This year, the James Bond film franchise commemorates its 50th birthday, with the release of the Sam Mendes-helmed Skyfall, a touring gallery exhibit of Bond gadgetry and film paraphernalia, countless upon countless commissioned think pieces, and just as many homemade vodka martins served per 007's standard operating procedure. There's also this fancily packaged, and, given the sheer volume, reasonably priced box set, which collects all 22 EON-produced Bond outings—so, no Casino Royale from 1967 or Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery's non-canon 1983 return to the role.
En route to its golden anniversary, the Bond franchise has entrenched itself. It's the longest-running, and second-highest grossing property (after Harry Potter) in the history of the cinema, and even more importantly, an enduring, generation-spanning touchstone of 20th-and-now-21st-century popular culture. It's hard to imagine movies without Bond, and vice versa.
Like an old friend from high school you can run into once every few years and pick up right where you left off, Bond abides. Across the series's six incarnations of the polished secret agent, there are recognizable highpoints: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, License to Kill, Goldeneye, and 2006's Casino Royale. There are just as many obvious stinkers: Diamonds Are Forever, A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, and Quantum of Solace. But, as they say about pizza and sex, even bad Bond is better than no Bond at all, with the franchise's valleys casting its peaks in firmer relief.
In a way, it's tricky to say anything definitive or comprehensive about the Bond films, precisely because, no matter how nicely packaged, the franchise never feels feasibly comprehensive. In essence, Bond has always been a nostalgia act. When 007 entered the '90s with Goldeneye, Judi Dench's M pegs Pierce Brosnan's Bond as a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur." And well before such biting bits of dialogue functioned as a de rigeur escape hatch for Bond's sexist, misogynist, dinosaur-ish exploits, claims of imperialism and chauvinism were long leveled against Fleming's source novels. Even before Austin Powers arrived to take the piss out of the series's attitudes, 1967's non-EON Casino Royale served as an ensemble satire of their very form. Even at the peak of Bond mania, the character was a relic.
Yet even in this capacity Bond is entirely imagined, a relic without a referent, a fossil from an abstracted era of refined masculinity and suave English chivalry that only ever existed as fetishized English superlative. As a postwar creation finding his footing in the Cold War, vacillating in his early on-screen decades through sharp cynicism (Sean Connery), uncharacteristic earnestness (Geoge Lazenby), and smug self-parody (Roger Moore), Bond always operated as a phantasmal ideal and object of identification, playing perfectly into England's fissured postwar ego.
It's not even that earlier Bonds necessarily always squared off against Soviet super-villainy. It's that the real threat of the Cold War détente heating up lent the character its gravity. In a conflict waged largely between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., England used Bond to imagine her own romanticized role: slinking (and sexing, and skiing, and motor-boating, and jetpack-ing) behind the scenes, the conflict's eminently cultured unsung superhero. British author John le Carré's Tinker Taylor Solider Spy, often regarded as something of an "anti-Bond," underscored the British Secret Service's glorified errand-boy status and the feeling of ineffectual, typically English malaise that the 007 series has always exploded with fantastic aplomb.
Post-perestroika, the series has struggled to find its stride. The problem of the waning Cold War backdrop was first shouldered by Timothy Dalton's strong, silent, gruffly Americanized take on Bond in 1989's License to Kill, which had a rogue 007 squaring off against televangelists and drug lords. Later, Pierce Brosnan's return-to-form maiden voyage, Goldeneye, worked to address the crumbling of the Soviet empire (literally: In its opening credit music video, hammers, sickles, and statues of Lenin are forcibly toppled in psychedelic silhouettes) by temporarily reigniting it, the long con of Sean Bean's rogue MI-6 agent who feels cheated by the Cold War's abatement. From there, the Brosnan films mostly sputtered, with Bond being dispatched to put down the plots of ripped-from-this-year's-headlines heavies: a Rupert Murdoch-ish media mogul who makes the news before selling it, a North Korean general assuming a new identity courtesy of "DNA replacement therapy," and so on.
In the latest, post-reboot pictures, Bond seems to be back on terra firma. Granted, Quantum of Solace did a lot to squander the promise of Daniel Craig's cynical, rough-edged, recently-licensed-to-kill 007, but Martin Campbell's Casino Royale proves one of the series's unequivocal highlights. Taking elements from previous Bonds (Connery's stature, Moore's martini-dry wit, Lazenby's emotion rawness, Dalton's free-agent grittiness), Craig brings Bond into the present movement, not so much a text as a meta-text, commenting at once on the thrills and hang-ups of the franchise.
Indeed, Casino Royale's most memorable scene pits Bondian thrills against Bondian hang-ups, strapping 007 to a hollowed-out wicker chair and having goons go to work on him with a hardened knot of wet rope, the tender dangly bits of his refined machismo mashed to a pulp. Casino Royale managed to salvage Bond not only by contemporizing the character to compete with post-Bond superspies of the Jason Bourne variety (while still retaining the franchise's cultivated fineries), but in offering a way to comment back on the series's own problematic macho-imperialist dangly bits without it feeling like a cop-out or compromise.
In conjunction with the contemporary Bond films' rear-view-mirror series commentary, the lens of ironic recuperation makes the franchise's sillier excesses—Connery strapped into the Thunderball jetback, Moore navigating the Octopussy alligator-shaped submarines—still feel lively. Even in its earlier modes of sincere Cold War spy-thrilling, of which From Russia with Love remains a somewhat shaggy masterpiece, the Bond series has always relished in its knowingness, making them somewhat impossible to laugh directly at even some 50 years out.
To quote M, again, "Arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand." For half a century, the Bond franchise has tested the theory, a film series that, even at its worst, is entertaining, flip, and so completely fantasized that it reconciles its dinosaur chauvinism with its wink-nudge wit—the exception that proves the rule.
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Even Bond completists whose collections contain the existent high-def box sets will likely pick up this new repackaging, given that it includes nine titles previous unavailable on Blu-Ray: On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Living Daylights, Octopussy, Goldeneye, A View to a Kill, and Diamonds Are Forever. The other 12 discs are the same as those previously on the market (or on your shelf at home). With minor variances between titles, MGM has done a great job cleaning up the series for HD, scanned from the original negatives courtesy of Lowry Digital. The only one that looks noticeably not up-to-snuff is Goldeneye, which suffers from heavy digital noise reduction, which rather seriously dampens the image's crispness. Still, one out of 22 is still an exemplary batting average for this set. Likewise, the 5.1 audio mixes are uniformly excellent. Even Goldeneye.
Bond 50 includes all the usual supplements from the existing discs: commentaries, trailers, featurettes, and a few new, mostly glossy promotion items, packaged on a separate disc. All tolled, it comes to about 120 hours worth of extras across the 23 discs. The most desirable "extra" here is the packaging. Bond 50 divides its titles into two books, the first spanning 1962-1982, and the second 1983-2012 (MGM was even thoughtful enough to save room for the Skyfall Blu-ray). It's a stiff, study, glossy package, fit for displaying as a coffee-table book. The problem is the slipcases, which make retrieving the discs something of a minor labor, and may result in scratching over time. There's also a feature that strings together all 22 opening credits sequences, which is the perfect thing to put on in the background during your Happy 50th 007 cocktail party.
If you're a seasoned fan, or even looking to dig into the series for the first time, Bond 50 is an essential package—gorgeously packaged, and best of all, complete.