take it personal

Taking it Personally

At one point in Goldeneye, "M" warns Bond not to take his assignment personally. Without missing a beat, Bond replies, "Never."

Nonetheless, that's exactly what he ends up doing. As the film unspools, Bond allows Alec Trevelyan's betrayal to get under his skin, missing a chance to kill 006 in the "graveyard" of Soviet statues, brooding on a beach about his situation until Natalya cheers him up, and finally dropping Alec to his death with what you might call "extreme prejudice." ("For England, James?" "No, for me.")

In The World Is Not Enough, the trend of personalizing Bond's adventures continues, as 007 endures not only the usual evil schemes but also a volatile personal relationship that makes him unusually vulnerable (and since the film is still in theaters, that's all I'm going to reveal here).

Bond kills DentSuch was not always the case. There was a time when James Bond was virtually immune to the emotions we mere mortals have to endure. In 1962's Dr. No, Sean Connery gave us a ruthless Bond who, among other things, shot an unarmed man to death and seduced a female villain before callously turning her over to the cops. There was a remorselessly cruel streak in this early interpretation of Bond, which is probably just as well. What good is a license to kill without a matching lack of conscience? Bond never second-guesses his decisions in the early days.

Over the course of the first few films Bond develops something of a sense of humor, but he never exactly "mellows out." Bond gets into plenty of hot spots and warm clinches, but no one really seems to get under his skin one way or the other. He kills the villains because it's his job, not because he's personally enraged or vengeful. He sleeps with the women because they're babes, not because they "touch him" deep down in his heart.

This is not to suggest that Connery played a one-dimensional Bond. Far from it. In fact, by making Bond such a generally untouchable character most of the time, Connery (and the filmmakers) ensured that the few fleeting moments of emotion in the films took on great significance.

For example, Sean-Bond's banter with Moneypenny often conveys genuine warmth and affection, so much so that he even sings to her at one point! When Kerim Bey turns up dead in FRWL, there are some powerful moments as Bond is first visbibly saddened and then furious, taking his anger out on poor Tatiana. The payoff for these "humanizing" moments comes in the danger scenes, when we actually believe Bond might die at the point of Grant's gun, or on the business end of Goldfinger's laser beam. There were just enough vulnerable, humanizing moments to keep Bond from becoming a cartoon superhero, but even the most serious set-backs never dealt a lasting blow to his self-confidence or sense of purpose.

Bond gets engagedThings took a radical left turn with the arrival of Lazenby in OHMSS. In this film, Bond "quits" the Secret Service out of anger and frustration, and later makes plans to do it again out of love. He falls head over heels for Tracy, and actually proposes marriage. With Tracy's death, he even breaks down in tears at the end of the film. These events must have astounded audiences of 1969, accustomed as they were to the swinging, invincible Bond of the Connery era.

When OHMSS didn't live up to expectations at the box office, the filmmakers quickly navigated Bond back onto his former course, making him more of a superman than ever in DAF. The experimentation with gritty realism and personal angst went out the window in place of an increased accent on humor. Apparently unscathed by his set-backs in the previous film, Bond now seemed more comfortable than ever in his job and lifestyle. Now he seemed to view the constant death and destruction around him with little more than mild amusement.

MoonrakerRoger Moore came to embody this era, with a glib one-liner for every occasion and a "heartfelt reaction" that usually amounted to a raised eyebrow (Moore himself quipped that his range as an actor "ran the gamut from A to B"). Yet even in Roger's era there were those occasional moments with real emotional weight, as when Bond reacts testily to the mention of his dead wife in TSWLM, or kicks Locque's car off a cliff in FYEO. Again, the relative rarity of these moments gives them a lasting resonance. Bond may spare a moment of silence over the body of a slain ally, for instance, but these are only brief asides in films that are mostly fun and games.

