I was never much of a James Bond fan. The movies were always too kitschy, too camp, their strings of one-liners and stock situations along with the clunky acting came in the way of any sophisticated storyline or character development.
Well, of course that was the whole bloody point of Bond movies. Bond was a radically conservative post-War British spy-hero, serving his country, bedding his women, blowing up the bad guys and delivering Oscar Wilde-isms for a non-literary crowd. Bond movies were really Tintin comics for grown-ups where the hero looks sexy.
That is, until the 23rd Bond film with Daniel Craig as a more-caveman-than-musketeer Double-O appeared in the 2006 Casino Royale. This Bond spoke less than his predecessors; fought, ran and bled much more; was less inclined to be bogged down by women, who now seemed more comforting than tempting. The first in the new series, Casino Royale rebooted Bond, 'reminding' us how he came to be what he would ultimately become - a borderline misogynist who forsook love for action, a patriot who was ferociously individualistic, and a modern action hero who was employed in the Cold War-era-smacking British secret intelligence service MI6.
But it's the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, that has added heft and depth to the spy-hero's character. And much of the credit for this must go to director Sam Mendes. I was caught by the intelligent beauty of his 1999 film American Beauty, a savage take on the American suburban dream. I had admired his Road To Perdition, set in Depression-era America and which explored violence and the father-son relation. I had found Jarhead, his dark depiction of the gruelling life of a soldier, to be the finest 'effects-of-war' film since Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.
So I was surprised to find Mendes take a shot at the Bond franchise. But after watching Skyfall last week, I'm not at all surprised that he's taken the adventures of a solo intelligence operative to another new level. It's like watching Daniel Craig as an old Sean Connery-Bond fan growing up to become the real 007.
Without giving the game away, Bond in this latest film is in the throes of a professional midlife crisis. He's first given up for dead, and then when he does resurface, he's considered past his prime, even damaged. There's a wonderful scene in which a white-stubbled Bond and Q, MI6's resident gadget guru, are sitting at London's National Gallery in front of JMW Turner's famous 1838 painting, The Fighting Temeraire. Q sees what most people see in Turner's swirling masterpiece: an old warship being tugged to her last berth to be broken up as scrap. Bond, aware of the parallels applicable to himself, refuses to see the Temeraire as anything other than a "bloody big ship".
Much has already been made about this Bond having 'mummy issues' with MI6's spy mistress M, played impeccably as ever by Judi Dench. But this is not a fashionable 'New Age' Freudian reading of alpha male James. It is a Bond we're not familiar with because we've been taught to not think of 'Bond' and 'complex' in the same sentence.
Daniel Craig's James Bond owes much to Matt Damon's Jason Bourne, the 'rogue' CIA operative of the 2002 film, The Bourne Identity. There are also more than just shades of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight-Batman battling with his demons if not in Bond's character then in his treatment. But make no mistake. Even Mendes' 007 has the one-liners. The naked girl in the shower tells Bond that she "feels naked without her Beretta". There's also plenty of references to the old, campy Bond films and the back-story of Miss Moneypenny is as believable as it is lovely. So there's no chance that you'll mix up this James Bond with George Smiley.
But as has been the case with recent Sherlock Holmes films - in the action-hero version starring Robert Downey Jr as well as in the rivetting BBC TV series set in contemporary London starring Benedict Cumberbatch - Bond too has been refitted with layers with great results. Like in the new Batman films set in a post-9/11, 'Occupy Wall Street' world, the latest Bond film is believable to the extent that he's not hunting a cartoon villain in a tropical island - or on the Moon - but a shadowy psychotic in rush-hour London Underground trains and platforms. The rugged handsomeness of actor Javier Bardem transformed into the effete ugliness of the villain Raoul Silva heightens the character's utter villainy in the eyes of a knowing audience.
Iconic heroes are being infused with a new, self-subverting character these days that may not make the purists happy. But this is exactly what gives James Bond his new, serrated edge. In Skyfall, Bond remains familiar. But he is also more interesting now than the pin-up you remember. And interesting, as any Bond girl will tell you, is far more seductive than familiar. So does anyone care to take a crack at a new Ramayana movie or TV series?