Ever since Dr. No came out in 1962, the James Bond film series (produced by United Artists and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) has held itself up as one of the longest, most profitable series of action films in the history of studio filmmaking. One central component of its popularity is the film series’ ability to repurpose the sights, sounds, and trends that were occurring at the time that they were produced and released, acting as cultural touchstones to stay relevant . As they were designed for mass appeal, the Bond producers smartly find ways to capitalize on what is popular for their audiences, constantly adapting to the way culture moves through the years. By examining a cross-section of the James Bond films through the history of the franchise (1963’s From Russia With Love, 1979’s Moonraker, 1989’s Licence to Kill, 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, and 2006’s Casino Royale), the Bond franchise is explored in terms of its dedication to capitalizing on contemporary cultural trends to ensure its success.
Ever since Dr. No came out in 1962, the James Bond film series (produced by United Artists and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) has held itself up as one of the longest, most profitable series of action films in the history of studio filmmaking. There have been twenty-three official films in the series, with the latest one being 2012’s Skyfall; as such, the series has spent more than a half century providing audiences with high-stakes action, lovely visuals, gorgeous love interests, and a unique sense of excitement that has thrilled audiences. More than this, though, the film series has also acted as a miniature profile of popular culture at the moment each film has been released. Many Bond films repurpose the sights, sounds, and trends that were occurring at the time that they were produced and released. As they were designed for mass appeal, the Bond producers smartly find ways to capitalize on what is popular for their audiences, constantly adapting to the way culture moves through the years. By examining a cross-section of the James Bond films through the history of the franchise (1963’s From Russia With Love, 1979’s Moonraker, 1989’s Licence to Kill, 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, and 2006’s Casino Royale), the Bond franchise’s dedication to capturing the spirit of the immediate pop cultural moment will be revealed.
While 1964’s Goldfinger solidified the “Bond formula” of over-the-top villains and crazy gadgets, From Russia with Love from earlier that year offered a much more low-key and earnest spy caper than the rest of the Bond series. However, it and Dr. No, the first James Bond film, cemented one of the central appeals of James Bond – a travelogue series that showcased the jet-set lifestyle of the 1960s for audiences who could not necessarily travel to far-off locations as easily as they do today (Spicer 75). In many ways, From Russia with Love and the rest of the Bond series, with each new film showing off a new, gorgeous and exotic locale, allowed audiences to travel the world in a way they were not quite able to yet (Spicer 75). Furthermore, From Russia with Love explored the Cold War tensions of the 1960s that the West experienced with the Soviet Union. The 1960s saw the height of the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis happening the same year this movie came out; From Russia With Love, by setting the film in the heart of Soviet Russia, let audiences fight the Russians in their own way, using the suave, calculating action hero James Bond as their surrogate (Chapman 93).
What From Russia with Love captures most specifically about the Cold War era of 1963 is the relatively mundane, boring nature of the spy game, as compared to the more straightforward action of later films. In this film, James Bond spends most of his time sneaking around, meeting spies in special locations, trading codes, figuring out how to cross the border without detection, waits hours for enemy spies to reveal themselves and more. Even when James Bond faces off against Robert Shaw’s Red Grant (the villain of the movie), it is not in a high-flying shootout but in a close-quarters fistfight in the cramped confines of a passenger train car, being a simple fight between two men instead of a huge firefight with explosions and dozens being killed. The plot itself also plays into the more immediate Cold War fears of Russian spying with the film’s love interest, Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova, as she attempts to seduce him to lead him into a trap. However, since James Bond sees this coming and successfully turns her over to his side with his masculinity and sexuality, Western audiences were able to rest assured that they would win the Cold War, viewing this scene as a metaphor for the War itself (Jutting 12).
While the James Bond films are inherently campy and silly to an extent, it was the Roger Moore James Bond films of the 1970s that brought the dry comedy to the front. Also, the late 1970s saw the release of Star Wars, one of the most popular blockbusters of all time, which then caused everyone to attempt to cash in on the appeal of science fiction spectacle. James Bond was not immune to this – the previous film in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me, was meant to be followed by For Your Eyes Only, but that film was put on hold so they could create a “James Bond in space” movie. In this film, James Bond is asked to investigate some disappearing spaceships, which makes him run into evil millionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) and his plan to build a race of supermen in a space base. All of this results in the kind of climax the producers hoped would remind audiences of the beloved Star Wars, as the Space Forces and Drax’s men fight each other in space using spacesuits and laser guns.
Another way the producers attempted to follow on the appeal of popular culture at the time was to bring back the cult-favorite henchman Jaws (played by Richard Kiel), who was featured in The Spy Who Loved Me. In the context of the film, there is little natural reason for him to return; however, because he proved so popular with audiences in the last movie, they brought him back for Moonraker, showcasing that film’s status as one of the more transparently fan-service movies in the Bond series to date.
