Thursday, November 13, 2008


The other day I watched Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade for the first time since its theatrical run, and though I still maintain it was the weakest of the original three films, it was much better than I remembered.

The thing I liked best about it was the old-school professionalism of its physical production. Early on, there's a scene in which Indiana is hired by the film's villain (played blandly by Julian Glover) to track down the holy grail. This scene is set in Glover's elegantly-appointed penthouse, and the way the set is designed (by Elliot Scott) and shot (by Douglas Slocombe), it looks just like something out of North By Northwest. It doesn't look real, in other words--we're aware it's a set. (The twinkly lights in the painted cityscape outside the window are a particularly nice touch.) But it doesn't look embarrassingly fakey, either--it looks stylized. It creates its own reality.

The whole movie is like that: a church in Venice, a castle in Austria, an airport in Berlin--the characters move through a variety of settings that never for a minute seem to exist in reality as we know it, but fit perfectly with the movie's reality--these are larger than life characters, caught up in a cheerfully outlandish story. So that castle, for instance, isn't dreary and dank, as a real castle would be, but is lit like something out of a Hammer picture, all golden candlelight and artfully-composed pools of darkness, and the nighttime views we see through its windows are a soundstage azure, an elegant artifice.

This approach is, it seems to me, the perfect way to tell such a story. It is, essentially, the same method used by the producers of the James Bond series in the old days: a movie which creates a world of its own. Despite their globe-trotting settings, what we remember about classic-era Bond is how much fun they were, how they took themselves just seriously enough to make us believe in them for the length of their running times, but not so seriously that they forgot a sense of fun.

And fun is the thing that seems to be missing in the Bond franchise these days. Yes, I prefer the darker, more Ian Fleming-inspired films in the series--From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, Casino Royale. But for many fans, the most beloved entries are Goldfinger or The Spy Who Loved Me--crazy, over-the-top movies, with the extravagant settings and larger-than-life villains so many expect from this series. And I love them, too. Those pictures seem effortless; like the Indiana Jones series, they give you some thrills, a few laughs, some light romance--but they do it so well, so expertly, so much better than other, similar movies.

The Pierce Brosnan Bond era never quite defined itself--though enjoyable (except for Die Another Day, of course, because that's one of the worst pieces of crap I've ever sat through), they seem consistently torn between taking themselves seriously and offering the extravagant outrageousness expected from the series. They also suffer from trying to offer some real-world significance, which is the last thing anyone wants from a Bond picture. They attempted to be From Russia With Love and Moonraker at the same time, and even the best of the bunch (The World Is Not Enough) is all over the map, tone-wise.

Casino Royale, on the other hand, was damned near perfect. Even as it thwarted or altered fan expectations, it ultimately fulfilled them. Great for one movie, but do we want this all the time? It's not just that Quantum Of Solace is a direct follow-up to Casino Royale, but the producers are now speaking of trying to link any future Bond outing with Daniel Craig into one overall arc, and that just seems...misguided. One of the pleasures of the Bond series is that you never know what to expect. But if we get an entire series of dour Bond, we'll always know what to expect.

Craig is fantastic as Bond, and I think he'd be great in a new version of an old-school Bond--the equivalent, if you will, of an Indiana Jones movie. Like Harrison Ford in those films, his very presence would lend them some credibility no matter how outrageous they got. I'm not suggesting Roger Moore-era silliness--no pigeons doing double-takes or Tarzan yells, thank you very much--but it would be a blast to see Craig's more serious character squaring off against a more nuanced version of Blofeld or Stromberg.

It would be classic Bond, maybe slightly altered and a shade deeper, but largely a return to the days when we paid money to see something we'd never seen before, when we asked the filmmakers to surprise us, and they always obliged.