Friday, November 16, 2012

The World Is Not Enough

Why does the planet's No. 1 spy never go to the really dangerous places?


In the opening scenes of Skyfall, the latest installment of the James Bond mega-franchise, the world's favorite MI6 operative chases bad guy Patrice across Istanbul on motorcycles, through the city's Grand Bazaar, and over its minaret-backed rooftops. Bond jumps and weaves such verve and ease that it's like he knows his way around the city. Has he been here before? Well, no. But: yes.
Skyfall hits the cinemas exactly half a century after the first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). It is the twenty-third official Bond movie, and the third one starring Daniel Craig, the sixth man to play 007 on the silver screen. Craig plays a decidedly muscular Bond, less of a gentleman and more of a street-fighter than previous incarnations -- an attempt to align the slightly time-worn gentility of the series to grittier espionage oeuvres like the Bourne Trilogy. Bond is a protean character, both by the secretiveness of his trade and through the succession of actors that have portrayed him. Thus, while Craig's Bond has never been to Istanbul before, two of his predecessors did visit the metropolis on the Bosporus. In From Russia with Love (1963), Sean Connery dives into Istanbul's so-called Sunken Palace: ancient Byzantine water cisterns, supposedly located beneath the Soviet consulate. A quarter-century later, Pierce Brosnan thwarts an attempt to blow up a nuclear submarine in Istanbul's harbor in The World is Not Enough (1999).
Maybe Craig's Bond, through some form of cinematic transfiguration, was able to benefit from those previous visits -- different actor, same muscle memory. Bond producer Barbara Broccoli claims that Istanbul was Bond writer Ian Fleming's favorite city, but it is not the only foreign city to feature prominently in three different Bond movies -- Venice and Hong Kong share the accolade. In those 50 years and 23 movies at Her Majesty's Secret Service, James Bond has seen a lot of the world. The man not only has a license to kill, but also a travel allowance to kill for. Which is understandable: You can't conference-call your way out of some madman's diabolical plot to wreck the planet.
Taken together, the sum of Bond's 23 erratic itineraries reveals something of the cinematic imperative behind the franchise -- Bond movie locations need to be exotic, spectacular, and/or glamorous. But there's also the lingering geopolitical motive. After all, Bond's mission is to preserve, protect, and promote British influence and interests in the world.
In all, Bond has visited just under 50 countries*, many of those multiple times. Around 20 are in Europe, with about a dozen each in Asia and the Americas. With a mere four visits, Africa scores pretty low on Bond's priority list. Only two of those were in sub-Saharan Africa -- Madagascar and Uganda, both in Casino Royale (2006) -- which obviously did its best to fill in a blank on Bond's world map. The other two were Morocco, in The Living Daylights (1987), and Egypt, twice: in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
Mentioning those Arab countries touches upon a defect of the Bond franchise: He doesn't really go where the action is -- in fact, he seems to positively avoid the world's trouble spots. Four Bond movies have been released in the post-9/11 era, but none of them deals even obliquely with the supposed clash with (or within) Islam that has been animating newspaper columns and battlefields ever since. Apart from an unconnected, brief foray into Pakistan in Casino Royale, Bond never comes near the giant, throbbing conflict zone that spans from Israel all the way to Kashmir.
This is quite in character. In previous decades, Bond never was the West's fiercest Cold Warrior. Although the Red Menace is a theme throughout the early oeuvre, with forays into Yugoslavia (From Russia with Love, 1963) and East Germany (Octopussy, 1983), Bond only infiltrates the Evil Empire itself in its final years -- merely retrieving a microchip in Siberia in 1985's A View to a Kill. In those three movies, however, it's never the Communist establishment that is the enemy, but rather rogue elements within it. It's a fantasy world in which the moviemakers have the luxury of choosing the United Kingdom's enemies; ones that bear only the slightest resemblance to its real-world opponents. Forget Islamic fundamentalist terrorists blowing up public transport on the streets of London. Instead, it's cartoonish geniuses that practice evil for its own sake, or for monetary gain. This takes the politics out of global conflict, and allows Britain to assume the mantle of high morality. The Bond franchise has created over two football teams' worth of villains, with such memorable characters as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) -- the criminal organization which crops up in six Bond movies -- and Raul Silva, the ex-MI6 operative gone rogue in Skyfall.
But let's get back to geography. Essential to the crime syndicate/supervillain set-up is the enemy's lair: a secluded, secret, and sophisticated base bristling with high-tech weapons and teeming with underlings (most of whom won't survive the bloody finale). Of these, the island lair may be the best. There's one in the very first movie: Crab Key, the Jamaican base of Dr. No, and Skyfall introduces an unnamed island off the coast of Macau, Raul Silva's sanctuary. In between, there are Blofeld's lair inside an island off Kyushu in You Only Live Twice (1967), his oil rig off the coast of Baja California in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and the Thai island where Bond kills the assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974).

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