Licence to Kill
With the departure of the campy Roger Moore in the mid-1980s came the arrival of Timothy Dalton, who decided to take on a darker, grittier version of the famous spy character. This move was an attempt to get away from the campiness that many audiences resisted by then, as well as the aging nature of Roger Moore (who was in his 60s for his last entry, A View to a Kill) (Sassone, 2014). In the 1980s, American action films started to gain popularity, particularly those starring macho, muscle-bound leads like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Movies like Commando, Rambo, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon were especially popular for their grittiness, and their ability to touch on issues like the 1980s War on Drugs and the Iran-Contra conflict (Chapman 246). Licence to Kill, Dalton’s second and final Bond film, drew more directly from these influences to make Bond not a sophisticated spy on a mission, but a man on a mission of vengeance against a Central American drug lord named Sanchez (Robert Davi) for attacking his friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison). By making Bond’s motivation revenge, and keeping a distinctly North/Central American setting, Licence to Kill made the stakes much more personal, keeping up with the American action films it hoped to take inspiration from (Sassone, 2014).
Tomorrow Never Dies
After a small hiatus for six years (1989-1995), the James Bond film series returned with Goldeneye, which provided a self-reflexive James Bond that was acknowledged as out of date with the hip, progressive 1990s in the cheeky, self-aware Pierce Brosnan. While that film was much more of a commentary on the Bond series itself (with the now-female M calling Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”), Tomorrow Never Dies saw a return to the more fun-loving, lighter and campier James Bond. In many ways, this was a reaction to the success of the Austin Powers series of spy spoofs, which shone a light on the blatant sexism and sillier nature of the 1960s spy films like Goldfinger (Lindner 77). Because of Austin Powers doing so well, the Bond producers had no choice but to adapt to the times and let its James Bond have a little fun as well. In that way, Brosnan’s brooding, self-serious Bond in Goldeneye gave way to a more fun, breezy Bond in his other three films, including Tomorrow Never Dies.
Just like other films in the series, Tomorrow Never Dies takes advantage of some of the major cultural trends of the 1990s. Among these was the height of cable news companies, as the film’s villain, Jonathan Pryce’s Elliot Carver, played a dark Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul who also had a reputation for sensationalist news. Instead of ruling the world or destroying it, Elliot Carver simply wished to start a war between England and China so his news company would reap the profits – this set his stakes apart from other Bond villains and cemented the role of the media as a new cultural power that had to be fought (Chapman 262).
Another 90s trend that Tomorrow Never Dies capitalized on was the popularity of Asian action films, such as those starring Jackie Chan (Chapman 246). This was shown with the Bond girl Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh; Yeoh was (and remains) a substantial action star in Hong Kong, starring in movies with Chan and having substantial experience leading her own action films. By offering the normally-helpless Bond girl the chance to hold her own against the villains along with 007, Wai Lin was given a sense of purpose and ability that most Bond girls are not given. Because of these things and more, Tomorrow Never Dies is shown to be dedicated, just like other Bond films, to showing off the things popular culture was interested in at the time, shifting the focus from the three-piece suits and jet-set lifestyles of the 1960s to the media popularity of the 90s.
While the Brosnan era was successful, 2002’s Die Another Day proved a critical failure, particularly in the wake of 9/11; according to producers, it was difficult to keep up the light tone of international spying and terrorist plots so shortly after America had suffered a real one (Young, 2014). To that end, the producers held off for four years before rebooting the franchise completely and recasting the charming Brosnan with the blonde, muscular actor Daniel Craig for 2006’s Casino Royale. This entry takes out almost all of the dry, campy humor of the previous entries in the Bond series for a harsher, grittier and bloodier style of action film. Craig’s James Bond is played like a thug, a gangster with rough edges and little charm, and at the beginning of the film only just gets his 00 status as a spy. By rebooting Bond to this level, Craig is allowed to be a more primitive Bond, rather than showing the classiness of the previous men who had filled the role (Travers, 2012).
Other 21st-century changes set Casino Royale apart from the rest, going back to the experimentations with self-reflection that Licence to Kill and Goldeneye attempted. The movie turns many Bond conventions upside down, such as the film’s focus on Daniel Craig’s physique rather than the attractiveness of the Bond girls. This is shown in a slow-motion shot of Craig stepping out from the ocean onto a beach in a tiny swimsuit, in much the same way that Honey Ryder first stepped onto the beach in Dr. No. This can be seen as a deliberate attempt to reverse the sexism often found in the Bond films (Jutting 223). The style of the action is also much grittier and rougher in Casino Royale than in other Bond films. Rather than rely on gadgets and gimmicky kills, Craig pummels and shoots foes with precision and quickness, the film being shot in rough handheld and close-ups rather than the stylish distance of the previous entries. It is clear that this is a reaction to the success of the Jason Bourne films of the early 2000s, such as The Bourne Identity, as both films film their action scenes as small, short and cramped fistfights. By taking from a currently popular style of fight scene, as well as honoring the seriousness of the post-9/11 era by making James Bond so humorless and brutal, Casino Royale captures the cynicism of the mid-2000s.
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