in basic, familiar elements of the character. It omits some qualities Bond has exhibited in the past (though his dry wit is not gone entirely), but never to the point at which he is unrecognizable. Combined with the series conventions the film adheres to, Quantum of Solace feels more at home in the series than it is ever given credit for.

These three Bonds are unquestionably different from one another, and even a tad unique from how their respective actors portray them in other films. Yet they do share a certain constancy that goes beyond their uniform appeal to female characters. Several traits each of these three Bonds have overlap, and all of the traits each of them exhibit are clearly ‘Bondian’ in nature. Roger Moore may not be particularly physical in Live and Let Die, but the physicality Dalton and Craig display is central to the James Bond conception, just as the overt and overbearing sexuality they lack but is central to Moore is equally fundamental to the character.

The sense one gets, comparing different actors’ interpretations of Bond, is not that of multiple and separate characters, but of smaller pieces from a larger whole. Chapman says it best when he posits that “there is and can be only one definitive James Bond ... and that is the original literary character. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is definitive, while all the other James Bonds – including not only the actors who have played him on screen, but also the novels by other authors who have followed Fleming in writing Bond stories – are interpretations (Chapman, Licence to Thrill, 20-1).” If this is indeed the case, then what we see in the six Bonds featured over the course of the Eon canon is a series of interpretations based on different portions of Fleming’s original creation, rather than a succession of attempts to capture the entirety of the literary character.

Going in order, Sean Connery focuses on the sophistication, sexuality, and professional skills of Bond, leaving aside the human element or psychological complexity, such as it is, found in Fleming’s text. George Lazenby’s portrayal is built upon Bond’s latent compassion, as well as his loyalty to Queen and country. Roger Moore’s Bond is older, a bit less engaged, but undeniably efficient, and projects the confidence of Fleming’s Bond as clearly as any other. Timothy Dalton is Bond’s dark side personified, the cold assassin who has difficulty connecting to the world around him and uses sophistication as another weapon in his arsenal. Pierce Brosnan is, like Connery, a suave and sexual Bond, mixed with the loyalty of Lazenby and the cold physical efficiency of Dalton. And finally, Daniel Craig’s performance touches on many of these bases, with a balance towards Bond’s dark side. He is not necessarily capable of physically extraordinary feats – as in Fleming’s books, he is no superhero – but the relentless determination one finds in Fleming’s earliest texts propels him forward.

And all of them, of course, are irresistible to women.


Because each incarnation of James Bond is sourced from the whole that is Ian Fleming’s literary character, there is a constancy to his on-screen portrayal. While actors as different as Moore and Craig, for instance, may showcase varying sides of Bond, there is little doubt they draw upon the same source. If all these traits belong to one original character, after all, those traits are inherently connected.

In turn, the constancy of Bond that Eon and the lead performers have maintained over the past 50 years lends an automatic constancy to the films themselves. Works like Live and Let Die, Licence to Kill, and Quantum of Solace are imbalanced towards variation, but they are still grounded, at least in part, within the realm of the ‘Bondian’ because the 007 such outliers feature is still heavily connected to his original inception. As long as James Bond himself is recognizable, a unique fictional individual who cannot be mistaken for any other character, Eon has a lot of leeway before they make a Bond feature that is absolutely foreign to fans. An outright miscast could do it, or a script that sees Bond actively working with the side of evil, but given the history of the brand so far, those seem like very unlikely options.

Many variables are possible within the 007 brand, but in the final analysis, there need only be one absolute constant for the series to remain foundationally recognizable. The true ‘Bondian ideal’ requires a deft balance between variation and constancy on all fronts – in the best case scenario, we do not want 007 running around in an anti-Bondian genre – but a James Bond film can still exist within the limits of what is and is not Bondian so long as the balance is maintained within the main character himself. So far, that has not been a problem. You may prefer a different Bond than me, and I may find a focus on certain sides of the character unappealing to my personal tastes, but James Bond is an immensely rich and resilient creation, and for 23 films, Eon has never rewritten him to be something he is not. They have placed him in different contexts, certainly, and sometimes made enormous mistakes with how they choose to use him, but the brand exists and perpetuates all these years later precisely because Bond provides this series with a center, something they can build upon and re-build around for a long time to come.

So while a film like Quantum of Solace may prove hard for long-time fans to swallow, that does not make its canonicity invalid, nor its presence in the series invaluable. Testing Bond in new settings and scenarios is a necessary part of the process; taking risks may result in wild success or spectacular disappointment, but it is often the only way to understand how Bond might operate in a world that is constantly changing around him. For some fans, the rockier parts of this evolution can be enjoyable and enlightening, and even for those it rubs the wrong way, such experiments hopefully help to define the parameters of one’s own tastes and preferences, and to highlight what they believe the boundaries of this series should be. Not every film can achieve the ‘Bondian ideal’ – which remains at least partially illusive, no matter how thoroughly one analyzes it – but every 007 film, good, bad, or downright peculiar, does have James Bond as its strong, beating heart, and as we all know, nobody does it better.

Even in Quantum of Solace, because Jason Bourne does not have half as much class.


Bennett, Tony, and Janet Woollacott. “The moments of Bond.” The James Bond Phenomenon: A
Critical Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Christoph Linder. Machester: Manchester University Press, 2009. 13-33. Print.

“Casino Royale.” Box Office Mojo. IMDB.Com, Inc., n.d. Web. 30 May 2013.

Chapman, James. “A licence to thrill.” The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. 2nd ed.
Ed. Christoph Linder. Machester: Manchester University Press, 2009. 109-16. Print.

Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. 2nd ed. London:
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Corliss, Richard. “A Brisk, Brutal Bond: The Quantum of Solace Review.” Time US. Time Inc.,
31 Oct. 2008. Web. 30 May 2013.

Ebert, Roger. “Quantum of Solace.” RogerEbert.Com. Chicago Sun Times, 11 Nov. 2008. Web.
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Eco, Umberto. “Narrative structures in Fleming.” The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical
Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Christoph Linder. Machester: Manchester University Press, 2009. 34-55.

Morgenstern, Joe. “007 Quantum is no Solace.” The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street
Journal, 14 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 May 2013. 

Stevens, Dana. “000: In Quantum of Solace, James Bond is a total zero.” Slate. The Slate Group,
13 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 May 2013.

“Quantum of Solace.” Box Office Mojo. IMDB.Com, Inc., n.d. Web. 30 May 2013.

Woollacott, Janet. “The James Bond Films: Conditions of Production.” The James Bond
Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Christoph Linder. Machester: Manchester University Press, 2009. 117-35. Print.

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Jonathan R. Lack has been writing film and television criticism for ten years, for publications such as The Denver Post’s ‘YourHub’ and the entertainment website We Got This Covered, and is the host of The Weekly Stuff Podcast with Jonathan Lack and Sean Chapman. His first book – Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film is now available in Paperback and on Kindle.  Follow him on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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