If James Bond could age, he'd be well into his 90s right now, license to kill revoked, flirting with the night nurses in a retirement home for old spies.
Of course, as a fictional character, James Bond can't actually age. He can, however, get old.
In the 22 official films that make up the 007 canon to date, there are moments that make James Bond seem very, very old. Take 1964's Goldfinger, when Sean Connery quips that the only way he'd listen to the Beatles is with earmuffs on, and dismisses a nubile, bikini-clad conquest with a curt "run along now, man talk" and a slap to the rear. Or take 1985's A View to a Kill, when Roger Moore, struggling through his stunts at age 57, save the world for the seventh consecutive time (and, perhaps even less plausibly, successfully romances a 30-year-old Tanya Roberts).
There's a difference, however, between tone-deaf moments and tone-deaf movies. The closest that the James Bond franchise has come to the latter is relatively recent: 2002's Die Another Day. Die Another Day is proudly situated in the tradition of the CGI-heavy, "more is more" summer blockbusters popularized during the 1990s—most notably during a pivotal action scene in which 007, driving an invisible car, leads the maniacal villain on a chase through a massive fortress made of ice.
In many ways, Die Another Day represents James Bond at his stereotypical James Bond-iest: he rattles off corny quips, thwarts a power-hungry supervillain with the help of some clever gadgets, and beds two stunning women along the way. The Bond formula hadn't changed. But the world had.
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It was in 2001, of course, that America faced the incomprehensible tragedy of September 11th, but the change in the national mood was only beginning to manifest itself in Hollywood by 2002. Bond's over-the-top exploits in Die Another Day were rendered suddenly, hopelessly anachronistic—an artifact of a more innocent past, chronologically recent, but tonally distant. In contrast to the 007 franchise's old tricks, two aggressively modern new superspies emerged: Jason Bourne of The Bourne Identity, and Jack Bauer of TV's 24 (both of whom—perhaps not coincidentally—share Bond's initials).
Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer were heroes far more in line with the political climate of the 2000s. Each of them operated in a world fraught with moral grays, where the villains were sometimes indistinguishable from the heroes. Each of them was eventually forced to turn against their allies to accomplish their goals. And each of them suffered immense personal consequences because of their actions, no matter how just their motivations. While the Bond franchise had flirted with similar ideas in the past, it had never followed through; no matter what 007 suffered, he was always back in top form by the next film, as competent and unflappable as he'd ever been.
It was time to bring 007 back in line with the rest of the world. After 20 films spanning 4 decades, it took a full reboot of the series, with 2006's Casino Royale, to make the Bond franchise relevant again. Casino Royale depicts a ruthless, unpolished 007 on his inaugural mission, under MI6 boss M's watchful (and occasionally skeptical) eye.
But Casino Royale was more than just a simple reboot; it was an aggressive rejection of the series' best-known conventions. There's no banter with familiar characters like Miss Moneypenny or Q to lighten the mood. Le Chiffre, the film's primary villain, doesn't want to rule the world; he wants money, and he's willing to work with terrorists to gain it. When Bond is captured, Le Chiffre's torture method isn't a laser or a shark tank; it's beating Bond's genitals with a knotted rope. And, most significantly, despite Bond's legendary womanizing, much of the film is devoted to an honest-to-God love story (between James Bond and the enigmatic Vesper Lynd).
Casino Royale's rejection of the series' conventions made it a smash with both critics and audiences, and the franchise drew its then-highest gross ever (and Daniel Craig's second outing as 007, 2008's Quantum of Solace, grossed even more). Given these successes, last week's announcement that Daniel Craig will return to cinemas for his third 007 film (scheduled for release on November 9th, 2012) is no surprise.
But will Craig's Bond still be relevant in 2012? The innovation that proved so surprising and fresh in Casino Royale also created an identity crisis: a clear tension between the silly escapism that dominates the old films and the gritty, modern style of the new ones that seems almost impossible to reconcile. Bond's relationship with Vesper Lynd is so central to Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace that she can't be replaced by a new, serious love interest—but a return to the emotionless carousing of the earlier films would seem frivolous by comparison. And the Daniel Craig films are so concretely grounded in the real world that the technology of the series' earlier films—a laser watch, say, or a car that can turn into a submarine—would be out of place (and evil henchmen with sharp metal teeth or razor-tipped hats are similarly out of the question). But sticking to the formula laid out by Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace will make Bond 23 both repetitious and dull, and the series will be stuck, once again, with a Bond that's a decade behind the times.
If history is any indication, that may prove inevitable; the James Bond franchise has always gone through cycles, and no actor who has played 007 has left the series with as strong a film as they entered the series with. But if Bond 23 fails, Casino Royale proved that Bond can always be made relevant again. And if Daniel Craig isn't the 007 the world needs any longer, we can be sure that the next Bond—the Bond we do need—won't be far behind.