In the last forty years, has anyone in pop culture been cooler than Sean Connery as James Bond? We don't think so. Thank God a new 007 film, The World Is Not Enough, starring Pierce Brosnan, opens tomorrow to remind us of the glory days of style and save us from today's adolescent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style posing.
What's incredible is that this, the nineteenth Bond movie, can still promise, even now, at least a moment or two of that indelible ease Connery first minted in Dr. No, back in 1962. Bond Cool is the genuine article, a casually superior technique that never lets on that the game is already won before it's begun, with Bond as the winner.
The literary 007 was a hard-living, government-sanctioned tough -- Ian Fleming called him "ruthless and self-indulgent" -- but the films were made for families (believe it or not), which meant no bare breasts, no profanity and minimal bloodshed. That clash gave the cinematic Bonds their unique aura, a slick, urbane mayhem best exemplified by the scintillating Goldfinger, or by Thunderball, the apex of Bond machismo. Connery seamlessly blended the lighthearted and the cold-blooded until the off-screen pressures of the part proved more dangerous than Rosa Klebb's poison-tipped shoe. By 1967's You Only Live Twice, his fifth outing as Bond, Connery looked bored and beat. Aussie George Lazenby -- sadly, a no-name today -- followed gamely in the Connery mold but made only one film, 1969's stellar On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the series' most romantic, exciting and tragic entry.
Despite one more Connery go-round, Bond Cool nose-dived during the Seventies and Eighties. First with Roger Moore, whose bon vivant Bond was all smiles and no edge, and then with the unfairly maligned Timothy Dalton, whose brooding, Heathcliffian Bond was certainly compelling, just not very stylish.
The tough, to-the-point spirit of Sixties Bond -- when 007 and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassin Red Grant pulverized each other aboard the Orient Express in From Russia With Love, one of filmdom's great tussles -- gradually faded, and the movies turned extravagant and spectacular. Opening teasers became free-flowing action riffs stuffed with guns and explosions, boats and jeeps, skis and planes, parachutes (or no parachutes) -- all happily divorced from the demands of narrative logic. You or I could order a vodka martini or buy a Dunhill sea island cotton shirt, but could we dangle off the back of a cargo plane jetting out of Afghanistan? Elegant cool had given way to razzle-dazzle, and the films became (and remain) a tug-of-war between the two.
It has been said that Bond's singular brand of chauvinism, hedonism and casual cruelty belongs in the Sixties. That may be, but the culture hasn't grown up that much in forty years, and anyway, the hyper-consumerism of the Nineties is a natural fit for 007. Things bought make the man or woman these days; they've always made Bond.
Pierce Brosnan's Bond, who debuted in GoldenEye in 1995, combines Moore's spectacle with the dramatic touch of Dalton and, most important, largely restores that unflappable Connery cool. His films are postmodern amalgams of all that's come before: abundant style, bursts of brutality, elaborate chases, crazy villains, beautiful women who can't act, a few moments of serious drama, then a goofy wink to the audience. It's a precarious, schizophrenic blend, but on the whole, James Bond has aged rather like a good bottle of Dom Perignon. No doubt he will thrill audiences well into the next century. Style, after all, never dies.