Behind James Bond’s box office comeback
Maybe it’s an example of the Buddhist principle of karma as applied to American pop culture. Maybe it’s a sign of premillennial exhaustion. And maybe, just maybe, it IS James Bond’s world — and we just live in it.
I’m trying really hard to figure out why a movie franchise that is 37 years old and that has been through five leading actors (no, not counting ”Casino Royale,” but, yes, counting George Lazenby) still has enough muscle to break box office records. ”The World Is Not Enough,” the latest bit of Bond-age, opened last weekend to a startling $35.5 million, the largest three-day take ever for its studio, MGM/UA, and the fastest opener for the series yet. This in a weekend that saw Tim Burton’s ”Sleepy Hollow” also gross more than $30 million.
My question is simple: Why? The Bond films have seemed pretty damned arthritic in the past decade, in terms of entertainment, relevance, and box office clout. The two Timothy Dalton vehicles, 1987’s ”The Living Daylights” and 1989’s ”Licence To Kill” were weak enough performers for many in the industry to predict the series’ imminent demise, and while Pierce Brosnan’s donning of the legendary tuxedo helped 1995’s ”GoldenEye” to a solid $26 million opening and 1997’s ”Tomorrow Never Dies” to $25 million, there was never the sense that Bond once more mattered to the pop-culture landscape — that the movies were anything more than two hours of kitsch nostalgia.
Well, maybe that IS all they are. And maybe that’s all we need as the 20th century draws to a close. Or, putting on the analyst’s hat for a moment, maybe there are other factors at work here. Did adding Denise Richards to the cast — who cares if she can’t act her way out of a sack? — bring in a teenage crowd that had spurned the previous two installments? Was ”Tomorrow Never Dies” hurt at the box office two years ago only because it had the misfortune to open against ”Titanic”? Did ”The Thomas Crown Affair” — a huge and deserved hit that oozed 007 swank and placed Brosnan’s weightless charisma in a new-but-not-so-new setting — set the stage for a Bond revival?
It could be, of course, that the movie’s really good. But that’s beside the point — and for the next few weekends to prove. Opening weekends, by contrast, are notable for what they say about what we WANT to like (or, when the marketing is strong enough, what we’ve been TOLD to like). Right now, it seems, we want to like James Bond. And it may not matter who’s playing him.