When you watch a dozen Bond movies in a week to get ready for "Skyfall" (current Criticwire average: A- out of 11 critics) you begin to see things you hadn't seen before. There are, of course, famous tropes that repeat from film to film: the gun barrel opening and lavish title cards, the vodka martinis, the briefing with M, the "Bond, James Bond" introduction. But there are also other elements, characters, and lines — and even some themes — that aren't rigidly codified but pop up more than you previously realized. There's Felix Leiter, Bond's CIA counterpart; Bill Tanner, M's assistant; animals that pop up and startle the characters in each of John Glen's five directorial efforts; the phrase "Of course you are," uttered whenever Bond meets an outrageously named woman (i.e. "I'm Jenny Flex." "Of course you are," in "A View to a Kill"). Spotting these little repetitions are part of what make the Bond films fun. They reward careful, repeat viewership.
About ten movies into this week's private Bondathon, my careful, repeat viewership sparked a revelation about another recurring motif in Bond movies, specifically regarding the bad guys. Like just about everything else in the Bond franchise, the style, attitude, and behavior of 007's enemies have been beholden to a formula. At this point, fifty years into the series, the phrase "Bond villain" instantly calls to mind all sorts of visual and aural associations. The megalomaniacal terrorist in collarless gray jacket. The hissing white cat. The enormous underground lair. The army of faceless, jumpsuited goons. The chuckles of "Come come, Mr. Bond" as the laser cannon bears down on 007's crotch.
After five films, Bond's enemies were already becoming cliché; now, after twenty-three, they're basically interchangeable cartoons. They're also, with surprising frequency, evil capitalists. Which raised a kind of silly but somewhat serious question in my mind: is James Bond, Cold War hero, secretly a socialist?
Here's what I mean. Let's put aside the Sean Connery and George Lazenby Bonds, which feature 007 fighting the terrorist organization SPECTRE and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That leaves you with the sixteen films starring Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig which were made as the Cold War thawed and then faded into history. By my count, at least twelve of the remaining sixteen titles feature villains who could be described as "evil capitalists" — and one of the four that doesn't, "Die Another Day," sports a North Korean colonel masquerading as an evil capitalist (for reasons known only to him and the screenwriters). The movies in question include:
"The Man With the Golden Gun" (1974)
Villain: Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee)
Occupation: Assassin for hire
Objective: Steal solar technology and then sell it to the highest bidder.
Motivation: Profit; ego
Villain: Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale)
Occupation: Head of a large corporation that manufactures space shuttles
Objective: Destroy society in order to rule over a new Earth populated by a master race of his design.
Motivation: Profit; dickishness
"A View to a Kill" (1985)
Villain: Max Zorin (Christopher Walken)
Occupation: Head of a large corporation that manufactures microchips
Objective: Destroy Silicon Valley to rule over a new market for computer technology populated by chips of his design.
Motivation: Profit; psychosis
"Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997)
Villain: Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce)
Occupation: Head of a large corporation that manufactures the news
Objective: Destroy the Chinese government to rule over a new Asian market populated by leaders more agreeable to media companies of his design.
Motivation: Profit; ego
"Quantum of Solace" (2008)
Villain: Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric)
Occupation: Head of a large corporation that manufactures green technology
Objective: Destroy the Bolivian water supply and depose the country's government, to rule over whoever survives by selling his own water (of his own design?) at an inflated price.
Motivation: Profit; ego
And there are plenty more: Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) from "For Your Eyes Only," who wants to sell a missile guidance system to the Russians; 006 (Sean Bean) in "GoldenEye" whose revenge against his former country involves stealing the treasury of the Bank of England and using an EMP weapon to cover the theft; and Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), the oil billionaire from "The World is Not Enough" who wants to detonate a nuclear bomb in Turkey to inflate the value of her own reserves. Basically for 50 years, when Bond hasn't been fighting terrorists hellbent on world domination, he's been fighting capitalists hellbent on fiscal domination.
What's Bond have against small business owners? Okay, yes, some of them want to blow up the world and then rule over an underwater kingdom (like Karl Stromberg from "The Spy Who Loved Me"), and others want to profit off illegal arms and drug dealing (like Brad Whitaker in "The Living Daylights"). True, their people skills aren't so great. But sometimes there's a price to be paid for innovation. If Bond wasn't so quick to kill Franz Sanchez in "Licence to Kill," he might realize that his dissolvable cocaine could have major beneficial applications for society. Our space program still hasn't recovered from the loss of Drax Industries, whose space station was far more advanced than the one we have now, more than thirty years later.
By eliminating all these billionaires, Bond is, in a sense, acting as a wealth redistributor. If you think capitalism needs government oversight to function properly, and that no system works without checks and balances, then Bond is just the action hero equivalent of the SEC. If you believe the free market is always the best solution for society's problems, and that businesses should be left free of outside intervention, then we might need to reconsider the meaning of the title "From Russia With Love."
Or maybe I've just watched too many Bond movies this week, and I've completely lost my mind. After barely surviving "Die Another Day" I'm more than willing to accept that possibility. What do you think?