fbpx
The Unsung Renaissance of James Bond 1985 1997

The Unsung Renaissance of James Bond (1985 – 1997)

Sean Connery, Bond’s original actor, is widely seen as the character’s iconic representative on the screen. But was his original run of 1960s films untouchable with their run of form? 

Bond’s Perfect Middle Ground

In a discussion with my fellow Film Forums writer Ben Kelly, with whom I shared the Ben & Jeremy’s Podcast and who penned an exploration of the best films of the Sean Connery era, we came to the conclusion that there is a second run of films, stretching from the misunderstood A View to a Kill (1985) all the way up to the equally misrepresented Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) that portrayed Bond, in many ways, at the peak of his character.

When released, many of these films were shrugged off or even derided. However, the hindsight provided by Daniel Craig’s gritty, depressing blockbusters, leads this author to believe that the move to a more serious Bond in the late 1980s provided a perfect middle ground between the camp of the early Moore films and Craig’s serious endeavours, far surpassing both in their consistent quality.

Sean Connery James Bond by Glen Stone Illustration
Sean Connery James Bond by Glen Stone Illustration

The Wilderness Years (1970-1984)

Firstly, take the previous run of films since the 1960s. This could be (and probably will be) made into an article all of its own, but George Lazenby’s tenure, which promised so much in pushing the Bond series to a grittier, ever more human characterisation was short-lived in that it was one film. The actor, who had replaced Connery, wanted out of the spotlight and out of the series, and so it was that the role was handed to Moore.

Roger was a charismatic actor and persona who had his own very strong-willed opinions regarding how Bond’s character should appear outwardly. He cannot be criticised for this, but in this author’s opinion, the “beloved camp era” of Bond simply failed as a concept in its one-sided, comedic view of the character and the series. It took the series in a tongue-in-cheek direction, with little to no intention of telling a coherent, believable, or perhaps most importantly, convincing story.

The gondola scene from Moonraker (1979) is perhaps the quintessential Moore moment: fully intending to please, with no intention of telling a story.

“That wasn’t Bond” – A View to a Kill (1985)

Things vastly improved with the arrival of Moore’s final cinematic outing in the role, A View to a Kill. General consensus points to this as among the worst of all Bond films, and I firmly disagree: for once the scriptwriters and direction came into the project with a clear and mostly-logical plot.

The set-pieces weren’t simply there for the sake of giving the film-crew a holiday. But perhaps the biggest tell-tale sign regarding the quality of the film was how much Roger Moore hated it – a sign that the actor’s power over his character was finally weakening.

 

Initially investigating a tech businessman running doped horses at the Grand National, Bond finds himself in the west coast of America attempting to stop this madman from sinking the San Andreas fault and therefore controlling the world’s supply of microchips. As always from that era, it’s a roller-coaster ride for the audience, though its contents were vastly different from the films prior.

Moore had already decided on retiring the role when discovering that he was older than the leading lady’s mother. However, his sheer dislike for the surrounding cast (Grace Jones in particular) as well as the gritty and murderous actions taken by the villain (played by none other than Christopher Walken) left him with a sour taste.

With few exceptions, Moore had purposefully moved away from violence and murder. This was done tastefully on occasion, with the fact that Bond only kills one person in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) – no points for guessing who it is.

However, the pacifist attitudes and crude attempts at the lowest brow of humour sucked any remaining life out of the Bond actor, or at least so we thought until A View to a Kill. It’s quite clear that this film was written with a younger, grittier Bond actor in mind, and one wonders how it would have been perceived as the debut for Timothy Dalton.

A Real Bond Film for the 80s – The Living Daylights (1987)

The Living Daylights (1987), with Timothy Dalton now in the lead, and a Rambo-III-esque plot, finally showed the audience what the series had been missing all these years. 

Aside from occasional elements in Octopussy (1983) and, at a stretch, For Your Eyes Only (1981), Bond had never been thrust into the real world of Cold War politics that affected everyday people. The tonal shift between Moore and Dalton was too much to take, and it is not surprising to see why the movie and its lead actor left contemporary audiences disappointed, as well as why present-day audiences reappraise the film as a forgotten classic.

From the glitzy castles of France, the streets of Venice, the hills above Rio de Janeiro, and many other exotic locations, The Living Daylights spends much of the early act on the Iron Curtain itself. When a KGB defection turns out to be fake, Bond must intervene to stop an escalation of assassinations by rivalling intelligence services in the hotspots of the era’s proxy wars.

Patient time is spent on developing not only Bond but the leading lady, as well as their very real relationship. The characters interact with each other, and their relationship is key to the events that transpire around them. Real smuggling and spy-work is done in dingy Bratislava public toilets, to private militia bases in Tangiers, to the Afghan desert where James and Cara squat down with the Mujahadeen, where heroin is being transported internationally by fake Red Cross relief funds.

It also features some of the most incredible stunt work seen in Bond, and indeed any cinematic series.

The plot is in many ways depressing, but striking in how, for the first time in a long time, it feels like Bond is in the very same world as you or I. Escapism is one thing, but The Living Daylights is so real and personable, and that is its highest quality.

A Step too far? – Licence to Kill (1989)

Readers may disagree most of all with the author’s opinion of Licence to Kill (1989) being ranked alongside the great Bond films of this era, but I hope they’ll read on for why I hold this controversial opinion. 

