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Bond Forever

"Die Another Day" might be the worst James Bond movie ever made. And yet the 007 mystique won't go away.

11:00 PM, Nov 21, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IT'S A SAD FACT of life that longevity confers respectability. If you hang around long enough, eventually, you become revered, no matter how second-rate your work is. Take, for example, Helen Thomas. If the dim, crotchety White House correspondent was in her fifth year on the job, she'd be a laughingstock. As it is, she's an "institution." This principle holds for things as well as people. The history of architecture is filled with structures which are thought, initially, to be ridiculous, but are eventually adored (the Eiffel Tower, the Vietnam Wall, the former World Trade Center).

The same can be said for movies. If a movie lives long enough--which is to say, spawns enough sequels--it becomes immune from criticism. So it is with James Bond. It means nothing to say that "Die Another Day," the 20th Bond movie, is abysmal. It's useless to review "Die Another Day" as we would "The Thin Red Line" or "The Manchurian Candidate"--or even "Speed." The Bond movies are such institutions that they can only be regarded in respect to one another. All we can do with "Die Another Day" is sift through the Bond canon and try to find its proper place.

If you stop for a moment to consider the success of the Bond franchise, it's truly staggering. It has given birth to countless imitations and managed, nearly single-handedly, to keep a major movie studio financially afloat. It is so iconic that there is even a successful franchise of parodies. No other fictional property can claim more longevity or fruitfulness.

Ian Fleming began Bond in 1953 with the novel "Casino Royale." He churned out a new Bond book every year for the next nine years until Bond made his way onto the screen in 1962 with "Dr. No." Over the next 40 years, 19 more Bond films would be made.

The film franchise was never overly dependent on Fleming for much more than Bond's name. Fidelity to the source material was almost non-existent; when Fleming sold the rights to 1977's "The Spy Who Loved Me," he stipulated that the filmmakers were allowed to use only the title of his book--not the plot. By 1995, with "Goldeneye," the films existed entirely on their own, without any reliance on Fleming's work.

From the start, the movies have always been trivial--high on style, short on intelligence, subtlety, continuity, artfulness, you get the picture. But what style! When Sean Connery first leered across the screen in his Saville Row suit, it was as if Hugh Hefner's America had become flesh. Bond was everything the '50s Playboy man wanted to be: Lewd, polyamorous, and classy all at once. The secret, of course, was his accent. If an American were to tell a girl, "I hope my big end can stand up to this!" he'd be a troglodyte. When a Brit does it, he's dashing.

"Dr. No" was such a runaway success that a Bond movie was made every year for the next six years. But the series fell, quite quickly, into relying on technical and dramatic crutches. By the fourth installment (1965's "Thunderball"), the series was increasingly dependent on spy gadgets to help with plot mechanics. In 1977, with "The Spy Who Loved Me," the franchise moved from cinematic espionage to comic-book pap: The villain wants to start a nuclear war so that mankind will be forced to live under the sea. He has webbed fingers and a henchman named Jaws, who is indestructible and has steel teeth. As Andy Lane and Paul Simpson say in their book, The Bond Files, "['The Spy Who Loved Me'] is seen as marking the place where the rot began to set in."

"The Spy Who Loved Me" was the beginning of a dark period--creatively speaking--for Bond. Nineteen seventy-nine saw the release of "Moonraker," one of the most preposterous--and profitable--entrants in the Bond oeuvre. This middle period would come to a close in 1983, the year that two competing Bond movies were released: The quirky, entertaining "Octopussy" and the depressing, mean-spirited "Never Say Never Again." In many ways, "Octopussy" was the apex of the Bond series with tightly written plotting and dialogue--thanks no doubt to an original screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, of Flashman fame.