James Bond redux

Nov 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

What makes James Bond indestructible? It's an interesting paradox. This globally popular franchise is so successful because it manages to constantly change while remaining essentially the same.

The character has been embodied by five different actors during 19 films, from 1962's Dr. No to The World is Not Enough, yet he's always simply Bond, James Bond. Each film is concocted from the same basic components: plenty of action, beautiful women, dastardly villains, mind-blowing gadgetry and vodka martinis — shaken, not stirred. But within this formula, there's the possibility for perpetual renewal.

The key is keeping Bond a man of his time.

"He always lives in the contemporary world, so he's always written to interact with people in the contemporary world," explains Wilson, stepson of original producer Albert Broccoli, who now produces the series with his sister, Barbara Broccoli.

What makes each new film a challenge, says Wilson (co-writer of four Bond scripts), is finding a way to place the character within the context of world politics. The commander of MI6 is now played by Judi Dench, because at the time of GoldenEye, a woman was the head of British intelligence, Wilson states, "and we thought, what would happen if Bond lived in this world?"

The debonair 007 is a product of the Cold War, a time when gathering intelligence about the enemy could be viewed as protecting not just national borders but ideological belief systems. But no one could have predicted that between 1989's LicenceTo Kill and 1995's GoldenEye, the Berlin Wall would come down and the world that created and nurtured Bond would collapse with it.

"Because the Cold War fell apart, they thought there would be no more James Bond," says Pierce Brosnan, who took over the role in the '90s, "but they have been proven wrong.

"Cold War or no Cold War, you're dealing with a spy," continues Brosnan, "and we still have countries that have secrets — we still have spies."

The World is Not Enough director Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist) asserts that, "Bond is doing just as well as anybody in that area of reinventing itself, reinventing the way the world lines up post-Berlin Wall."

Out of necessity, the Brosnan Bond films have had to find new enemies, beyond the stereotypical Russian baddies and the megalomaniacal madmen whose desire to dominate the world had overtaken the series.

"Obviously, in the Cold War you had a clear-cut enemy who most people in the West recognized as the enemy," explains Robbie Coltrane, who reprises his GoldenEye character, a Russian black marketeer, in The World Is Not Enough.

"It's not the same now," he continues, "but I would say that big global danger is fundamentalist groups and the fact that there are all those nuclear warheads scattered around the old USSR that nobody's responsible for."

The idea that this new film would base its story in a geopolitical hot spot — the Caspian Sea — and focus on the struggle to control the massive reserves of oil in Azerbaijan appealed to Apted because it's "a story that comes out of the newspapers and not some crazed fantasy."

"There are some things that are on everyone's minds," concurs Wilson, "and we take those elements and magnify them — a bit — out of proportion."

Along with the new exoticism these locales provided, The World Is Not Enough had to look beyond even the media mogul of Tomorrow Never Dies for new villains who aren't defined by ideology or borders.

"Just as you have multinational organizations," Apted explains, "you have multinational criminals who come from all over, and that's kind of scary. Who is the enemy? There's a certain cosmopolitanness about crime that's a relatively a modern thing."

For cosmopolitan crime, who better than James Bond? Then again, how can the character be maintained as a serious hero when he has been spoofed so successfully in the two Austin Powers films?

"Bond is solitary and a survivalist," says Brosnan, who aims in his performances "to be as simple as possible with the theatricality of it."

While always maintaining a certain dignity and coolness, Brosnan finds that having a sense of humor is essential to the role.

"You've got to have that," he says, "otherwise you're dead in the water. He's an easy character to parody and as you're playing him you're a hair's breadth away from it, really, in the situations you find yourself in."

"(Actors) play themselves in the role of the character," asserts Wilson. "They bring their personality to it. What (Brosnan) brings to it is that he can play the character with more vulnerability without being weak."

"Pierce is a very contemporary actor," explains Apted, "a very '90s actor. That kind of line he walks, between a brutal license to kill and a guy who is charming to women and sensitive to the world he lives in. Because there's something weird about Bond, in that it's part of an old British imperial idea which doesn't exist anymore."

As for how James Bond will fare in the new millennium, Coltrane has a Zenlike interpretation. For each new era, he says simply, "you get the Bond you need."