The film continues the sleazy tone of the previous two films – the villains again are more down-to-earth, more connected to the real world of you and I. Again, the drug trade comes in, along with religious scammers and corrupt financiers. Bond goes on a vengeance rampage so bloodthirsty that it is the only Bond film with a 15 rating in the UK.

This vendetta for his friend and colleague Felix Leiter of the CIA again sees a very personalised Bond, ahead of its time considering the present-day handling of Daniel Craig’s depiction of the hero. The twists and turns are genuinely unexpected, such as when a case of mistaken identity leads him to successfully (for once) infiltrating the villain’s home and staying with him for a long period of the movie. The movie doesn’t shy away from serious topics and gritty locations, and it lets Bond be taken a lot more seriously, for better or worse.

Initial reaction was quite negative, and mediocre box office sales combined with the recession of the early 90s meant that United Artists, the chief publishers of the film, went under and threatened to take Bond with it. It was another six years before the follow-up was released, and what a follow-up it was!

A New Bond for a New Era – GoldenEye (1995)

This is where the author has hit the nostalgic wall and needs to take a step back. Is GoldenEye (1995) the classic it is often made out to be by the generation of fans who grew up in its shadow? This author would argue that it is. 

GoldenEye developed the blueprint for Bond and the action genre of that era, and like Connery’s Goldfinger (1964), all following films in the series took from its template. The characters, plot, and locations are iconic. It also spawned a legendary game for the Nintendo 64 that likewise brought first-person shooters to the modern age. 

Again, the plot maintained a level of believability that was combined with a grander scope and a better mixing of mood and tone. Pierce Brosnan brings back charm to the role, though without the sneering raised eyebrow of Moore’s era. The actor achieves a natural rapport with others, with a sense of confidence exhibited in the role not seen since Connery.

The film takes place shortly after the Cold War, discussing James’s place within that new universe: does Bond fit? This theme of course extends to Craig’s era, and was as relevant then as it is now. His partner 006 is believed killed, only to resurface as the head of an international crime syndicate that has plans to EMP-blast London with an old Soviet satellite. Time is taken to flesh out the villains, the sidekicks, and the love interests. 

The set-pieces are phenomenal, and GoldenEye is surely a case of the sum of its parts. There was, however, one criticism of the film, and it was more clearly shown in its follow-up.

Bond the Action Hero – Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The final film in this brilliant run was Tomorrow Never Dies. In it, a tech magnate with a striking resemblance to Steve Jobs intends to combine his power with his press influence to literally create the news. As a result, Bond must stop World War III  while Jonathan Pryce’s villain reaps the profits of bad news.

Brosnan, now secure in his role, travels to more luxurious locations this time around, and the action has ramped up tenfold. And that is the key word here: action. Bond ditches his pistol for automatic weapons and mounted machine guns; his car is now electrified and remote-controlled; the villain’s method of destruction is a giant electric shaver.

If this all sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. The plot treads the line of believability, but puts in enough commanding performances to help the audience overlook this. After all, an eternal saving grace of the series are those staff behind the scenes who go into developing the sets, handling the stunts and keeping the quality at a high level even when the film itself is weak.

Tomorrow Never Dies is certainly a mediocre film held aloft by a well-spent budget and a strong cast, to create a great one. It cashes in on the action craze of the previous decade, but simultaneously removes many of the character’s outdated limitations in doing so. It is the smartness with which the film leans into its vices that makes it so strong. It was the last really great Brosnan film, and the world is worse off for that.

And since then?

Every era of Bond has had at least one iconic, classic film in its archives that has largely kept the series going. The era since Tomorrow Never Dies is no exception, with such modern classics as Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012) and such clunkers as Die Another Day (2002) filling out the endlessly charming presence of the series in the public’s mind.

However, the point of this article remains that the consistency of these movies make the revival of the 1980s and 1990s so special for Bond fans. They can debate as to the individual quality of each film and its place in the canon, but there is no denying the sheer excitement, memorability and fun of those five films above. 

Between them they make the greatest run of films since the original Sean Connery flicks, and in retrospect the author can claim them as an unsung renaissance of the series.

 

The author will leave you with their favourite scene from the lot. In the early acts of The Living Daylights, Bond must retrieve a woman he believes vital to uncovering a secret plot, out of her watched apartment in Bratislava. The acting, the tone, and the pace of the plot: all brilliant.

Credits

Editor: Ben Kelly
Second Editor & Artwork:
Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Glen Stone Illustration (Sean Connery), Molendijk, Bart / Anefo (Timothy Dalton), Allan Warren (Sir Roger Moore)

 Images and clips used in line with UK government guidance on Fair Dealing for works of criticism, review or quotation. No copyright infringement is intended.

Writer

I have been writing and creating since I was a kid, and decided when I grew up to put some of those words onto paper. I speak a bunch of languages and enjoy doing most of the things I do when I'm not stuck in the house.

Writer/Editor

Writer and editor from the north of Scotland, lifelong movie enthusiast. Always looking for an unseen classic, watching something new every day.

Creator & Editor-in-Chief

I own this thing. Being creative makes me tick. Film lover. Coffee hater. Website manager, headline and copywriter, video editor, graphic/motion designer, editor, presenter...