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James Bond Ultimate Edition vol. 1-4

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The question will always remain as to whether Connery was really the best Bond or simply the first Bond. If Roger Moore had come before Connery, would the bias toward the latter remain?

 

As a hero for our times, James Bond isn't only back, he keeps coming back again and again—the caviar on the lazy susan of pop culture.

Roughly timed to coincide with the release of the newest in the series, Casino Royale, the ubiquitous Bond films have been rereleased on DVD yet again, this time in boxed sets that appear to have been arbitrarily compiled. Perhaps to get people used to the idea of Bond being a sort of free agent—in the sense that he's never been nailed down by one particular actor—the boxes' selections provide a cultural overview of five double-0 decades. Of course, the relationship Bond has with pop culture—he rarely has them with women; only flings—is a matter of symbiosis. From the beginning, the adventures took liberally from the headlines, from other films, from themselves. But what they gave back was a cinematic metaphor for the war between good and evil. The fact that the ultimate contest is unwinnable gives the series its legs, its license to continue. Volumes 1-4 of The Ultimate James Bond Edition contain five films each, and comprise all of the Bond movies, presented in bonus-riddled two-disc sets. Though fans (from a consumer's perspective) shouldn't have to shell out for these movies all over again—purchasing a boxed set isn't exactly buying in bulk—well-paid diehards should splurge and buy the new editions; they're worth getting for the Roger Moore commentaries alone. Moore is almost 80, and it's a rare chance to hear an old pro deliver public anecdotes about secret antidotes.

While the Bond novels by Ian Fleming existed in a fairly static—if posh—era of Cold War intrigue, the movies are a fanciful exaggeration, more burlesque than brutish. And while the books compelled the reader to paint his or her own picture of Bond on the canvas of the novel, the films literally personified the British super-hero (of which there are surprisingly few).

To the initial wave of fans who came of Bond age in the '60s, Sean Connery is like the first love they never got over. The question will always remain as to whether Connery was really the best Bond or simply the first Bond. If Roger Moore had come before Connery, would the bias toward the latter remain? Certainly, Moore lacked Connery's strong cocktail of dry wit and fast-on-his-feet agility. Yet something about Connery seemed oddly unintellectual. But that was the idea. Otherwise, he would have come off like a common sleuth, an oversexed Sherlock Holmes. However, when Bond was snobbish and demonstrative with his knowledge of fine wine (From Russia With Love, Diamonds Are Forever) or bragged about his ability to speak fluent Japanese (in You Only Live Twice, though he never used it), his intelligence—via Connery's portrayal—was easygoing and implicit. You trusted him. 007 was never meant to be a rocket scientist, anyway (that vocation belonged to the villains, sometimes literally), and the Bond brilliance is embedded in the plots, the gadgets, even the music. The best films in the series balance an over-the-top realism and a kind of updated retro-futurism. And it's all served sushi-raw, with an arm-breaking twist of hedonism (and, in the case of his beautiful conquests, shedonism). Moore - not the second Bond, as often assumed, but the third—was never able to use irony with the knowing subtlety of Connery, who could joke about his work even as he performed it. In the world of Bond, there was never a sense of "We'll laugh about this later." It's all about living—or dying—in the moment. But Moore was less of a chauvinistic ruffian.

When you get down to it, though, the movie's the thing. Others that try to resemble Bond can only evoke the trappings, never the effortless escapism. The films are made from a time-tested mold and, in the hands of imitators, the cheesy ideas turn positively moldy (Moldfinger, anybody?). Not that we're talking Shakespeare, or anything. The Bond plots are pretty much interchangeable. The spy's classic objective is to prevent a rocket ship from being swallowed or destroyed, a nuclear bomb from being detonated, a beautiful woman from being neglected. In the final Pierce Brosnan Bond, Die Another Day, things get off to a whirling start. The first hour is riveting, surprising, with scenes of Bond being tortured, Bond having a heart attack, Bond in a Castaway beard, Bond in a tuxedo. But things get silly fast, partially thanks to a villain with a strange somnambulistic quirk: instead of sleeping, he hooks himself up to a machine for some abbreviated shut-eye. Sounds fun, but the idea is underdeveloped, itself sleep-deprived. Even worse is John Cleese's woefully miscast Q (the gadget inventor) and the rule-breaking invisible car he comes up with. This would be great for Spy Kids, but, sorry, I just don't see an invisible car working in a Bond movie. The unlikely gadget-on-wheels is put to the course in the film's climax in a fake-looking chase that puts the vehicle through a rubbery CGI obstacle course.

To give this much attention to the weakest Brosnan excursion may be a waste of words when there are 20 films to talk about, including masterpieces like On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, and You Only Live Twice. But it points out how Bond has both survived and suffered through the years. The iconic '60s swinger-spy in a tuxedo is still the one fighting evil today—only the lapels and stakes have been widened.

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