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In Defense of the Sam Mendes and Bond 23 Rumours…

There’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the next Bond film, provisionally titled as Bond 23. This week has been a bonaza of news about the project, which has been slowly taking shape through dribs and drabs of information. On one hand, we had the official confirmation of what everybody really knew (but it’s nice to know for sure): the movie won’t get made until someone buys MGM or the rights. The other tidbit was much more interesting. Bond has a director: Sam Mendes. I think it’s a great idea.

Things at MGM are so bad that Bond can't even afford dry-cleaning...

There has been an interesting debate about this – most noticeably with The LA Times critising the move as a bad one for both Mendes and the franchise:

But a Bond movie is a Bond movie. There’s really no way to put a personal stamp on a series whose fans demand all sorts of familiar fare (buxom vixens, high-powered action scenes). It’s almost by definition hack work, the equivalent of hiring Irving Penn to do a photo spread for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Even if Mendes does a solid, professional job, the resulting film will do little to change anyone’s perception of his commercial touch (or lack of it).

I’d have to respectfully disagree with that particular train of thought. I’ll start by saying that I love Mendes and his filmography – I’m a huge fan of American Beauty (aren’t we all), I am very fond of The Road to Perdition and I’ll admit that (though it isn’t perfect) I’m a bigger fan of Revolutionary Road than most. So I’m not some ignorant fanboy trashing the work of an ‘artsy fartsy’ director.

Let me explain my logic. If there is one thing that directors should take from the previous decade, it’s that it is possible to straddle the line between being an independent film director and a mainstream blockbuster director. There’s rather obviously the example of Christopher Nolan, who has actually managed to leverage his box office successes (with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) to make his own films like The Prestige and Inception with support from the large studios – movies that otherwise would be ridiculously large gambles. However, Nolan probably isn’t the best example. From the moment Momento hit the mainstream (followed by Insomnia) meant the he’d probably be able to straddle the line without producing what might be described as ‘hack work’.

I think a more legitimate comparison to Mendes might be Bryan Singer. Singer provided us with the absolutely stunning The Usual Suspects, which – along with American Beauty – is one of the films of the nineties. Singer immediately followed his breakout like Mendes did, with a small personal drama, Apt Pupil. It’s a solid film, not quite as jaw-droppingly amazing as The Usual Suspects. Then he moved over to launch the X-Men franchise (directing X-Men and X-Men II, abandoning the franchise for a disappointingly mediocre and unfocused X-Men III and is reportedly returning to helm the upcoming spin-off X-Men: First Class) and to kickstart the superhero genre. In the meantime, he’s used his financial success to leverage his own pet projects like Valkyrie.

And, being honest, I don’t think that this a purely pragmatic gambit for Mendes, as some have suggested. He is a man obviously familiar with genre work, even though he typically produces prestige drama. The Road to Perdition (featuring an Oscar-nominated turn from Paul Newman and featuring Daniel Craig) was, lest we forget, originally a comic book. Mendes has gone on and on about wanting to adapt Preacher, a deconstructionist comic book saga. The man knows his fringe culture. I honestly don’t think that we’ll end up with anything quite as headscratching as Ang Lee’s Hulk. If he has signed on to the project, I imagine that there must be at least some interest here.

And – in defense of the Bond franchise – I think it’s rather dismissive to paint it as a one note saga. Yes, it is formulaic, but I think there is more than a little room for craft within that formula. Bond films are all over the map – there’s the harsh brutallity of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (and -arguably – License to Kill and GoldenEye) compared with the campy fun of View to a Kill or the ernest Cold War vibe of From Russia With Love or Thunderball or the high-class spy drama of Goldfinger or even the zany craziness of You Only Live Twice. I think it’s ridiculous to state that the movies are at all generic and conventional. You can predict certain elements, but you never know quite the mixture that you’ll get. By that logic Iron Man and Spider-Man and The Dark Knight are all conventional superhero films and are identical to each other.

Word slipped out a little while ago that Peter Morgan would be taking the scripting duties. In fairness, the two more recent ones have benefited greatly from having Paul Haggis involved, but Bond is a quintessentially English phenomenon. Morgan has demonstrated incredible skill with all range of English cultural icons with The Queen and Frost/Nixon, so I am pretty sure that he can handle the writing. I’m not sure if we ever got anything on the Martin Sheen as Blofeld rumours, but it is all higly promising, at least in my books.

When it eventually gets made.

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