NEW YORK — Early in "Skyfall," Judi Dench's M pulls aside our embattled hero, played once again with suave ennui by Daniel Craig, and wonders whether the world still needs either of their services. As Bond wraps his head around that idea, he looks searchingly at his boss. "So this is it?" he wonders. "We're both played out?"
Questions about relevance dangle throughout the new James Bond movie, which opens in the U.S., after a crescendo of marketing, on Nov 9. Field agents are of diminishing importance in an era of cyber-spying and drone warfare, and the uniqueness of Bond's gadgets has been diluted at a time when everyone and their great-aunt carries an iPhone.
Yet as the film franchise turns 50 (yes, someone born the year "Dr. No" came out is now eligible to join AARP) themes of retirement and sell-by dates aren't simply screenplay fodder — they pertain to the franchise itself.
After strong early reviews and solid overseas business, the latest Bond adventure sweeps into theaters with blockbuster expectations. But even if the Sony release blows the doors off the box office like, well, 007 making a grand entrance, it can't hide what those who worked on it quietly acknowledge — making this movie was a more difficult and delicate undertaking than ever.
No longer is a successful Bond movie simply a matter of dialing up clever dialogue and dazzling set pieces. Facing a world that would be unrecognizable to those behind the early Ian Fleming adaptations, Bond filmmakers and actors grapple on many levels with how to keep the series fresh.
They must find ways for a tuxedo-wearing, martini-swilling protagonist to stay relatable while a global downturn rages. They need to project a contemporary degree of villainy in a world where the threat of Islamist terrorism is, for a variety of reasons, not as easily portrayed as the enemies and fears of the Cold War.
They want to retain at least a hint of gravitas after years of Austin Powers and Johnny English.
Maybe most important, they struggle with how to avoid what might be called the quaintness trap — staying relevant in a cinema culture that has seen the rise of splashy CG action movies on the one hand and modern truth-seekers a la Jason Bourne on the other.
"The theme of our story is that we have to question if the old classic things still work," said Javier Bardem, who plays the villain in "Skyfall," directed by Sam Mendes. "It's implied in every character in this movie. But it's also the question about the James Bond franchise."
For years, Barbara Broccoli, the longtime producer and steward of the spy series (total box office: about $5 billion), knew that she wanted a film for the franchise's 50th anniversary. "Bond 23," as "Skyfall" soon became known, was a way of honoring her late father, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who died in 1996 and was heavily responsible for putting Fleming's work on the screen. It also offered a third act in the Craig-led Bond.
About three years ago, with the blessing of studio MGM, Broccoli and stepbrother/fellow producer Michael Wilson hired the longtime Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with "The Queen" scribe Peter Morgan. At nearly the same time they brought on Mendes, the British director of "American Beauty" who was in a slump after his young-marrieds drama "Away We Go" flopped in 2009.
Then MGM filed for bankruptcy, and suddenly everyone was frozen in place. (To avoid legal action from creditors, Mendes was retained off the books as a "consultant.")
"It was a nightmare," Broccoli recalled. "This was one of those situations that's really frustrating — when all the delays have nothing to do with the making of the movie." Craig's attitude was even more bleak. "I thought OK, we might have to say goodbye to this," he said in an interview in New York several weeks ago. "And that made me really sad." In the hiatus, Morgan left, replaced by the veteran John Logan ("Hugo").
MGM was finally reconstituted with new owners. But now came another problem: how to make Bond dramatically relevant again. The franchise wasn't just long in the tooth — it was coming off a disappointing entry in 2008's "Quantum of Solace." Craig acknowledged in the interview that the movie wasn't "satisfying." Wilson said that, after witnessing the critical reception, he thought, "Oh God, we really screwed this up."
A big reason for that was Bond's nemesis. During the decades that the series provided a catharsis for the Soviet threat, it was easy to put a face on the menace. But since the Iron Curtain fell — and especially after the attacks of Sept. 11 — that was a lot tougher.
In "Casino Royale," Craig's initiation, filmmakers used a clever work-around: They channeled the demons that would normally reside in the villain into the hero. Craig's Bond was grimmer and darker, which not only made for a compelling character but for some juicy zeitgeist stuff, Bond's beleaguered air matching our post-Sept. 11 anxiety.
In "Quantum," writers essentially opted out, creating villains and stakes that had little to do with the headlines (they involved a Bolivian coup and the arcana of water rights.) The film was rushed into production after the writers strike — "you shouldn't try to rewrite whole sections of the story while you're shooting," Craig noted dryly — and the results were wobbly.
This time, filmmakers decided to turn inward, to the question of intelligence agencies themselves.
"Ever since 9/11, there's been an emphasis on electronic intelligence gathering as opposed to human intelligence," Wade said.
"There's a feeling that you can cover it all with electronics and computer work, so that it makes a man who gets on the ground much more important, and yet under so much more pressure."
So "Skyfall" is about MI6, and Bond and M, and all their changing roles. In Mendes' telling, the intelligence service is on the defensive from a hostile government bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes. (Mendes declined to comment for this story.)
MI6 also faces a nefarious threat from Bardem's Raoul Silva, a former agent with cyber-skills who felt betrayed by M years before. Silva sports light-colored suits, a creepy blond dye-job and all manner of vocal tics. "This is a guy who's rotten inside," the actor smirked. "So of course he looks like an angel."
For many, the Bond series holds a place in the heart like no other. But nostalgia can be a distorting force.
To watch several 007 films in succession circa 2012 is to at first be entertained by the colorful array of toys and spies — and, not long after, to be numbed by their sameness. New villains emerge, missions change and weapons evolve. Yet it's striking how much of the basic structure remains, so much so that each film feels a little more like a fill-in-the-blank exercise, a kind of espionage-themed Mad Libs. (The movies' mechanistic dispensation of bad guys is matched only by the parade of bed-able women, a dizzying display of interchangeable intercourse.)
"Every time they put out a new Bond film it's a very delicate dance and could go wrong very easily," said Rick Jewell, a cinema professor at USC who specializes in Bond. "You have to make him seem powerful in the world we live in now but you can't just have him save the world over and over again on a whim. That's what got so ridiculous earlier in the franchise."
Bond these days also has another problem — namely, he can't simply be painted, with his high living, like an out-of-touch one-percenter. As Timothy Dalton, who played the hero twice in the 1980s, said, "Audiences love familiarity; it gives them security. But in the end it becomes self-destructive. You have to keep up with what's going on in the world."
No movie in the franchise struggles to maintain this balance as much as "Skyfall." There are, to be sure, some significant updates. A bad fate befalls a central character in a turn that one couldn't imagine in vintage Bond. There is also an unexpected exploration of Bond's youth.
And when Q, now played as a computer whiz by Ben Whishaw, finds Bond unhappy with a gun he's been given, he quips, "Were you expecting an exploding pen?"
Yet plenty of Bond touchstones remain: exotic women, casinos, grand human-stunt sequences (atop a train in Turkey, or high above the Shanghai skyscape).
"Skyfall," which cost about $200 million, is gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins. But strip away the gloss and many of the scenes wouldn't look out of place in "Octopussy" or "Goldfinger." "I said from the beginning I wanted this movie to get the Bond back into Bond," Craig said. (Off the screen Bond is evolving in some interesting ways too, with the globalized economy finally catching up to the franchise's long-standing cosmopolitan flavor. In a bit of irony that 007 himself might appreciate, "Skyfall" is raking in the coin in Russia.)
There are no immediate plans for a "Bond 24," though Broccoli and Wilson say they would like to plunge back in.
But they and writers also know they need to be careful. "The bull's-eye for being original," Purvis said, "seems to get narrower each time out."