When Timothy Dalton showed up in 1987's TLD, things began to change. Dalton's Bond was brooding, almost surly, full of attitude from the very beginning ("If he fires me, I'll thank him for it!"). There's an electrifying moment in Vienna when Agent Saunders is killed; Bond has a look of rage on his face that tells us he is not a man we want to cross. Again, most of the film is standard fare -- the usual formula of action, gadgets, stunts and babes -- but when Dalton throws in a moment of genuine rage, or in the case of Kara true tenderness, we sit up and take notice.

Licence To KillSensing they were on to something with Dalton's emotional range, the filmmakers tailored the script of LTK to make it all emotion, primarily anger. In fact, the whole point of the film is that 007 has lost his well-known calm demeanor and is now royally ticked off. Even the ad campaign eschewed the usual emphasis on stunts and spectacle and promoted the emotional angle: "His Bad Side Is A Dangerous Place To Be," said the posters. In LTK, Bond is pushed to his emotional limits, and for the bulk of the film he's a juggernaut of vengeance, piling up an impressive body count and disposing of baddies in particularly gruesome ways. In the course of his vendetta, he turns his back on duty and, for all he knows, walks away from his old life forever. He also makes some serious mistakes, at one point botching an ongoing international intelligence operation and getting a room full of "good guys" killed (including one member of his own service).

These were fascinating and bold changes to the Bond formula, and depending on who you ask, the jury's still out as to whether it worked. Even so, the effects of the Dalton era continue to be felt. Pierce Brosnan inherited a very different Bond in 1994 than he would have in 1986, and for better or worse the character is now as vulnerable to things like heartache, remorse and rage as any of us. As stated above, Brosnan's debut in GE placed Bond at odds with a former friend, one who knew all of 007's weak points and didn't mind twisting the knife. ("Tell me James, do all those vodka martinis drown the cries of all the men you've killed? Does the comfort you find in the arms of your women make up for all the ones you failed to protect?" Ouch!).

In TND, Bond encounters an old flame, Paris Carver. It's obvious he still has feelings for her, and when she asks, "What went wrong? Did I get too close?" He confesses, "Yes." This is a far cry from the love-'em and leave-'em Bond of earlier films. The modern Bond actually has feelings for his women, and sometimes those feelings place him in harm's way. Which brings us to TWINE, with still more personal issues arising to complicate Bond's mission du jour.

Whether the recent tendency to "take it personally" is a good thing depends on your point of view. After almost 40 years the scriptwriters must find it hard to come up with new twists and turns to keep Bond fresh and interesting. Perhaps it's only logical to start exploring Bond's emotional side and "up the ante" with stories that hit close to home. In some ways this approach is closer to the "real" Bond, anyway. Ian Fleming created 007 as a man very much haunted by the deaths of those around him (Tracy, Vesper Lynd, etc) and occasionally sick and tired of his job. He formed deep attachments to other men of action (Felix, Kerim Bey, Marc Ange Draco), and fell hard for every pretty girl he worked with (sometimes ending up rejected by them, as with Gala Brand in "Moonraker").

In fact, he fell so hard for Tracy that her death sent Bond spiraling into the depths of depression, making him so unstable that M relieved him of his "double-0" status in "YOLT." And the events of that book left him weakened and ripe for brainwashing by the Russians, a process so effective that Bond nearly assasinates M on behalf of the bad guys (M retaliates by sending Bond on a suicide mission as soon as he's "cured"!).

GoldenEyeIn short, the literary Bond was much more human and vulnerable than his big-screen counterpart. But the fact remains that most people know Bond from the movies, and any way you slice it the cinematic Bond has undergone a major change in the last decade. If the 60's were the era of the "macho, chauvinist" Bond and the 70's the era of the "swinging, comedic" Bond, then the 90's have emerged as the era of the sensitive, vulnerable Bond. Brosnan (and before him Dalton) has given us a Bond who still gets the job done, but often at great personal cost, and with lingering scars.

So how do audiences respond to this more human version of James Bond? If the box office receipts are any indication, very well indeed. In fact, one of the remarkable things about Bond is that he stands up to periodic reinterpration. Agent 007 has been retooled repeatedly to fit the times, and remains hugely popular in all his forms. It should be fun to see how Bond evolves to fit the new Millenium.

- David Morefield