If you asked me to name the half dozen filmmakers I would most love to see take a stab at directing a James Bond movie, I seriously doubt that I would have put Sam Mendes on the list. My first choice would probably be Quentin Tarantino, if only because I’ve long nurtured the fantasy that if QT were ever to set aside his highly specialized ’70s pulp fetishes and sign on to make, you know, a mainstream Hollywood movie, it could be a spectacular thing to see. There are other directors who would be obvious choices to helm a Bond extravaganza: Paul Greengrass, with his Bourne-again whipsaw extravagance, or Christopher Nolan, who with his two Batman movies proved that he’s exactly what a great Bond filmmaker (at least in my eyes) needs to be — a fantasist rooted in the real world. I’d also love to see what Kathryn Bigelow could do with an 007 installment. Beyond her pyrotechnical action chops, surely she would offer a novel angle on the ultimate big-screen ladies’ man.
Yet when I read that Mendes, the doomy poet of suburban distress (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), was in talks to direct the 23rd Bond adventure, with a script co-written by the deviously clever Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and Daniel Craig once again cast as the fabled superspy, my gut instinct said: Inspired choice! Mendes may be far from my favorite filmmaker (is he anyone’s?), but he’s a director of sharp personality and stately visual dazzle (he’s also British, which means that he’s got those posh and dagger-sharp Bond manners wired into his DNA), and as he proved in Jarhead, he can bring off massively scaled feats of logistical action as well. What Mendes brings to the table is just what the Bond series needs right now: not wilder gadgets or more caffeinated editing or bold new ways to order a cocktail, but a laser-like fixation on the cool dark interiors of outwardly slick and seamless characters.
The Mendes news, which has yet to be finalized, could hardly come at a better moment, since the Bond series is now at a crucial fork-in-the-road juncture. As readers of this blog know, I thought Casino Royale was the best film of 2006, and also one of the best movies of the decade. For me, it was bliss (I could watch it once a month), and so much more than a “ride” — without at all shortchanging Bond’s ultra-sleuth essence, it cast him as an arrestingly ruthless and complicated hero, and that made the movie as suspenseful and engulfing as a modern-day Hitchcock thriller. The director, Martin Campbell (GoldenEye), brought back the danger of Bond. In an era when our obsession with the visual threatens to swallow up everything that movies can be, the producers of the Bond series, by backing this high-end concept for a franchise reboot, brought off a rare heroic act of anti-cynicism. They took the Bond films, which had been devolving into bloated stuntfests ever since The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) kicked the series into high roller-coaster gear, and said: Let’s re-invent these movies as…movies. And it worked, stunningly.
Except that Casino Royale generated an acclaim, and an excitement among fans, that didn’t necessarily translate into some ultimate bonanza at the box office. Domestically, the film made $167 million — almost exactly what the previous Bond film, Die Another Day (2002), had done four years earlier. Better Bond didn’t necessarily mean bigger Bond. And so the producers did what producers tend to do: They got scared. And second-guessed themselves. Quantum of Solace (2008), the disappointing sequel, wasn’t just a misfire — it was positioned, cynically, to be a shallower action antidote to the heady, indelible intrigue of Casino Royale. It played like a mediocre Roger Moore opus intercut with faux-Bourne chase sequences, and the new cutthroat charisma that Craig had brought to the role mostly got left on the cutting-room floor.
Mendes is just the director to bring it back. This is probably as good a place as any to insert a cheap joke about his fixation on upper-middle-class ennui, so let’s get the bad joke out of the way: When we first meet Mendes’ Bond, will he be stuck in some unhappy marriage on the outskirts of London, which he’ll escape with the handy excuse of having to trot around the globe to avert an apocalyptic terrorist crisis? Will the movie be called From Suburbia With Love? GoldenAngst? Okay, I humbly apologize for those wretchedly obligatory Sam Mendes “jokes.”
What I do think is that Mendes can fashion a Bond thriller in which the tension — as it was in Casino Royale — is rooted in psychology, relationships, and a tantalizing glimpse of the man behind the license to kill. Maybe the movie will actually give us a villain as memorable as the actor who plays him (I suggest Christoph Waltz as a thinly veiled version of Dick Cheney), or a Bond girl as ravishingly ambiguous as Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Or maybe Mendes will try for something radical that’s never been done in a Bond movie before. The point is that a great Bond film needs to thrill us by surprising us, and the best way to do that is by inviting James Bond to surprise himself.
So what do you think of the idea of Sam Mendes directing Bond? And are there any other filmmakers who you’d like to see take a crack at the franchise?