What Have They Done to James Bond?

‘Skyfall’ gives us a kinder, gentler 007. Please, don’t shake or stir his beer.

James Bond, of all people, has turned metrosexual. “Skyfall,” the 23rd movie in the genre—directed by Sam Mendes and opening in theaters Friday—has somehow turned the all-encompassing man’s man into a kinder, gentler Bond.

There are still the casual killings and car chases, of course, but Bond has been shorn of that subtly menacing blend of sadism and political incorrectness that set him apart from Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and all the other identikit espionage heroes. By making Bond less personally dangerous, and even hinting at a bisexual past, the guardians of his brand are undermining precisely what has made that brand so special. This is all the more astonishing since the first 22 Bond films cost $1.55 billion to make but made $10.41 billion at the box office.

Sony PicturesDaniel Craig as James Bond in ‘Skyfall’

As a literary character in 12 novels by Ian Fleming, Bond first appeared during Winston Churchill’s premiership. Now in his sixth silver-screen incarnation, played by Daniel Craig, he still has the capacity to thrill. But while mincing around in Tom Ford suits rather than Savile Row, with three buttons on his cuff rather than a gentleman’s four, and drinking Heineken beer instead of martinis? Above all, can he long escape his upper-class background—schooling at Eton and Cambridge, service in the Royal Navy?

Over his half-century of phenomenal success, Bond drank, smoked, always put British national interest first and never, ever, stayed with the same woman for two consecutive films. Flying from London to Istanbul in “From Russia With Love,” he drank “two excellent Americanos,” two tumblers of ouzo, two dry martinis and a half-bottle of Calvet claret. He smoked 60 a day.

Government propaganda on the hazards of booze and cigarettes blares out that he’d be impotent, but we all know he isn’t. He was snobbish about his food and especially wine, drove gas-guzzling cars, wasted taxpayer money with glee and was a complete cultural philistine. Not only did he hunt foxes, but he also hunted people—then made jokes when killing them. Funny ones.

He was thus precisely the kind of man that every woman’s magazine has for the past four decades been warning their readers against. He was loved by men for all the reasons that he ought to be hated by women (but isn’t because he is unfairly, unfeasibly handsome).

However much Bond might seem to care for Bérénice Marlohe in “Skyfall,” we know what he has done with Carole Bouquet in “For Your Eyes Only” (1981), Ursula Andress in “Dr. No” (1962), and Halle Berry in “Die Another Day” (2002). “Doesn’t do to get mixed up with neurotic women in this business,” Roger Moore’s Bond says in “Moonraker” (1979). “They hang on to your gun-arm, if you know what I mean.”

Asked in “Casino Royale” (2006) if it bothered him to kill so many people, Daniel Craig’s Bond answered: “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.” The slick one-liners delivered on the manner of a victim’s death—for example, when Sean Connery’s Bond spear-guns his enemy in “Dr. No” and says “I think he got the point”—proves that Bond adored killing people. That’s about as un-PC as it gets in modern society. Stella Rimington, a former director of Britain spy agency MI6, wrote censoriously that “Bond is no spy; he is a mere licensed killer.”

Bond also violated the other great PC taboo of the modern age: social class. Surely this popular hero’s upper-middle class can only ever produce Hollywood villains, with their cruelty, chauvinism and passion for exploitation all too evident in their cut-glass accents? British Prime Minister David Cameron—like Bond, an Etonian—finds his social class his greatest political incubus. Yet it doesn’t bother Bond for a moment.

In “The Man Who Saved Britain,” a superb book about Ian Fleming’s creation, Simon Winder notes that after World War II, “What mainland Europe had suffered could not allow such insouciance—and indeed Britain’s experience could barely permit it—but through the insight of a cynical, depressive Old Etonian, something new and modern had been created which could express a romance of Britain and which generated a goodwill and a sense of openness that continues to make London so alluring.” Certainly, the London of this year’s Olympics and Diamond Jubilee is a fine co-star in “Skyfall.”

James Bond simply cannot wear three-button cuffs, drink Heineken or josh with a hilariously blond-dyed Javier Bardem about his sexually ambiguous past. Come back to us, 007; nobody does it better.

Mr. Roberts, a historian, is the author most recently of “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War” (Harper, 2011).

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