The Winning Formula
For the purposes of this essay I’m dividing the James Bond movies into two eras: Classic (Sean Connery, George Lazenby, and Roger Moore) and Modern (Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig). In general, Classic movies tend to be formulaic, and Modern movies tend to be deconstructionist. That’s not to say that the Classic films can’t be dark and dramatic, or that the Modern ones can’t be camp or silly. But generally the Classic films set up the clichés, and the Modern films break them down.
Having now seen approximately 22 hours and 23 minutes worth of James Bond, I can confirm that there is an easy formula, much like a cake recipe, for writing a James Bond movie. These tropes and conventions aren’t established right away, but by the time you get to the Moore era, you begin to get the sense that the scripts have been procedurally-generated based on some kind of spy fiction algorithm. Let me break down a generic James Bond movie for you:
- James Bond: a conspicuously-conspicuous secret agent.
- M: His Boss, who gives him exposition.
- Q: A Chekov’s gun dispenser.
- Miss Moneypenny: A charming secretary who Bond enjoys flirting with. Bond has far more chemistry with her than any of his other sexual conquests, but they’ll never date because Moneypenny selfishly refuses to be a swimsuit model in her early twenties.
- The Mastermind: A sophisticated-yet-shifty antagonist (often a vague: ‘foreign type’) who often wears a Nehru jacket and wants to disrupt the status quo. Usually has some kind of deformity (scar, eyepatch, bionics) to show us he’s nasty, owns an Evil Lair, and harbours an interest in marine biology (no, really).
- The Henchman: The muscle of The Mastermind; either an ethnic minority, LGBT+, disabled, deformed, mute, foreign, or all of the above.
- The Local Contact: A dude who Bond meets in the Exotic Location who helps him in his mission.
- The Final Girl: A sexy woman with a stupid name who’s trying to foil The Mastermind’s evil scheme. She’ll claim that she doesn’t fancy Bond, but will eventually (e.g. almost-immediately) fall for his rugged charms and pump him. She usually survives to the end.
- The Femme Fatale: A sexy woman with a stupid name who’s involved in The Mastermind’s evil scheme. She’ll claim that she doesn’t fancy Bond, but will eventually (e.g. almost-immediately) fall for his rugged charms and pump him. She usually ends up dead.
- The Random Bint: A sexy woman with a stupid name who Bond sleeps with, who has no bearing on the plot whatsoever and exists purely for titilation.
- Mooks: Generic goons wearing daft jumpsuits working for The Mastermind, who get beaten up and shot at.
- Bond’s Allies: Generic grunts who are basically the same as the Mooks, except for being on Bond’s side.
- The Evil Lair: A place where The Mastermind can chill out and relax while plotting evil schemes.
- The Evil Plan: A nefarious scheme cooked up by The Mastermind: usually involving super-weapons and international ransom.
- The Death Trap: Where The Mastermind tries to kill Bond and The Final Girl in an overly-complicated way instead of just shooting them.
- The Chase Sequence: Exactly what it says on the tin.
- Chekov’s Gadget: A daft gadget given to Bond by Q in act one or two, disguised as something mundane, which does something incredibly specific that will inevitably end up being the one thing he needs to escape from peril in act three.
- The Missing McGuffin: Something The Mastermind has stolen as part of The Evil Plan.
- The Exotic Location: A foreign place (i.e. not Britain) where some or all of the plot takes place.
- The Cringeworthy Pun: A pithy one-liner or play-on-words employed by Bond after killing or fucking something to distract us from the fact that he has no actual sense of humour.
- The Big Shoot Out: An explosive sequence in the Evil Lair in act three, where Bond’s Allies come to his rescue and they, the Mooks, and any characters left alive, all start shooting at each other.
- A man in a suit (Bond) appears and shoots down the barrel of a gun.
- The movie begins with a cold open, showing either The Mastermind or The Henchman doing something nefarious, or Bond doing something heroic, or both.
- We get a title sequence, with silhouettes of naked lassies dancing around random things, and a song by a well-known artist.
- Bond will fire into some Random Bint, who either dies soon after, or who has no relevance to the plot – just to remind us that he is HETEROSEXUAL.
- Bond goes into M’s office. M will invariably ask him if he knows about some kind of state secret, and Bond will answer that he knows a little bit, but not everything.
- M (and sometimes another old white guy, although it’s hard to tell them apart) will give him exposition, and tell him that something has been stolen for unknown reasons. Bond will be sent on a mission.
- Bond will have a scene were he acts like a total cocktease to Miss Moneypenny, to remind us that he has no sense of personal space.
- Bond will meet with oldiewonk boffin Q, who will give him a Chekov’s Gadget. Q will tell him to pay attention and to take care of the expensive taxpayer-funded equipment. Bond will smirk at this outlandish suggestion and pay nae heed.
