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Bond—shaken, stirred and reborn
James Bond occupies a strange place in the dude-imagination of an earlier time—a handsome, charming psychopath who embodied a primal male ideal. He got hot chics without effort, had all the trappings of wealth (the tech toys, the cars, the skimming across the globe) without the responsibility, and he killed without compunction or consequence—ostensibly in the service of the right and the good.
But he also embodied big ideals like patriotism and honour, and the occasional small virtue, like compassion for the women he casually used to further his ends, who usually ended up dead.
This was the Cold War Bond, but ours is a little different. A brilliant element of the Bond fiction is that every generation gets to project its image onto the Bond template, and he emerges anew every decade or so, oblivious to his previous avatars as he relives their lives.
His themes—sex, greed, and violence—are perennial, and they’re the pistons of the great engine that powers the archetype. But on the margins—or surface—of the Bond persona, some interesting signs of generational evolution are visible.
The Connery Bond was casually misogynistic and almost surreally invulnerable. Watching him put the moves on the 60s Bond chicks looks like the preamble to a 21st century sexual harassment training video. The Roger Moore Bond made the chicks look like distractions from the real heat on the screen: the smouldering sexual tension between the public school boys who inexplicably all ended up in Her Majesty’s Service, along with various forms of assorted villainy, all of whom seemed to be just waiting to ravage each other.
The Timothy Dalton Bond looked too embarrassed for words—and those words were “I’m too good for this!” (Though he wasn’t too good for The Beautician & The Beast.) But we, boys of all ages, lapped them all up. Bond was also, in a sense, a pitchman for the Cold War, and later, the consumerist fantasy: invulnerability, stylish gadgets, chicks, cars, clothes, and the conquest of exotic lands, like India, which was featured in, uhm, Octopussy.
It wasn’t till the subversive Irish charm of Pierce Brosnan, though, that the notion of Bond as human, and the Bond-girl as something other than a disposable ornament - thanks to the scrumptious Halle Berry - became real. Brosnan Bond was susceptible to pain and love (Tomorrow Never Dies) and even showed slivers of a conscience. But this was all before 9/11 and the 2008 global financial meltdown.
Those events burned off the soft tissue of Western humanity, exposing the contents of the steel belly of the beast: a bunch of MBAs, and math and computer geeks who designed algorithms for everything from phone apps to financial instruments.
These, not the cold war overlords or the boardroom warriors, are the architects of the world we live in now: smaller, harder, more cynical and much more perverse. The supreme skillset a man who isn’t a financial executive needs to make his way through it are brute strength, good looks, and a finely-tuned sense of irony.
Enter Daniel Craig’s Bond, surely the most complex and absorbing Bond till now. Craig’s 007 falls in love (with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale), develops an Oedipal relationship with Judi Dench’s M (for Mummy, as it turns out), and has a very un-public school brutishness. He gets his hands dirty, and likes it.
And he’s probably had a metrosexual dalliance or two—if his encounter with Silva, the villain of Skyfall, the latest Bond installment, is any indication. Skyfall delves deeper into the personality of Bond and his antecedents than any other installment—he’s Scottish, as it turns out, and this is where the climax of the movie takes place, in Scotland, sans the gadgets, the computers, and technology, in the midst of crumbling masonry.
In an intriguing turn, the climax of Skyfall is not built around international intrigue, a doomsday weapon, or the collapse of civilisation as we know it. It’s much more primal: revenge—rejection and hatred which yearn to become love—embodied in the villain, Silva, played by Javier Bardem.
The final conflict between Silva, Bond and M is almost like a Greek tragedy, where two warrior sons war for their mother’s affections. But unlike the Greek gods, Craig’s Bond is not invulnerable. After being shot accidentally in the opening sequence, he resurfaces several months later, grizzled, brooding, and if not broken, then fractured. M sends him back into the field anyway, and the movie is as much about that—the emotional betrayal he and his nemesis have in common—as anything else.
Craig’s Bond is reflective, resentful, and weak when it matters the most. In this, he provides an interesting sketch of the primal man in the brave new world of the early 21st century. Brute force, ruthlessness, and desire seem almost inconsequential in a time when information and binary codes are the ultimate weapon and currency.
The new Bond conveys this confusion, and the recognition of his futility, as a near-obsolete weapon of an earlier age, brilliantly. But what has passed away is not just Bond’s manliness—which should be of concern to men everywhere—but also his humanity, ironically just as he’s discovered and begun to exercise it.
Is there a lesson in here for our little speck? I don’t know how much Bond resonates with younger men today. I’d suspect, in a pop culture-verse teeming with antihero rappers, reality tv vultures and pornstars, he’s not as popular as he used to be. That’s a shame—since Skyfall is a long-awaited singularity in the pop culture-verse. A fictional character achieves something close to self-awareness, and invites his audience to follow. If only we could.