No matter what Eon do to keep 007 a part of the cultural moment – Brosnan’s inherent ’90s-ness, Craig’s impassive reactions to things like The Internet – Bond is not fundamentally a modern character. Even in the last three films, he is less a bastion of British brilliance for the 21st Century and more an idealised totem loaded with his own substantial history. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is not his own man; he is a walking institution, a pure concept propping up things like GQ and Heineken and Aston Martin. He has his own signature watches and suits and tuxedos. He is Britain and the film industry dressed up as it sees itself: polished and suave, vaguely abstractly distinct despite appearing rather homogenous. We don’t need, it seems, to see the clockwork or the actual hard work beneath; just the beautiful, straightforward and sleekly-designed result.
Which is why Roger Moore is secretly the best James Bond we ever had: he isn’t some shiny hall-of-mirrors distortion of the truth, crafted purely to exist in an aesthetic limbo between straightfaced stunts and high-gloss magazine covers. Moore’s Bond is a strange and creaky figure, fully characterised as a man with some sex appeal but a discrepant level of foolish camp – he is closer in self-deceiving persona to Britcom legends from Captain Mainwaring to Hyacinth Bucket. He is, in short, the most genuine Bond in terms of simple Britishness.
Not that Moore starred in wall-to-wall classics, of course. His track record didn’t have the completeness of a Lazenby or Dalton, and his batting average – including as it does Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy – will always remain far below that of Connery and Brosnan as well as, currently, Craig. But his characterisation is damn near unassailable and for years has remained the gold standard for Bond’s most inherent qualities. Other actors, including the role’s iconic Scotch originator, have all been products of retools that attempted to tinker with the iconographies. Moore’s world was instead a sort of middle-ground where out-and-out reboots simply didn’t exist (these became more pronounced with the three subsequent versions) yet Bond-as-character, seven-plus films in, was worn out enough that some playfulness was necessary.
To put this clearer: Moore’s Bond is at once both familiar and somewhat bizarre.
To see the contrast between Bond the lived-in character and Bond the polished icon, look no further than the current era. Bond now not only gets the job done, he is part of the job – that is, he doesn’t show up to sleuth about and then foil the villains; he lives, rather, in a world of extant – almost blasé – threat that leaves his mission in a kind of grim absurdist perpetuity (to quote Tobias Fünke, “I don’t want to blame it all on 9/11, but it certainly didn’t help”). When does his mission end? When does he truly unwind? Even sex and booze, for Our Daniel, feels loaded, tense, dangerous. Don’t get me wrong – Craig is cool (very cool), but think about him for too long and it all becomes a little too paranoiac: he’s been built into a barely-sustainable symbol, part and parcel of that occasional patriotism we seem to whip out when it seems contiguous with ease of boozing (a trait which is absolutely wonderful, by the way). Craig’s Bond is not a lovable character but a big iron figurehead that’s occasionally there for us, frowning down (lip curled) from Odeon facades like an incongruously sensible personification of the new HD City of London, telling us that Adonic metromasculinity is just a shined shoe away. He isn’t Bond anymore; he’s the machine.
Moore, in contrast, is a boorish uncle. When his films do “cool”, it still seems surreal. He’s a fine spy, to be sure, but as his series wears on it becomes clear that his skills were never in being an action man but in his disarming knack for stilted conversation, like an over-confident office manager flirting across the M&S till. He is a ridiculous, laughable figure and as the actor ages into the ’80s (the chronological 1980s that is, not his 80s), his famous libido becomes leerier and leerier – the archetypal English creep. Yet the charm remains. He is confident. He really has something, largely because he thinks he has something. He’s probably pissed. Roger Moore’s quinquagenarian Bond may as well have been played by Peter Stringfellow.
This is the rub: the classic cinema Bond as embodied by Roger Moore was a monument to sheer characterisation, to the kind of genuine creativity that ought to be celebrated. Sadly, despite Daniel Craig giving us two of the best films ever created for this series, something about the character has now been subsumed. Once, Bond was rightfully befuddled by Q’s insane Caractacus Potts creations; in Skyfall, as the Quartermaster’s skills lie more in cyber-tinkering, 007’s raised luddite brow just looks foolishly antiquated.
Roger Moore is pantomimes, Blackpool, Mother Brown and her attendant knees-up, yet also things like Eton and Wimbledon season; he’s Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter; if Daniel Craig is a strangely aggressive Apprentice candidate, Moore is the bumbling owner of a small insurance company, driving a slightly outdated Merc and cutting corners on the Christmas party.
As for the films, Moore’s natural oddness was augmented beautifully by a series of escalating cartoon romps that hovered dangerously close to resembling Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. By the time the actor’s double-0-swansong climaxed with a battle on a blimp – a blimp! – it was perfectly clear that no subsequent Bond would ever be so relateable. It played out like the punchline to some vacation anecdote about all the crazy things Our Rog did after a few too many drinks. Then there’s the recommendable presence of one of 007’s great enemies, Jaws (RIP Richard Kiel).
Craig’s Bond is fine, as is Dalton’s, and Brosnan’s and Connery’s; but, to use a fairly damning Britishism, I wouldn’t have a bloody drink with any of ’em.