Wednesday, April 04, 2007

007 in '007: Piercing Brosnan

“Pierce Brosnan was the Greatest Hits of James Bond.”

I’ve used that line so many times even I’m tired of hearing it, and yet here it is once again for posterity’s sake.

The reality, though, is that it’s the truth, and was eventually confirmed in Brosnan’s exit from the franchise, Die Another Day -- which actually was Bond’s Greatest Hits.

Now before going further it must be understood – I’ve got nothing against Pierce as an actor. He’s an underappreciated talent who came into the role of a lifetime amidst a rebirth. Pierce Brosnan is probably the only actor to accept the part of James Bond with a near-universal acceptance from fans -- without even having seen him play it yet. Who didn’t want to see him handle a Walther PPK and flirt with Miss Moneypenny? Had any other actor – regardless of their talent - been cast in Goldeneye, I have grave doubts the series would’ve survived, as it'd been steadily losing steam in the public eye since around A View to a Kill. Pierce Brosnan, in the public consciousness, fit Bond like a glove so snugly, that upon Goldeneye’s release people flocked to see him play the part he was born to play – not to see a new James Bond film.

Unfortunately some realized dreams are too perfect, and due to Albert Broccoli’s failing health, producing duties fell upon his children Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. I can only speculate that they were skittish about where to take the franchise and as a result took it nowhere. On one of the DVD supplementary discs, Wilson says something honestly profound: “Every time we do one of these [Bond films], we set out to make another From Russia With Love, but end up making another Thunderball.”

Brosnan’s era is marred by crowd-pleasing action scenes, crappy one-liners and boring gadgetry. His four entries contain everything we’d seen before, often miraculously taken to even more predictable levels. There’s rarely a fresh display and when there is it succeeds only about half the time. Amidst the entire spectacle --if you look close enough-- you’ll see Brosnan sinking in the quicksand, gasping for fresh air...and Pierce is such a pro that you gotta read between the lines to see the struggle.

But why take my word for it? Read what the man himself says on the subject (courtesy of his IMDB page):

Brosnan: "It never felt real to me. I never felt I had complete ownership over Bond. Because you'd have these stupid one-liners - which I loathed - and I always felt phony doing them. I'd look at myself in the suit and tie and think, 'What the heck am I doing here?' Such sentiments were nothing new. That was always the frustrating thing about the role. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson play it so safe. The pomposity and rigmarole that they put directors through is astounding ... I can do anything I want to do now. I'm not beholden to them or anyone. I'm not shackled by some contracted image."

Now in all fairness to Wilson and Broccoli, where’s the real harm in playing it safe (especially with a franchise built on formula)? The Brosnan films did quite nicely at the box office and delivered what the public wanted from James Bond…but then again the public doesn’t seem particularly ambitious in their dramatic expectations of this series. If they were, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would be near the top of everyone’s list of faves.

Brosnan: "[Wilson and Broccoli are] too scared. They feel they have to top themselves in a genre which is just spectacle and a huge bang for your buck. But I think you can have your cake and eat it. You can have real character work, a character storyline and a thriller aspect and all kinds of quips, asides, the explosions and the women. We're just saturated with too many overblown action films with no plot. That's ludicrous. It's so damn crazy! That's absolutely sheer lunacy because Casino Royale is the blueprint of the Bond character. You find out more about James Bond in that book than in any of the other books. I would love to do a fifth Bond and then bow out, but if this last one is to be my last, then so be it. My contract is up. They can do it or not."

Sometimes I wonder exactly how much influence Brosnan’s opinions eventually had on the franchise.

The public doesn’t often recognize quality until they're beaten over the head by it. Casino Royale has proven to be that rare Bond film which resonates with both critical and financial success. Why the producers finally chose to no longer play it safe I’m unsure, but it’s a good thing they altered strategies as the movie is where Bond should’ve been taken if not at the beginning of Brosnan’s era, at least somewhere along the way. Again, to be fair, he was thrown the occasional bone here and there (the complexity of The World is Not Enough, the first 20 minutes of Die Another Day), but never was he given the full, bloodied carcass. I liked Casino Royale immensely, but all this talk of Daniel Craig being “the best Bond ever” is a bunch of hooey. He’s fantastic in the role and unquestionably a great Bond for this day and age, but remove the origin aspects of the very same script, and Pierce would’ve steamrolled Daniel in two shakes of a martini.

The proof is in The Matador, which is as much of a revisionist Bond film beneath, as Casino Royale is on the surface. I’ve spoken before of my love for The Matador, and have found it a more rewarding film with each successive viewing. It isn’t so much a slice of where James Bond should be, as a spin on (to quote myself again) “where Bond ends up when Her Majesty no longer requires his secret services”. Brosnan’s Julian Noble may be his finest acting ever, and I’ve come to even see it as his unofficial fifth Bond film. It should be required viewing for anyone who’s seen his 007 entries.

Is it a shame Pierce didn’t get to do Casino Royale? Maybe. And if it is, it’s mostly a shame for Pierce himself, who – more than any other Bond -- deserved to go out with a bang bang. This is a guy who’s been a version of James since starting Remington Steele in 1982. His entire career led up to the job, and when he finally got it, the plan didn’t go as it should have.

So this entry stands as a disclaimer: When I start picking apart Brosnan’s flicks for the 007 in '007 series, any barbs aimed at the lead actor are rooted in feelings about his tenure as a whole. Yet my age and experience with this franchise betrays another truth -- for a certain generation of people, Pierce Brosnan is James Bond, and that can never be taken away from him.