It seems appropriate that Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie began their film careers working together, and that they each seem to have helped define the British film industry now for sixteen years, because this year, both have decided to take on the most British of all British subjects… James Bond.
To be clear, neither of them is actually making a film about James Bond, but there is absolutely no doubt that both of them have Bond on the brain. This Friday, Matthew Vaughn's “Kingsman: The Secret Service” will open in theaters, kicking off a year that should have filmgoers thinking about James Bond from one end of the calendar to the other. After all, Vaughn's film, which I liked quite a bit, is a loving tribute to the fetishistic totems of the Bond franchise, re-imagined by Mark Millar, then re–re-imagined by Vaughn and his co-writer, the fiendishly clever Jane Goldman. Goldman”s been Vaughn”s co-writer on all of his films, and her wicked wit is one of the ways he balances Millar”s natural nihilism and Vaughn”s own pop culture tendencies. It's very modern, with one eye on the past and one eye on the future, straddling the same sort of odd stylistic blend that the real Bond series attempts these days.
Later this summer, we'll get Guy Ritchie's take on “The Man From UNCLE,” and since UNCLE was part of that post-Bond spy movie mania, what we're really seeing here is Ritchie's take on one of the earliest properties to try to capitalize on the success of the James Bond series. I've read a few different drafts of the “UNCLE” script, and it feels like they're doing something that is specifically referencing that early run of films, from “From Russia With Love” to “Thunderball.” It's a far more low-tech version of things, and there's a real charm to that approach on the page. Fistfights and machine guns and a sort of high-impact but grounded approach to the mayhem.
Finally, to really push things over the top, we've got “SPECTRE” set for holiday release, the latest in the Daniel Craig run of official EON James Bond movies. There are reasons to be excited about what they're doing, and reasons that it matters to the franchise overall in a very big way. I'm not completely sold yet on what they're doing, but I want to believe that they will nail it by the time the film hits theaters.
I'm not sure we've ever had as many major movies in one year playing this many variations on a single big pop culture icon, and I find the Guy Ritchie/Matthew Vaughn synchronicity even more compelling. Looking at these releases and having seen and read the things I've seen and read, I have to ask the question: what happens when everyone decides to make a James Bond film in the same year?
Let's start with the “real” Bond film. I was a fan of “Skyfall,” and I've been very clear about my feelings towards the Bond series on the whole. The more times I watched “Skyfall,” the more certain things impressed me and the more certain other things faded. I think it's a very stylish affair, certainly, and Craig feels settled into the role in a big way that is important. James Bond has to be confident, almost supernaturally so, and the films have to be just as confident. When a James Bond film makes no goddamn sense (a frequent occurrence), it's fine as long as the movies throw enough exotic locations and tiny bikinis and rocket cycles and death-defying stuntmen at us.
The films are pretty much catalogs of what the filmmakers think is cool at any given moment, which pins these films down to the moments they are made. Unavoidably. You think of the various movies in the franchise, the various actors who have played the part, and they are completely and utterly of the split second. I look at “The Spy Who Loved Me,” and that is 1977. No mistake. Or “License To Kill.” 1989. It is so very very 1964 in “Goldfinger.” I think that's one of the things that makes the Bond movies so interesting. It's like an exercise, bending this basic formula to the way popular movies looked and felt at that time.
One of the things that makes Bond stand apart, even today, is that he is dapper, able to move though high society and back alleys with the same ease. The imitators are easy to spot because it”s often the trappings of the series that they carry over, without necessarily getting the tone right. You look at Jason Bourne, and he”s not a James Bond imitator. They took specific pains to set him apart in aesthetic, in the way Bourne operates. If anything, the “Bourne” films started to influence the official Bond movies as they incorprated a more kinetic style of action starting with “Casino Royale.” Even now, though, no one is as well-dressed or as at-ease around money. Bond remains singular in that regard, which is what makes him so enduringly cool, and such an aspirational character.
