||It's quite the dichotomy, but it’s probably the only major franchise that has lasted so long with this as its defining feature, even though you’re supposed to take it seriously. The James Bond series is one of those sets of films that ostensibly have an approach that’s completely sincere, yet what happens in them is frequently preposterous, and for many fans you're not meant to notice when it gets very silly indeed. Certainly there have always been jokes present in the script, and as a hero Bond is quite the wit, it's part of his personality trait of being well aware of the right thing to say at the right time, so you would not hear him attempting to chat up his latest would-be conquest with the interrupting cow knock knock joke, since it's the off the cuff sense of humour that he specialises in, even if the screenwriters had been sweating over every quip for months.
But some Bonds are funnier than others, and for some that’s an issue, as operating at too lighthearted a level can jeopardise the potential for audiences to take it seriously. Too many jokes and you have Carry On Spying, or worse, a big budget Police Academy instalment, too few and you have the muscular action flicks that were the Jason Bourne series, which shadowed Bond in the twenty-first century as a terrier might snap at his heels; not for nothing did star Matt Damon accidentally call his role as the James Bourne series when interviewed by Graham Norton near the eve of the release of Spectre, which might indicate it was playing catch up to the format set in stone by over half a century of espionage on a grand scale. However, there were those who preferred the American agent to the British one, no upstart was he to them, nope, he was the real deal and Bond was purest cheese shown up by his main rival.
Yet that is missing the point, it was the combination of laughs and thrills that made Bond what he is, and you could make the argument that lifting the mood would not go amiss in his more gritty efforts: Timothy Dalton barely tried to make with the gags, and as a result he is loved by a certain kind of purist who preferred 007 as a sophisticated killing machine, which he assuredly is in Licence to Kill, to the extent that more or less all he does in that film is hunt down and execute bad guys in a script specifically tailored to Dalton’s strengths. When he tried to make jokes about a horse's arse in The Living Daylights it was well out of his comfort zone, and more's the pity that he never had his silly Bond instalment, quite unlike the others to make more than two movies in that vein. George Lazenby even had more laughs than Dalton managed, and his efforts ended in the most serious denouement of them all.
For Sean Connery, his silly Bonds could be picked from moments throughout the sixties, from seducing the avowed lesbian Pussy Galore in Goldfinger to actually featuring a character called Pussy Galore in the first place, but it wasn’t really until the seventies that the brand started to embrace kitsch. Diamonds are Forever was a deeply ludicrous movie, bringing back villain Blofeld but putting him in women’s clothing and basing a key character on Howard Hughes only making him a hick, not to mention the gay assassins, and not in the cheery way either, but it surely set the tone for Connery’s successor Roger Moore. Spectacle was always a big point of these, but with Moore that turned outlandish to a degree unimagined by the sixties audiences, upping the ante with the corkscrew river jump in The Man with the Golden Gun or having its most memorable villain not be the lead baddies, but the metal-toothed henchman Jaws.
Richard Kiel’s Jaws made his debut in The Spy Who Loved Me, the one featuring an underwater car, but for true silliness you had to look to his second appearance in the film often described - or criticised - as the daftest Bond of all: Moonraker. Doing its own cash in on the science fiction craze (Ian Fleming's source novel wasn’t sci-fi in the least), it saw our hero in space, in orbit in a station far above the Earth for its Star Wars baiting finale, but even before that it was consistently foolish in a way that was regarded as too far. On the other hand, it’s not without serious scenes: Corinne Cléry's fate as the woman who double crosses her evil boss (eaten by his dogs) is very grim, and Jaws managed to be quite frightening when he dresses up as a carnival clown and inexorably advances on one of Bond’s contacts.
That’s not what audiences tend to recall about Moonraker, it was more Jaws falling in love with a tiny, bespectacled blonde (Blanche Ravalec) complete with Tchaikovsky’s Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet swelling on the soundtrack, or Q delivering the line "I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir!" for the film’s punchline, fitting for a script penned by Christopher Wood who created Confessions of a Window Cleaner a few years before. Moore's next was a corrective to this, For Your Eyes Only, though even that included Janet Brown doing her Margaret Thatcher impersonation, and soon he was reverting to type with the rest of his eighties works, growing noticeably long in the tooth and actually dressing as a clown for Octopussy, then capping his Bond career with the clunky A View to a Kill that would have us believe Grace Jones was interested in him sexually.
