In Spectre (2015), the latest James Bond movie, several old tropes make a comeback. SPECTRE, an acronym denoting a shadowy organisation involved in counterintelligence, terrorism, and espionage, last appeared in the Bond film Diamonds are Forever (1971). One of the best Bond villains ever, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the cat-stroking villain often shown with a scarred face, also returns.
Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as the dashing, ruthless spy in Spectre after Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall (2012), will also be his last Bond film. Craig had been critically acclaimed for his portrayal of 007 as vulnerable and unafraid to reveal his confusions and loyalties.
After Spectre, which was plugged as a “reboot” of the series and one of the highest grossing Bond films ever, the search is on for a new Bond. But this isn’t the only challenge for the film’s makers. As Sam Mendes’ directorial ventures with Skyfall and Sceptre showed, success with Bond movies meant trying out the new, yet the old features remain critical: Q, Moneypenny, and not least the gadgets.
The old-fashioned continuity that the James Bond persona represents matters as does the fact of what he represents: a quintessential British symbol. When much of British glory has faded, Bond stays on, only a trifle jaded, but yet necessary, much like the royalty itself. Something precisely underscored by the opening sequence of the London Summer Olympics of 2012, when Craig as Bond appeared together with Elizabeth II, in a helicopter ride and parachute dive, assisted ably by stuntmen.
But to balance history while seeking to adapt and remain constantly ahead of new challenges can be a hard balancing act. Almost as if aware of this, some spy films have preferred to focus on the comic. The Bond films have led to a range of parodies, the most famous being the Austin Powers films where the main character was inspired by Sean Connery’s Bond. Blofeld appears as Dr Evil, Frau Farbissina is a remake of stiletto-stabbing Rosa Klebb, and the henchman Oddjob (of Goldfinger) is called Random Task who throws a shoe and not a bowler hat.
The historical fiction-cum-spy film movies have moved the genre to entirely new directions. Movies like Argo (2012) and more recently Bridge of Spies (2015) are human dramas mirroring the complexity and amorality required in the volatile, high stakes game of espionage, when undercover moves must coexist with overt diplomacy.
In the last decade, drone warfare, advanced surveillance techniques and more ruthless and controversial enemies haven’t made the spy’s role redundant but considerably complicated it. The terrorist as enemy makes war a more ambiguous, violent and visual proposition, even as it is more distant. Spies would find it hard to operate as a lone wolf – with one caveat: unless the enemy is someone very familiar, usually the parent organisation. Such a scenario unfolds in the first Mission: Impossible movie, the first three Bourne films based on Robert Ludlum’s novels, and in Taken III, starring Liam Neeson in a trilogy. But in most instances, confronted by a largely unknown, fast-changing world, spy films have reverted to the familiar tropes.
In Mission: Impossible (1996), Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt fights to absolve himself of charges of killing his fellow agents. Hunt works with Luther Stickell – a computer hacker, more indispensable than Q – and also Benji Dunn and Willy Brandt to stop in time the theft of a viral antidote, thwart a global nuclear war and most recently in Rogue Nation, battles a Spectre-like organisation called the Syndicate.
A fifth Bourne film, Jason Bourne, starring Matt Damon, will be released this year, while Mission: Impossible VI is due to start production. In the first three Bourne films, an amnesiac Bourne finds himself targetted by his own agency (and a rogue agency much on the lines of the Syndicate and Spectre) and fights to save himself and learn the truth as well. The first three Jack Ryan movies (1995-2014) based on Tom Clancy’s novels, involved the traditional US-Russia rivalry, Northern Ireland conflict, and then the drug cartels of Colombia.
The last two Ryan films were in the nature of a reboot, but Russia returns as the ubiquitous enemy. In The Sum of All Fears (2002), a rather mysterious person becomes president of Russia; in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), Ryan is a CIA operative and Wall Street analyst who chances on a Russian tycoon’s shady investments that threaten to shake up global markets.
In its five seasons, the Homeland television series takes on more recent conflicts and new ways of fighting new enemies. Lead agent Carrie Mathison suspects Nicholas Brody of having sympathies with Al-Qaeda, as he has spent time in captivity with them. The complexity lies in the fact that the protagonists, trained in psychological warfare and mind games, believe they can cross lines easily.
Spy movies have learnt well how their own world works, but the world around them has changed much too fast, especially in the last decade.
Of all spy movies, the Bond movies face the challenge of moving on, with the times and also changing audiences. There are, for instance, more action sequences in the later Bond movies, in place of dour British humour. And the old remains relevant too, as do the gadgets; Sceptre sees a return of the iconic Ashton Martin db10, a fixture in several Bond movies.
Another “familiar” character that could arguably return and make the Bond films more synchronous with hard reality is the CIA agent last seen in Never Say Never Again (1983): Felix Leiter. But American agents by themselves cannot rid the world of evil, even if Bond comes always to their able assistance. Bond movies need to move on beyond having Asians as villainous dictators and warlords; i.e, Chinese intelligence agents more into kick-boxing such as Wai Lan, the uber-spy and able Bond ally in The World is Not Enough (1997), rather than Peaceful Fountains of Desire, the undercover masseuse in Die Another Day (2002).