It must be his wit, poise, ... and that perfect tuxedo
Agent 007 is back on the big screen Friday night, marking 40 years of gadgets, women, and box-office success.
In every James Bond movie, there comes a moment when the debonair superspy is captured by the bad guy. The villain then gets to gloat something like, "Now, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."Skip to next paragraph
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You would think after 40 years that the bad guys would have figured out how to off James Bond by now. All it would take is just one evil mastermind abandoning the fancy piranha pools and laser guns for a good old-fashioned bullet.
Instead, Agent 007 has been thwarting villainous schemes for 40 years now, with the release Friday night of "Die Another Day."
It's not just his uncanny ability to escape the baddie's lair (a volcano with a retractable roof or some similar undisclosed secret location of the sort Dick Cheney can only wish for). Bond has also survived in a fast-evolving popular culture, evincing an old-school, gentlemanly brand of exaggerated machismo that has never gone out of style - even in a politically correct age.
In fact, the word style sums up Bond's essential appeal. His sexual liberties, eye-popping in 1962, may for many now provoke yawns. The thrill-a-second action scenes may have gone beyond cliché. Yet Bond, perhaps the only man to have worn more tuxedos than Tony Bennett, exudes a certitude, polish, and control that remain compelling.
"I think men see who they'd like to be, and I think women see who they'd like their men to be ... so everybody is looking at Bond as wishful thinking," says Pamela Shoemaker, a professor of communications at Syracuse University in New York.
It's not for everyone, to be sure - a pre- and postfeminist world in which the masculine (Bond) always triumphs over the feminine, even as the female lead characters have grown stronger and more independent in recent years.
The Bond films themselves now acknowledge the view that Ian Fleming's 1950s creation is a cultural anachronism, as when his boss accused him in one recent film of being a "misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the cold war."
Indeed, when the Bond films first debuted in the early 1960s, they appealed to middle-class men who wanted to revolt from the dictates that men play the role of the family provider, says Jay Mechling, who examines masculinity in American culture at the University of California at Davis.
"The fantasy that men in the '60s would project [on the Bond films] was having an independent life - free from the breadwinner ethic - in which you could consume things, in which you were surrounded by toys," Dr. Mechling says.
Four decades later, not much has changed on that score. Look at the recent phenomenon of best-selling men's magazines such as FHM or Maxim, for example, and one sees the same ingredients of a James Bond movie: Near-naked girls, cars, dapper clothing, witty one-liners, and the latest in cool gadgets. "All men want to be masters of technology," says John Cork, coauthor of "James Bond: The Legacy." "We all want to know how to use the remote control and all the little functions on our cellphone, and we want to be able to do it with the grace and aplomb that Bond uses them."
In Bond's world, the spy is less faithful to women than he is to his Aston Martin car and his Walther PPK gun.
Even so, his philandering seems positively quaint in the era of Howard Stern. The secret agent's relationships in a recent years have tended to be slightly more thoughtful and less opportunistic than the early films, where every girl that caught his eye was a potential lover.
Lee Pfeiffer, coauthor of "The Essential Bond," has a theory why the franchise has been able to get away with triple entendres and libertine sexual mores. "The sex scenes are played with humor. You're not going to compare any Bond movie to 'Last Tango in Paris,' " says Mr. Pfeiffer.
Beginning with 1989's "License to Kill," there has also been a concerted effort to remake the Bond women into more self-confident heroines. Today's "Bond Girl" is so capable of defending herself that she could probably judo flip Oddjob or Jaws. Take Halle Berry, for instance. In "Die Another Day," she portrays a lethal assassin.
"The women who played in the early movies were strong characters. Recently they've become physically strong," says Dr. Shoemaker. "That's a change reflecting how woman have become more conscious about their physical condition, exercising, and participating in sports."
Even so, the "Bond girl" remains objectified, she observes. And though smart or capable, they are still not quite as good as Bond - even if the producers have made Bond's boss, M, into a woman.
Many women moviegoers seem to love the dashing MI6 agent all the same. Recognizing the glamour of the exotic locales, Revlon has launched a major cosmetics advertising tie-in with the latest flick.
Where Bond villains look like shoo ins for the Hair Club for Men, and think they look fetching in Mao jackets, audiences won't likely see 007 in a pair of Levis. The suave agent wears a tux - even under a spacesuit or scuba wetsuit - symbolizing a sense of dignity, civility, and unruffled calm amid chaos.
"Bond represents the constant need that the public has to empathize with a hero," says Pfeiffer. "In an ever-changing world, [he] remains one fixed point, and that point represents a flawed but good man ... trying to overcome the forces of evil."
One thing's for sure: Bond will return.