The new James Bond film Quantum of Solace opens in the UK this Friday, with America getting it a week later. I was looking forward to it until I saw the reviews. Almost without exception, everybody seems to be underwhelmed, with two stars out of five the most common assessment. To a large extent Bond films are critic-proof, a high-octane institution full of bangs and flashes [in more ways than one]. But a great Bond film is a treat to savour.
Daniel Craig's first appearance as 007 in Casino Royale injected fresh like into a long-familiar franchise. Much the same happened when Pierce Brosnan took over as Bond in Goldeneye. Even the much-maligned Timothy Dalton was considered a breath of fresh air in The Living Daylights after the safari suit shenanigans of the 1980s. And Roger Moore brought new life and vitality to 007 when he made his debut in Live and Let Die some 35 years ago.
But all four of these Bonds had a considerably less successful second outing. Moore's sophomore effort The Man With the Golden Gun is less than memorable. License to Kill fails to thrill, only killing Dalton's fledgling residency as Bond. Tomorrow Never Dies bores for Britain, sticking Brosnan with a steaming mess of hokum. It seems Quantum of Solace may be another sticky second helping for Craig. [George Lazenby never got a second chance.]
There's a theory among geeks that even-numbered Star Trek films are always better than those with odd numbers. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan certainly trumps its predecessor, Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture. Trek IV: The Voyage Home thumps III: The Search For Spock - and so on. [The exception is Trek X, which all but killed the franchise.] Perhaps a similar theory should be posited for second efforts for new James Bond actors.
The question is why so sophomore Bonds slump? The arrival of a new 007 gives the production team a chance to redefine the character and the franchise. They can kick against everything that typified the previous Bond - safari suits and smug quips, dull and dour, invisible cars and quiffs, etc. Sometimes there's a longer gap between old and new 007s, allowing more time for script development and rediscovering the essence of Bond for a new era.
But once the first effort works, the pressure comes to pump out another Bond and capitalise on that success. As a consequence, the second film of a new 007 struggles to recapture the lightning in a bottle qualities of its predecessor. It's a common phenomenon in US TV drama, where a new show seems amazingly innovative first time round but less so the second time of asking. They even have a name for this - the sophomore slump.
Just witness the less than stellar offerings found in the second seasons of Desperate Housewives, Heroes, Ugly Bettery - my beloved Friday Night Lights couldn't match the genius of its first season last year. [Happily the current third season is back in the zone.] Mad Men just finished its second season with a stunning finale, but couldn't quite meet the standard of its first year. Even The Wire's second season was not the equal of its dazzling debut.
So it is with second films for new 007 actors. There is one exception is to this newly minted geek theory: Sean Connery. His second appearance as Bond was From Russia With Love, building nicely on the success of Dr No. But his 007 didn't take off until the third film, Goldfinger. So there's hope yet for Daniel Craig. Expect a return to form in Bond 23, due sometime in 2010 or 2011.
Finding a title for the next Bond may be problematic. The producers are running out of original Ian Fleming titles. Only three short story names remain unused - The Property of a Lady [sounds like a Henry James novel], Risico [doesn't sound like anything] and The Hildebrand Rarity [sounds like a Robert Ludlum book - as if Jason Bourne hasn't caused the Bond franchise enough problems].
Perhaps we should take comfort in the knowledge things can get better. The Man With the Golden Gun was succeeded by The Spy Who Loved Me, one of Moore's finest Bond films [IMHO]. The World Is Not Enough was a significant improvement on Tomorrow Never Dies for Brosnan. Fingers crossed Bond 23 gets things back on track for Daniel Craig, after what may be a less than stellar second appearance as 007 in Quantum of Solace. Time will tell, as usual.