Who Is James Bond?

In the run-up to the new James Bond movie, Daniel Craig has been sent on a publicity tour that he has been turning into an anti-publicity tour. It was summed up in one report as “Daniel Craig Thinks James Bond Is Kind of a Jerk, Frankly.” You know who else comes across in this article as kind of a jerk? Daniel Craig. “In every interview he gives, he essentially lays waste to his own character, killing hype for the movie in the process.” He’s awfully grumpy for a guy who’s getting a lot of money and fame out of relatively little work.

But there is a reserve of anti-Bond sentiment out there, as there always has been. There are things that rub people the wrong way about the character and make them uncomfortable. These also happen to be the same things that are central to the success of the Bond franchise and show exactly why we need him.

In fact, the essentials of the Bond character are right out there in the advertising and theme songs for the films.

Let’s take a look at them.

“Live and let die.”

The most important aspect of the Bond character is his ruthlessness. He is a good man who does bad things. This is established at the very beginning, in Dr. No, when he shoots Dent.

Sure, Dent tried to kill him first, and he’s working for the super-villain with the secret lair, so you can’t say he doesn’t deserve it. But his bullets are spent, and he’s defenseless. That’s the point of Bond’s line, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” Bond shoots him anyway, in cold blood. And it’s not the last time.

This is the thing Daniel Craig got right in the opening scene of his first Bond film.

A British agent running around the world acting as an executioner may not be exactly legal and might not even be the best policy for an actual spy. But this is art, not life. The purpose is to show Bond’s decisiveness, his willingness to take a life without remorse in the cause of queen and country.

After all, when you’ve got a job to do you’ve got to do it well. You’ve got to give the other fellow hell.

Yet while Bond is ruthless, he is not a contemporary “anti-hero” in the “Sopranos”/”Mad Men”/”Breaking Bad” tradition. He may have a license to kill, but he kills people who need killing, and it doesn’t really keep him up at night. He’s not tormented or conflicted—or at least, he’s not supposed to be.

There was a little bit of this in the early Ian Fleming books, and the Daniel Craig-era Bond has returned to those roots in a quest to make the franchise seem more “serious.” But that’s what Craig’s Bond tends to get wrong. He brought a lot of exciting intensity to the role—but a little too much intensity. Bond is supposed to have time for the smooth delivery of witty one-liners, and most of all, he is supposed to convey a sense of the fun of the adventure.

“Nobody does it better.”

It’s not just that Bond is morally untroubled. He’s also famously unruffled in the face of danger. He doesn’t just defeat the bad guys. He makes it look easy.

The same thing applies to his approach to women. A good Bond has to be strikingly handsome, so we understand why women tend to melt into a puddle at his feet. But he can’t be too pretty. He needs an element of raw masculinity. And not just masculinity, but a specific variety: one that’s hard-edged, aggressive, and sexualized. It’s not just masculinity; it’s virility. He is a man who knows how to go out and get what he desires.

And he has plenty of desires.

“He looks at this world and wants it all.”

Bond is driven by a lust for life—for adventure, for sleek luxury cars, for truffles and foie gras and martinis, and yes, for beautiful women. He is certainly out of place in our age of Neo-Puritanism. He probably even eats processed meat, the scoundrel.

But this is not mere gluttony. Bond is a man of refined and expensive tastes. He manages to be both aggressively virile and suave and sophisticated. He’s a stone-cold killer in a tuxedo.

That’s something that is missing from today’s movies, or rather something that has come to be associated with villains in American films. We’ve got plenty of knockaround blue-collar heroes (a Bruce Willis specialty) or wisecracking rule-breakers (the space now being filled by Chris Pratt). But the guy with the plummy British accent and the perfectly tailored suit? He’s usually the villain. Maybe this is the leftover reflex of a country founded in a rebellion against British aristocracy. When we see someone with the markers of aristocracy—fine clothes, expensive tastes, a posh accent—we instinctively distrust him. It’s a fact so well established that Jaguar even turned it into a really terrific ad.

James Bond has all those characteristics, plus a serene ruthlessness. Yet we accept him as the hero. Why?

“One life for yourself and one for your dreams.”

The only thing that really differentiates Bond from the usual super-villain nemesis is his lack of interest in wielding power. He’s the perfect libertarian superhero: he wants to enjoy his own life to the fullest, in perhaps a somewhat hedonistic style, but he has no interest in telling anyone else what to do. In fact, he’s willing to put his own life on the line, for the sheer enjoyment of the adventure, in order to protect everyone else’s freedom from the domination of reclusive billionaires with secret organizations run from high-tech mountaintop lairs. Because somebody’s got to do that.

In short, Bond represents a benevolent and socially acceptable form of self-assertiveness. On one level, we’re told that selfishness is bad, that we should be compassionate and community-minded and have a low carbon footprint. But on another level, we know that self-assertiveness is necessary to life.

To begin with, it’s a practical necessity of survival, the most elemental form of self-assertion. James Bond is the embodiment of Orwell’s (supposed) reminder that “we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm” (except that Bond isn’t rough).

But it’s more than that. Bond is a reminder that self-assertiveness is more than a practical necessity. It’s part of what makes life interesting and exciting and worth living—it provides us with the lust for adventure, for pleasure, for the enjoyment of life.

We know that not everyone can live like Bond does, or that we can’t live like that all the time. He’s an extreme and exaggerated version presented in art. As the theme song goes, he lives a second kind of life: “one life for yourself, but one for your dreams.”

Bond gives us a vision of the necessity of self-assertiveness for life. In this era of pinch-nosed Neo-Puritanism and ritualized self-flagellation, that may rub a lot of people the wrong way, but it’s something we need—and something audiences love.

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