It’s been nearly 45 years since the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and we have gotten to the point in the James Bond mythology where films riff off the central myth, in some cases making profound observations about the British and American character. Take two relatively recent examples: Pierce Brosnan’s latest film, The Matador and the Vin Diesel vehicle, xXx.
(Yes, I know what you’re thinking, xXx is about as deep as wading pool. Wait for it.)
The Matador plays off the fact that the most recent James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, is cast as the alcoholic, over the hill assassin, Julian Noble. Brosnan plays Noble as a witty, charming asshole with pedophiliac tendencies. Magnifying all of Bond’s worst traits.
The key to the character and to the film comes from a throw-away line when Julian Noble is talking to Greg Kinnear’s naif character, Danny Wright, during a bull-fight. Julian has just revealed to Danny that he is an assassin and Danny asks him if he works for the government. Julian laughs and responds that there is no money in government work, that he works for large corporations.
If I want to send an agent to the lavatory, I need the Foreign Secretary's permission. If I want him to do anything when he gets there, I need the Prime Minister's written approval! - Neil Burnside, The Sandbaggers
The fantasy of the James Bond character is not that he kills people for the British Government. The fantasy is that he is paid well and has access to all the wonderful equipment invented by Q. The truth would be more along the lines that the real James Bond would be an over-worked, under-paid bureaucrat strangled by red tape, without the resources that he would need to complete his assignments properly and constantly betrayed by his bosses in the name of political expediency. There are two marvelous examples of this kind of James Bond: the British TV series, The Sandbaggers and the comic book series, Queen and Country. Not to mention most of John LeCarré’s literary work.
xXx’s commentary on the James Bond myth comes in the very first scene where a tuxedo clad secret agent tries to infiltrate a rave run by Balkan gangsters. Horribly overdressed, he is quickly caught and killed. The U.S. government recruits the nihilistic anarchist and X Games athlete, Xander Cage, to infiltrate the Balkan mob and succeed where the trained spy failed. The tuxedo clad secret agent is obviously intended to be short hand for James Bond. The film making the point that Bond is too stuffy, too British, too old, to succeed.
This is not a new criticism of the James Bond myth, just the most recent. There has always been a profound suspicion on the part of the United States (at least in film and on TV) with “professional” secret agents. US spies on film tend to be amateurs and frequently criminals, It Takes a Thief being a prime example. Consider the longest running and most successful espionage TV series of all time, Mission: Impossible, the whole point of the series being that the US government would recruit amateurs, experts in their own field, to complete impossible missions. Because they were not official agents of the US government, they had no connection back to the US government and could be safely “disavowed”... as they were famously warned in the opening of each episode.
Consider also how in the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film series that the villains, at least in the first two films, come from WITHIN the Impossible Missions department. There is a point to be made here that if the department did not exist than Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt wouldn’t need to save the day.
This eagerness to recruit amateurs to do a job, compared to the British preference for professionals, points to a fundamental difference between the two countries. Britain considers foreign affairs to be too important to leave to amateurs, while the United States has always had a profound suspicion of those who pay more attention to matters outside of the United States than within her own borders. Hence the traditional antagonism to the United Nations.
There is also an interesting commentary being made about the class system in Britain and the United States. The British secret agent is in the employ of his Government. He is almost always from working class roots and interestingly is frequently Scottish or Irish, while his bosses are almost always English, Aristocratic and wealthy.
The US amateur agents, on the other hand, are almost always independently wealthy or at least they don’t need to work. Derek Flint is a dilettante; Alexander Scott is a tennis pro; Matt Helm is a fashion photographer; Rollin Hand is a magician; Alexander Mundy is a thief. Each experts in their chosen field; each independently wealthy; each with time to pursue their amateur espionage; each given and accepting orders from men who DO work for the government for pay and who are frequently the social inferiors to the men that they give orders to.
The ultimate expression of this US distrust of secret agents manifested itself in a real life incident during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq: the famous yellow cake uranium from Niger incident. The British Secret Service stumbled on a rumour that Saddam Hussein was buying yellow cake uranium from Niger (or created that rumour) and passed that information to the US government. To investigate the lead, the Bush administration, rather than turning to the CIA, turned to a diplomat, Joseph Wilson. Now granted, Wilson had ties to the CIA both professionally and personally, being married to an undercover CIA agent. Still, in terms of espionage, he was a rank amateur. From published reports, it appears that his investigation consisted of nothing more than going to Niger and asking if anyone was selling uranium to Iraq.
(One could almost feel like the Bush administration sent Wilson to Iraq in the hopes that by stirring up the pot, someone from Hussein’s Mukhabarat secret police might be tempted to try and kill Wilson, giving the Bush administration an immediate casus belli for war. Wilson being disposable because he is both a Democrat and a diplomat. This conspiracy theory probably gives the Keystone Kops Bush administration way more credit than it deserves.)
For the British on the other hand, while the James Bond myth is obviously an exaggeration, in terms of the fabulous toys that he has at his disposal, the core of the myth, the idea of a Working Class Hero doing the dirty work for his government for a salary, dispassionately, is a key to understanding the British character. Because Britain is an island, dependant on its inter-action and trade with the outside world, dealing with that outside world is a job best left to professionals, trained properly for the job. The educated Aristocratic upper-crust may make the policy decisions, but when it comes to getting one’s hands dirty, the work is best left to the trained working class.
The best example of this in the James Bond series comes in my personal favourite James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. While, like most, I prefer Sean Connery’s Bond to all other versions, this Roger Moore vehicle does allow the Bond myth to address the distinction between personal vengeance and government policy. In the film, the cross-bow wielding Melina Havelock continually crosses paths with Bond. She is on a personal quest for vengeance against the men who killed her parents while they tried to retrieve an encryption device from a sunken British spy vessel. Bond’s interest, on the other hand, is strictly with the retrieval of the device. Bond is sympathetic towards Melina, but it is only when their interests coincide that Bond begins to help her. By the end of the film, Bond has his own personal reasons to be looking for vengeance, but he only indulges in those impulses because they coincide with his professional obligations.
The problem with Roger Moore’s Bond, as with Pierce Brosnan’s, is that both men portray Bond as a witty, charming asshole who really has a heart of gold. This is also the fundamental difficulty with Brosnan’s Julian Noble in The Matador. Sean Connery, on the other hand, was witty and charming and an asshole, but at the end of the day he was completely ruthless in a way that neither Brosnan nor Moore could muster. Connery’s Bond was always, first and foremost, a killer who took orders and carried them out, indulging in his passions only when it did not interfere with his mission.
All of which is to say, that here in the IWS we have our own twist on the James Bond myth. A man who, for pay, destroys his opponents coldly, methodically and without passion. This is the key to his success. It is a dangerous cool, exactly like Connery’s Bond. He is the consummate professional and as he indicates with his gun-like gestures in the ring, he is a gun for hire.