When they picked the new James Bond — Daniel Craig, from Layer Cake, Road to Perdition, and Tomb Raider — I think I heard off in the distance some howls of protest, but that would be inevitable in any case. I’m a bit sorry to see Pierce Brosnan go – and yes, I read the gossip about his abrupt disposal; it reminded me of the similarly sudden, jet-propelled deaths of certain Bond villains, sucked out of the frame with the force of violent decompression or detonation. Then again, Brosnan’s Bond, so veddy veddy debonair, was lacking in a certain bullying quality we haven’t seen since (obligatory fanfare) Sean Connery – but, let’s admit it, who cares?. As much of a Connery fan as I am, I’m getting tired of dragging him into the picture, so to speak. How long has it been – more to the point, how many generations – since he’s toweled off, speargun at the ready? Too long to matter, I’m afraid.
To be honest, I don’t worry much about Bond unless he’s hogging basic cable channels, as he is periodically wont to do. I’m more interested in spotting him in incognito cameos in other movies. And I’m not talking about the long line of knockoffs, as admirable as some of them are, from Matt Helm and Our Man Flynt to Indiana Jones (and let us not forget their casting of Connery as Jones’ father) and XXX, not to mention the even beefier action heroes that have come between, rocky terminators all. I am in no mood for replicas and duplicates. No, the real fun’s in the sudden surprising glimpses, the non-Bonds who catch me off-balance with their sudden Bond-ness.
This started in earnest for me when I read something on Peter Dinklage in, I think, Film Comment a few years ago. Sorry I can’t recall the writer, but he/she daydreamed that in an alternate-universe Hollywood, Dinklage would be the next Bond. Good call. Watch Dinklage’s effortless cool in The Station Agent — in a completely un-cool situation — and you’ll see a kind of grace under (everyday) fire that is pure Bond. (Even his character’s name, Finn McBride, has a nice edge to it.) Dinklage would be a real contrarian’s treat, perfectly off-center.
Since then, I’ve kept an eye out for such unexpected Bond-ing. Try it yourself; you’ll find Bonds in the unlikeliest places: George Clooney in Three Kings (1999), keeping it together; John Gries’ Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), living in narcissistic bliss; even Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow – as long as you’re willing to entertain the thought of Keith Richards on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The effect that accumulates is bracing: One sees how “cool” continues to be revived, despite its corruption and co-option, in which the Truly Cool have been marginalized, asked to wait off to one side while noisier, Pop-Tart-colored parties jitter and jive past the velvet rope. But in the shadow-Bonds — as riddled with self-reflexivity as they may be — you’ll hear echoes of cool-cats like Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, John Coltrane and others, with close-cropped hair and black suits, thin ties and skinny lapels. They were cool because they knew how to keep it. Bondspotting reminds you that this is not yet gone, that some still know about something cool.
Now don’t bolt, but this brings me to Bill Murray. Not so odd, I guess: His almost-over-the-hill actor Bob Harris in Lost in Translation (2003) is in Japan doing a whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”) and the photographer asks him to think of 007. (Bob responds, “He drinks martinis, but all right.”) And as a comic actor Murray has always cultivated a kind of cool, deadpan and charming – or a close approximation thereof.
But Murray’s best undercover-Bond movie is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). He has gadgets, a mission, and sundry villains, confederates, and women in various — and sometimes total — stages of affection, ire, and undress. One moment stands out for me, when I knew he could be Bond: The pirates are on his ship, making a mess of everything, shooting people. Steve is tied up, but he chews through the ropes (!) and runs at the pirates, gun blazing; and he’s wearing a big floppy robe and a Speedo.
It is not a “cool” moment per se, but watching him I thought, “He should do one Bond movie.” I think I’m right — and not a jokey, Bond-busters spoof — another ex-SNL-er has already done that, shagadelic-ly, more times than necessary – but a straightforward Bond programmer, with the standard-issue nemesis and his illogical world-domination plot, the good babe and the bad babe (with single-entendre name), the Sharper Image ordnance and Eames-designed lair. With Murray, we would get the American cool Bond, his eyes letting us in on the joke, but his hand steady.
He may be getting a bit old for the part – and OK, maybe a number of directors over the years have already given him the chance to play Bond, albeit under deep cover – but I’d still like to see that license to kill given to someone who seems almost to disdain it, even while dispatching scores of henchmen. And if I may once more invoke Connery-Bond, I think Murray could also handle the bully-boy aspect of the role, the slight sneer and amoral gleam in the eye as he cracks the unconscious minion’s skull one more time, for luck. After that, Bond could go back to his franchise a bit refreshed, and a little more than amused.