For my generation of adolescent boys growing up in the 1960s, the appeal of Sean Connery’s James Bond lay in his exemption from those ordinary rules of civilized life by which we were feeling every day more and more reluctantly bound. The fabled “License to Kill” was of course very cool, but pretty academic to most of us, I like to think. Much more to the point of our own lives, Bond also apparently enjoyed the license to engage in sexual relations with women who were miraculously unconstrained by the rule and custom which, as we had had to accept, necessarily prevented us and the girls we knew from doing likewise. How lovely to think that one might free oneself from that social context in order to go down what Philip Larkin, enviously looking at young people like me a decade later, called “the long slide/To happiness.” By that time, of course, we had been delivered from the old rules by the upheavals of the 1960s and Larkin was looking at us the way we had once looked at James Bond.
By all rights, you would think that the sexual revolution should have put an end to the Bond franchise. But the ever-less plausible willingness of beautiful women to sleep with him on little or no acquaintance for nothing but the pleasure and excitement of the experience itself somehow managed to remain an ideal state in spite of being unattainable in practice for those of us who, although theoretically “liberated,” remained unlicensed by the British Secret Service. Now that the series has arrived at its half century anniversary with the latest installment, Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, there is something rather perfunctory about the seductions of the current Bond, played by Daniel Craig — as if he regarded it as one of his duties to guard the reputation of the character for sexual magnetism as much as to guard that of poor, militarily enfeebled Britain for force projection.
At one point, for example, a tiny radio transmitter in Bond’s pocket on the other side of the world from the U.K. is able to summon three Royal Navy helicopters to his succor in a matter of moments — which is as much of a fantasy today as a world full of compliant females. But just as the sex in Skyfall (as in the other movies in the series) comes shorn of its still more or less normal back-story of courtship and social networking, so are the encounters with Bond’s enemies stripped of any narrative accountability. The fact is somewhat obscured by a bit of psychologizing in both cases. Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), our hero’s most notable conquest, is a sex-slave now forced by nameless fears to work for the villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva, in his turn, is a former MI6 agent who, having been sold out by M (Judi Dench) to the Chinese enemy, who were torturing him at the time, now seeks vengeance against her and against Britain. But that is storytelling as explaining when what is wanted is storytelling by narrative: not why something happens but how it happens. And how Bond seduces Sévérine or how Silva comes near to destroying both him and the British government are questions that any competent storyteller would want to answer but that do not appear to interest Sam Mendes or his writers.
This is not surprising, as movies in general these days, and Bond movies in particular, are little concerned with such questions or the sort of storytelling to which they are germane. We are warned at the very beginning of Skyfall that we had better not expect any narrative thrills — as opposed to the merely visual ones that are its raison d’être — when at the culmination of a long chase sequence, Bond is apparently shot by his own colleague, falls from a moving train and thence over a very high bridge and under a very high waterfall onto the rocks below — only to appear, after the opening credits and a song by Adele during which we see mute images of him on a beach somewhere taking his unexplained ease with only alcohol for a companion — back in London, reporting for duty to Miss Dench’s M. Amazing! How did he survive all that? Or so we may ask if we have the bad taste and the naive expectation of narrative coherence that the more sophisticated audiences for whom the movie is intended apparently do not.
It’s the same when the three aforementioned British helicopters suddenly and unexplainedly appear over an island in the South China Sea, or when Silva, having escaped from custody by means of computer wizardry (which nobody expects to be explained) and donned a police uniform provided to him by two of an apparently unlimited number of equally unexplained henchmen, shoots up the Palace of Westminster and then appears in his own helicopter (together with a great many more henchmen) at Bond’s ancestral home (“Skyfall”) in Scotland for the climactic confrontation. How did he do all that? Where did he get the men, the money, and the weaponry? How did he escape from the dragnet in the capital? Don’t be silly! He’s the villain. That’s just what Bond villains do!
The enjoyment of things, either sex or violence, which normally come only at the conclusion of a long sequence of preparatory events, only at the moment of their ripeness and without any of their real-world preliminaries must always have about it something of the feeling of a naughty indulgence. The secret of the Bond franchise’s longevity must be lie in this uneasiness of conscience. Our love of seeing our vicarious but more glamorous representative — all of whose conquests of both types appear to come without the more tedious and mundane sorts of effort that we know are required in our own lives — can only be enhanced when he is cheating an all too familiar reality by getting away with something he should not get away with. He is, in short, the perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy, though one that you might expect we’d have grown out of by now.