It says a lot about where the James Bond series has been over the last few years that yesterday’s announcement by director Sam Mendes — that he is stepping down from the franchise after having directed two entries — was greeted by Bond fans from around the world with something less than a collective cry of dismay. Opinion will differ as to the sort of job Mendes did (some believe that “Skyfall” was a Bondian apotheosis; this critic did not), but one thing should be clear: After four films with Daniel Craig, in what was meant to be not just a “reboot” or “relaunch” but a veritable reimagining of Bond for the 21st century, the series, overall, has not truly lived up to that billing. And that’s a serious fumble, since the kickoff film of the new era, “Casino Royale” (2006), was a Bondian apotheosis. I’m not alone in thinking that it was the greatest Bond adventure since “Goldfinger” and “Dr. No,” and it established Daniel Craig’s 007 as, potentially, the first genuinely worthy successor to the diamond-hard magic of Sean Connery. Craig’s Bond was more of a ruffian, but he needed to be — these are rougher times — and in place of the smirk of Roger Moore, the scowl of Timothy Dalton, or the precision-watch cunning of Pierce Brosnan, he brought the role a brusque sensuality that masked a glint of omnipotent awareness, a surveillance of the world around him.
Of course, the role of Bond is now up for grabs as well. Craig has indicated that he may well be done with it, and his rumored replacements include Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, and Jamie Bell. (I’d vote for them in that order.) So the reboot of the Bond series is now about to be rebooted. That raises an essential question: not just who’s going to be the next 007, or who’s going to direct the next film, but what will the series now become? And here’s the conundrum that underlies that question: What can — and should — the Bond series be in an age when almost everything it stands for has been absorbed and incorporated into other movies?
Let’s play “Name That Director” for a moment, since it’s such an easy and irresistible parlor game to play. Who should be the next Bond director? The answers are as multiplicitous as they are tempting. I’d love to see a wizard of hair-trigger logistics like Paul Greengrass have a crack at it (then again, the Bourne films already are his Bond series), or an old-school action master like John McTiernan or Wolfgang Petersen, or — yes — Quentin Tarantino, who you might argue, after the grinding-gears insularity of “The Hateful Eight,” could benefit from taking over the toy shop of Bond every bit as much as the series could benefit from him.
QT sounds like a wild card, but my number-one choice would be an even wilder card: Kathryn Bigelow. She’s got the action virtuosity, the grasp of the ominous bureaucratic underworld in all its trap-door layers. But I believe that she could also restore the series to its glory in the realm where it has most dramatically slipped off track – namely, the hot-button arena of Bondian sexual politics. For let’s be honest: Without sex, without the erotic romance of James Bond’s mission in the world, what is 007, really, but another globe-trotting action hero (“Dateline: Grozny, 7:08 a.m.”) who happens to have a British accent and, for two or three scenes, wears a very posh tux? The truth is that the sexual politics of Bond — Bond as the ultimate mythical seducer, the master of women — cuts against the tenor of our age. That either makes Bond an anachronism, a bow-tied relic of the Connery/Hefner era, or it makes him something deeply subversive: a character who takes us back to a dream of erotic warfare, one that beneath our enlightened PC attitudes still reverberates like a primitive heartbeat.
The beauty of the Martin Campbell-directed “Casino Royale,” and what makes it stand apart from the three Bond films that followed, is the way that it looked forward and back at the same time. Yes, “Skyfall” looked back too, but in a misplaced way. It provided Bond with a Freudian backstory, but “explaining” a character like James Bond is a bit like explaining Hannibal Lecter: The more you explain, the more you shave away the character’s cooler-than-life/deadlier-than-life mystique. “Casino Royale” was an infinitely more inspired throwback. Craig’s Bond, with his cocky nihilist glare, was very much a suavely tailored jungle animal of today, yet the whole sprawling centerpiece of the movie was…a card game. Set in a luxury resort in Montenegro. The face-off between Craig and Mads Mikkelsen was a tingly reminder of how even a violent spy thriller could be built around a duel of eye contact. And that felt, for maybe the first time in decades, like the quintessence of Bond. The eye contact extended to the dazzling, multi-leveled deceptive flirtations between Craig and Eva Green. There was something epic at stake in that love story. At the end of the movie, when a grand palazzo in Venice began to buckle, it looked like the Western world was caving in.
That’s the kind of rousing poetic action grandeur that the Bond series deserves. And without it, what really are we talking about? The truth is that James Bond’s missions no longer seem any more impossible than anyone else’s. That’s part of what made the frantic mish-mosh of last year’s “Spectre” so dispiriting. Whoever does take over the series, the challenge isn’t about how they’re going to stage this or update that. The challenge is finding a vision of who James Bond is. Whoever directs the next installment has to do more than just extend the franchise. He (or she) needs to bring this spy in from the cold.