- Bond will travel to an Exotic Location and meet with his Local Contact, who will arrange a meeting with the Femme Fatale.
- Bond will have his first encounter with The Final Girl. Bond will reminds us that the MeToo movement is still decades away, and the The Final Girl will resist his advances for now.
- Bond meets the Femme Fatale. She’ll claim to be immune to Bond’s potent machismo, and Bond will either seduce her, or rely on rape by deception, coercion, or violence, to get his end away (Three cheers for our protagonist). Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- Bond will be threatened by the Evil Henchman or by some Mooks, but will escape unharmed. Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- The Mastermind will have the Femme Fatale killed for sleeping with Bond, or will kill an underling to show that he’s had it right up to his tits with James Bloody Bond and wants him wasted, pronto.
- Bond will meet The Final Girl and try to get her knickers off. She will ‘play hard to get’ (read: implicitly or explicitly not give him consent) but will then inhale his sexy Bondy pheromones and pump him, because Bond is literally irresistible. Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- Bond will investigate the Missing McGuffin and a Chase Sequence will ensue, by car/helicopter/speedboat/on foot/other. (The good thing about Chase Sequences is that they can be slotted into virtually any stage of the story when things get boring, and repeated if need be).
- Bond and The Final Girl infiltrate the Evil Lair, but get captured and brought to The Mastermind.
- The Mastermind will have a wee chat with Bond and The Final Girl and explain his Evil Plan, mocking Bond by telling him that: “blah blah blah, we are not so very different, you and I, yaddah yaddah yaddah” etc etc.
- Bond and The Final Girl will be tied up in an overly-elaborate Death Trap, but luckily Chekov’s Gadget will save the day. Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- Bond’s Allies will arrive at the Evil Lair in the nick of time and a Big Shoot Out will ensue.
- Bond will confront The Mastermind, who will either escape or be killed. If it’s the former, Bond will swear vengeance. If it’s the latter, Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- The Evil Lair will explode, but Bond and The Final Girl will escape and end up unsupervised in an intimate place for a period of time. They will attempt to fuck. The Henchman will show up and try to kill them, but be defeated. Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- Bond and The Final Girl will either hide from Bond’s Allies so they can fuck in peace, or will be caught fucking by M, Q, and Bond’s Allies. Bond will make a Cringeworthy Pun.
- The End.
Now, if you want to be pedantic, you can point out that no individual Bond film follows the above formula exactly. For example, sometimes the Femme Fatale will serve dual roles as either the Mastermind (Octopussy) or the Final Girl (Pussy Galore), and sometimes the Mastermind will attack Bond and the Final Girl before they fuck at the end instead of the Henchman (Goldfinger).
Yet generally, every Bond movie takes each of the beats I have outlined above, and distinguishes itself by subverting one or more of them. This is a good idea if you want to churn out a lot of films quickly, and are confident enough that you can string the audience along through sex appeal, violence, glamour and set pieces, and a bad idea if you’re the poor sod attempting a marathon. For instance, when you watch The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker back-to-back, you realise that their plots are almost identical.
In the sixties and seventies of course, movies could get away with being formulaic like this for an important reason: geeks hadn’t been invented yet. In an age of ubiquitous streaming services, we tend to forget that audiences who saw Connery, Lazenby and Moore on the big screen would only expect to see the movie once, and then probably never again. Until video and TV reruns, the only way to re-experience movies was to read a novelisation or hope it would be rereleased in theatres.
There was no such thing as ‘continuity’ back then. No nerds existed to say things like: “um, how come Blofeld looks completely different in every film?” or “How can Felix Leiter be middle aged in one movie and only 30-something in another?” because audiences were incapable of obsessing over such pointless minutiae without easy access to the media in question. Thus, the creators expected people to enjoy the James Bond movies for following a tried-and-tested blueprint, without getting hung up on the specific details of ‘who-played-who?’ or ‘when-such-and-such-happened.’
But this means that, inevitably, all the movies begin to blur into one after a while. For instance, I genuinely keep forgetting that Thunderball happened, which is weird because that’s meant to be one of the decent outings. As hard as I try to keep each story distinct, in my head they all fugue into a vague mishmash of Evil Lairs and Masterminds and Exotic Locations, until all I can remember from each film are the weird moments that felt totally out-of-place.
So having reached the end of the Classic Era, I’m now going to recap every film I’ve seen so far, based only on what I can remember unaided. Please bear in mind that I’ve been in self-isolation for some time, and that me, Michael and Saywood have been pretty intoxicated throughout all of these movies.
Nevertheless, the good thing is that I can kick this retrospective by talking about a movie that I was really surprised to find I enjoyed: Dr No.