ReelThoughts: October 16, 2012

"50 Years of Bondage, by the Numbers (Part 2)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

Part One can be found here.

After Roger Moore's departure, there was a great deal of media speculation about his replacement. The front-runner, Pierce Brosnan, was selected to step into Moore's shoes. However, between the "unofficial" announcement and the "official" one, Brosnan's TV show, Remington Steele, thought to be on the cancelation block, decided to go forward with one more season, making Brosnan unavailable for a year. Eon Productions, unwilling to wait for him to finish his Steele commitment, went "in another direction." Brosnan was irate but there was nothing he could do and, by not accommodating the Bond shooting schedule, Remington Steele lost the opportunity for a publicity bonanza. Timothy Dalton, favored by some in the early '70s as Connery's replacement, was chosen to step into Moore's shoes.

Bond was re-tooled around Dalton for 1987's The Living Daylights. Recognizing the growing popularity of action films with big, overdone sequences, the producers tried to compete in this arena. The Living Daylights therefore attempted some of the most complex, outlandish scenes in the franchise's history. Ultimately, they didn't make much impact because the public didn't embrace the fourth Bond. Dalton, taking the role more seriously than Moore ever did, was arguably even more dour than Connery. The silliness was rolled back and 007 played things more straight than in 20 years. The result was another box office disappointment: an inflation-adjusted $105 million.

Before the 1989 release of License to Kill, an internal debate occurred regarding the lack of its predecessor's success. Was it Dalton? Was it that the Bond formula had become stale? Was it that 007 couldn't compete in a landscape where Schwarzengger and Stallone were box office kings? Eventually, the producers rolled the dice and took a chance that the problem with The Living Daylights was that it tried too hard to be like every other big summer movie. So, for License to Kill, they scaled back. In many ways, the low-key approach was a throw-back to Connery, but the movie was d.o.a., grossing only an inflation-adjusted $71 million, the worst-ever. Worse than On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Worse than The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond was put on hiatus and Timothy Dalton became the scapegoat.

For six years, 007 lay dormant and not a lot of people seemed to care. When the decision was made in 1993 to resurrect the franchise, there was no question that changes needed to be made. Brosnan was officially offered the role. The decision was made to move the opening of Bond 17, which would become Goldeneye, from summer to Christmas - the time of year when 007 movies had traditionally done the best. The supporting cast was reworked, with Judi Dench moving into the role of "M." Only Desmond Llewelyn returned (as "Q"). Although Goldeneye was touted as being a "reboot" of sorts, the term is relatively meaningless when applied to Bond, which gets rebooted every time a new actor takes the part. The formula was tweaked but not overhauled. Goldeneye looks and feels like Bond, albeit one that has adapted to the spectacle expected from post-1980 thrillers. Goldeneye's modernization, in conjunction with a major marketing campaign, led to an (unadjusted) gross of $106 million, the first 007 movie to break the $100 million mark (although this is more a factor of rising ticket prices than true popularity). The adjusted gross was $195 million, a level at which the movie flirted with, but didn't quite achieve, "blockbuster" status. (The actual dollar value of a "blockbuster" is debated, but most agree that, using 2012 numbers, it's at least $200 milliion and possibly as much as $250 million.)

A brief aside: most of the reviews of the Bond movies found at ReelViews were written between the theatrical releases of Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies. In January 1996, shortly after I had spent several thousand dollars to turn my townhouse living room into a home theater and amassed a huge collection of laserdiscs (including all the 007 titles), we were hit by a massive snow storm, the so-called "Blizzard of '96" that dumped nearly three feet of snow. The flakes began flying on a Saturday afternoon and didn't stop until Monday. The State of Emergency wasn't lifted until Wednesday and I didn't return to work until Thursday. That gave me an unplanned five-day weekend with nothing to do but stay in my townhouse. I used the time to start coding the original version of ReelViews (the site went live less than three weeks later) and to re-watch and review all the Connery/Lazenby/Moore/Dalton Bond movies.

The remaining three Brosnan pictures, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, adjusted $218 million), The World Is Not Enough (1999, adjusted $200 million), and Die Another Day (2002, $221 million), had a quality of "sameness." One could easily mistaken for another. They made solid money and re-established Bond as a legitimate, successful franchise. But, even though Die Another Day did well at the box office (better, in fact, than any 007 feature since Moonraker), the producers were concerned that they were headed for another downturn brought about by overfamiliarity. So, instead of bringing Brosnan back for a fifth film, they hired Daniel Craig and once again re-invented Bond.

The stated goal with Casino Royale was to go back to basics - all the way back. The two primary inspirations for this were Fleming's novels and the first two Connery movies. Indeed, Casino Royale feels a lot different from its immediate predecessors, and the only connection to the Brosnan years is Judi Dench. However, whereas a "stripped down" approach failed when tried in 1989 with License to Kill, tastes had changed somewhat in 17 years. Casino Royale was a success (one of the best movies in the long franchise's history); Bond was re-born.

The raw numbers do not support the argument that Daniel Craig took Bond to a new level of financial success. True, Casino Royale's unadjusted $167 million was the most-ever made by a Bond movie, but the adjusted total of $205 million put it in the same ballpark as the Brosnan movies. Realistically, that might be the appropriate target range for a modern Bond film. It's never going to ascend to the upper register of big-budget blockbusters, but $200 million is more than respectable for a 50-year old franchise. The inferior Quantum of Solace, released in 2008, reinforced the argument of what a current Bond movie can be expected to gross. Its adjusted box office take was $188 million.

Which brings us to Skyfall. In a perfect world, this would have come out last year, but the MGM collapse forced a one-year delay. Will that delay help or hurt? Too early to say; it depends on whether people have missed 007. If they have, Skyfall may become the first Bond to break $200 million. If not, there may be a dip in revenue. Even a ridiculously poor performance by Skyfall (which no one expects) would not signal an end to Bond, although it could result in another reworking of the formula. A franchise this long-lived and successful will not be discarded easily. Ten years from now, 007 will still be appearing periodically around Christmastime, possibly with a seventh actor in the lead role.

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