Post-Dalton, if anything Pierce Brosnan's styling owed much to Moore once again, which turned out very effectively in his debut Goldeneye, but by the point of his fourth try Die Another Day it had all gone horribly wrong once again with its invisible car and world's worst surfing sequence (er, aside from the A View to a Kill one, perhaps). Thus it was believed new blood was necessary, and then came the most serious Bond movie of all, Casino Royale. Now, there had already been a version of that book, the first novel, in the sixties which kind of stood in for the hilarity of Moore's seventies that was to come, but in this instance we were offered Daniel Craig as serious thespian taking the role, buff, forceful man of action with the twinkle in his eye hardly acknowledged when he had such a Paddington-esque hard stare in his arsenal.
And yet, Casino Royale made an excellent case for dialling back the humour and delivering a powerful action thriller for the new millennium. There were other changes to make it more modern, of course, for instance the use of mobile phones was ramped up considerably to the extent that you half expected Bond to take on villain Le Chiffre at Angry Birds rather than cards at the titular casino, but the action was bigger and better than ever before, no real car chase though made up for with the setpiece of the moment in free running across a building site in Africa or a race towards a prototype airliner to prevent a bomb going off. The love interest held more meaning than ever, certainly since Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with Eva Green doing her level best to break James's heart.
Though she also restarts it in a scene that illustrated silly Bond was never far away, and should be embraced. That the agent, here operating in an origin story as was the fashion in this era, would be able to carry on a conversation with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) while getting his testicles punished with a carpet beater was a good example of the fantasy level the stories existed in, and no matter how much Bond endured we had to take it on trust that he would succeed to fight another day (not die an… anyway). Though Quantum of Solace was viewed as going too far into the serious tone its predecessor had conjured and come out the other side of nonsense, Skyfall, the anniversary instalment, managed a perfect balance between the jokes and the grit, with Craig proving himself unexpectedly adept with the wit.
With Spectre, the franchise continued in its path of linking all the Craig entries into one continuous story, yet each one took a subtly different approach, if something with car chases, explosions and fist fights can be described as subtle. Therefore the three villains of the previous films were revealed as having been working for the same organisation, one which in time honoured tradition had nothing less than total global domination in mind: as the opening titles suggested with its octopus motif, we were deep in conspiracy territory here with Spectre standing in for all those tales of the Illuminati you may have stumbled across - or sought out - on the internet late at night. Here they planned to establish a surveillance network which was supposed to tap into fears about the electronic network of spying on citizens throughout the world.
But what it really was turned out to be a version of Skynet from the Terminator movies, only instead of a superintelligent computer system we had those string-pulling puppet masters trying to control our every move, and not incidentally declaring a war on freedom - zeitgeist tapping was supplied by shots of terrorist activity in places that were resisting the Spectral influence. This was a Bond movie unafraid to go quiet, to take the volume down and allow its characters time to reflect, and why not, they had been on a long journey, but toying with those more subdued moments merely served to obscure the fact this was as silly as ever, it was just posing as more serious, therefore a neat marriage of the two sides of the series which had been in a kind of goodnatured (but maybe not in the eyes of the fans) combat ever since it all began on the big screen, maybe even in the source novels themselves.
The setpieces were as over the top as ever, with a bravura opening sequence in Mexico City featuring a show-off tracking shot that looked continuous for a good five minutes before the mayhem commenced. Then there was business like a car chase (of course) that had time for a comic aside with a slow driver, or a disintegrating plane Bond flies to stop his latest love interest Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) from being kidnapped (also of course), though the sexual element was still present which should have looked extremely unfashionable in the blockbusters of the day, but was excused since the two seductions took place after the characters had escaped death, et voila, instant life-affirmation! But what was genuinely sincere, and not something the film was making sport of, was the sense of how Bond may be a maverick lone wolf, living life on the edge, but he still needs his team to back him up. Not enough to prevent Christoph Waltz from camping it up as Blofeld (with dodgy familial links to our hero, not mention his choice of footwear), but next time someone accuses Bond movies of being absurd, agree: that’s what makes them so cherished.