“SPECTRE” is a make-or-break turning point for the series. At least, it is for me. After all, they've been trying to regain the rights to the criminal organization led often by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It's sort of like Batman having lost the rights to the Joker at some point, and then suddenly getting them back. When Eon announced the title for this film, they knew exactly what they were doing. They were telling long-time fans of the series that the ultimate showdown is coming.
And to some degree, that's how this new film tries to set things up. I'm trying to walk in as blind as possible, but there are a few things I know for sure. “SPECTRE” is a direct sequel to “Casino Royale,” “Quantum Of Solace,” and “Skyfall,” with story threads from all three films all brought together with one unifying force operating behind the scenes of everything that's happened to James Bond since the very start. Beyond that, I know nothing, and I think the title pretty much told us that much. From here on, I'm speculating about what we might see.
I like that. I think there's an opportunity there to turn Blofeld, and SPECTRE as well, into something terrifying. Something that is behind everything. There is no good side anymore when SPECTRE is puppeteering everything. It's a great way to strand James Bond and cut off his support system and make him question not only what he's done but what the entire spy game is about. Done right, it might look something like the way they”ve handled the Moriarty character on the Cumberbatch/Freeman version of “Sherlock,” making him a foe who uses the trappings of the modern world to operate as a ghost, as a bug buried deep in the machine.
What I hope most is that they don't make the mistake of making everything personally tied to James Bond himself. Bond is a weapon. Making Bond too personally involved, too much the center of the conspiracy, is not only strange because he's technically supposed to be a secret agent, someone who can vanish into different identities, but because it makes the whole world seem awfully small, and everything is suddenly driven by outrageous coincidence.
I'm excited to see how “SPECTRE” embraces some of the conventions of the series. Moneypenny will start the film entrenched outside M's office now, and Q has his full research division up and running. In some ways, “Skyfall” felt like the final step in moving all the pieces into place to start making Bond movies that we recognize as Bond movies in structure and in style. It would be frustrating to see “SPECTRE” play like one long stall as Bond continues to almost be Bond. I'm hoping it hits the ground running, with Bond now a feared legend in the community because of everything he's done, and with the guilt of M's death still hanging over him. They've given this Bond his fair share of scars since Daniel Craig took over the role. Time to put him into play as the hardened killer he's become.
What “Kingsman” and “The Man From UNCLE” both embrace is an exaggerated sense of humor, which stands in stark contrast to the largely humor-free tone of the Craig movies. There are a few jokes, but they are occasional, punctuation only, and the films have a much more grim tone with Craig playing the part. That's because “Kingsman” and “UNCLE” are both films made by guys who have grown up dreaming of Bond, and the freedom of doing something that is inspired by but not officially part of the thing is that you can bend or break or twist or subvert the archetypes in a way that the official thing can't. There's only so far they're ever going to let a filmmaker try to bend the James Bond formula for EON Productions. They will never push it so far that it's suddenly “Tilda Swinton plays Lesbian Bond with Channing Tatum as Miss Moneypenny.” But you can feel in “Kingsman” how much Vaughn and Mark Millar and Jane Goldman all want to muss the genre, rumple it, make fun of it even as they wallow in it. There's a playfulness to “Kingsman” that can only come from deep affection.
And now we've got a “Man From UNCLE” trailer to judge, and the morning will bring new behind-the-scenes images from “SPECTRE,” and you'll be able to see “Kingsman” for yourself. Maybe it's ideal that we get all three of these films in one year because no matter what Bond you consider the ideal Bond, you'll get a taste of it in at least one of the films.
And if none of them are your cup of tea, Tom Cruise arrives early with his fifth time out as Ethan Hunt in a new “Mission: Impossible,” plus you've got Melissa McCarthy in Paul Feig's “Spy” this summer as well or a video game icon taking a second shot at big-screen success with “Hitman: Agent 47.” Plenty of spy-jinks in pretty much every flavor you can imagine, so let's see who ends up making the best use of their license to kill this year.