OUR MAN IN PANAMA


Pierce Brosnan was keen to delve into the character of James Bond ... and some of his best opportunities were found outside the Bond universe.

In one of those interesting little moments of serendipity, an article claiming The Tailor of Panama (2001) - the story of an MI6 troublemaker troughing gleefully through the corruption of the titular country – as Pierce Brosnan’s best Bond film, appeared mere days before the revelations of The Panama Papers.1 Accompanying those revelations – staggering on one level, depressingly familiar on another – came innumerable reminders of MI6's destruction of Snowden files. Thank goodness, then, MI6 had their democratic tenets in order by the time that dastardly C was waving “Nine Eyes” in their faces in late 2015. Or was that Spectre film just a fiction?

Author Frank Anderson's assertion of The Tailor of Panama as Brosnan's best Bond film, when Tailor is conclusively not a Bond film, is linked to a very interesting thesis on Brosnan's four-film tenure as James Bond. Anderson states that Brosnan is so fundamentally “Bond-like” he could only bring a limited amount of idiosyncrasy to his portrayal. While Lazenby, Moore and Dalton all had detractors stating their unsuitability for the role (Craig and Connery initially weathered such critiques as well), the qualities their detractors honed in on - Lazenby too ill-at-ease, Moore too tongue-in-cheek, Dalton too funereal, etc. - were often the very qualities that gave their characterisations and films a personality and appeal distinct from one another.

Anderson's contention continues, though, that as Brosnan is so essentially Bond-like, what with his dark, chiselled features, smooth voice and steady poise, he has often made a stronger and more distinguished evocation of the James Bond character and mythos in a non-Bond film such as The Tailor of Panama. And while some of the authors broader contentions - that Brosnan was never a great Bond and never made a great Bond film - certainly risk alienating readers, the other contentions I think are insightful in unpacking Brosnan's impact as Bond.

In terms of a lack of defining qualities, it should be pointed out that Brosnan was the fifth actor to play James Bond. At this point in time delivering a unique dimension or two was an increasingly tough ask. (The sixth actor, Daniel Craig, I think is also hard-pressed to offer an especially unique portrayal of Bond, except that his "unconventional good looks" and the Dalton grittiness minus the the edge of self-disgust adds up to something that feels new). Also, Brosnan took on the role at a point where a) Bond had been offscreen for more than half a decade, b) Bond's relevance was at the peak of negative appraisals and c) the previous three films - Moore's darker-edged finale A View to a Kill and Dalton's more somber-tinged twosome The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill - had, comparatively speaking, failed to set the American box-office alight. Commercially speaking, establishing a unique Bond persona was less important than establishing a "steady-as-she-goes" persona. So even if Brosnan was keen to go in a particular direction - and Brosnan stated he was keen to "peel back the layers" of the character - there was the health of the franchise to attend to. And so Brosnan was a return to the cooler-than-cool "early Connery" template, with some Eighties humanism and Seventies punning thrown in. If you're judging a Bond in terms of being an all-rounder, Brosnan, I think it can be fairly said, is the one to beat.

However, if we consider Brosnan's association with James Bond in terms of his ambition with the character (the aforementioned "peeling back the layers") it would seem incomplete to overlook his satirical takes on Bond-like characters. We especially need to consider Tailor and The Matador (2005), what with their  tales of debauched and deflated agents and assassins, as opportunities for Brosnan to peel back some layers that Bond could only partly accommodate. Even Brosnan might classify Tailor as his best Bond film.

What Tailor reveals, though, is an emotional void and sly opportunism in the iconically stylish, free wheeling MI6 figure, and all the harmless seduction of a GoldenEye love scene is now imbued with something palpably harmful. A typical Bond pun such as "When I see something worth having, I go after it" no longer possesses that amusing mock-entitlement. It is entitlement and objectification through and through. The "tailor" of the piece, an ex-con with a past that Brosnan's agent has the measure of, in turn has a down-on-his-luck friend who has the measure of Brosnan's amorality: yes, the tailor may concoct elaborate facades and stories to disguise his past, but "he has heart, Mr Cool." There's clearly no hope of finding a heart in the MI6 agent, a possibility the Bond film series continually flirts with, if but in moments. The Bondian cool on show in Tailor is stripped back to reveal a bleak, banal coldness. No warmth to be found, dear audience.

The Matador is a little brighter. It's still utterly satirical: it's over-the-hilleries "Bond" scoffs at government work and instead finds employment within the corporate sector ... as a "facilitator of fatalities" (i.e., hit man). And in rather familiar style, the women he hooks up with remain the same age, while he steadily advances in years. But this guy, unlike the MI6 monster of the previous film, is intrigued with - and even experiences pangs of desire for - meaningful relationships. He's so used to the performative dimensions of socialising, though, that he struggles with the emotional risks, and respectful communication, inherent in genuine, empathetic interactions.  He's also a tad anxious he might give his game away. But desirous he is, and his encounters and budding friendship with an opposite type of male - gentle in nature and belonging within a committed relationship (to a woman of a similar age, for goodness sake!) - duly sabotage his inflated confidence in all things murderous and sexual. He burns out. His eyes can no longer focus on his targets. Or he sees in his targets a juvenile version of himself. "Look at me, I'm a wreck. A parody." (Oh James!) But he's freer than he's ever been ... and Brosnan is sensational (and sensationally funny) in this comic role; unshackled of Bondian responsibilities, he is more Bondian than ever.

Both Tailor and Matador present a satirical Bond figure operating in a less fantastical context. It's Bond in the real world, and, boy oh boy, "Bond" doesn't translate appealingly to this context. I hope I never meet him. I think that Brosnan has deepened our appreciation of Bond; he's dimensionalised and explored the character from the point where the other actors left off. The thing is, as Anderson's article suggests, you need to venture outside of his Bondian filmography to gain the greatest appreciation of this.

How sly, 007, how sly! 

1 Frank Anderson, "The Tailor of Panama was Pierce Brosnan's best James Bond film", Moviepilot, 1 April 2016, accessed 5 April 2016, https://moviepilot.com/posts/3849082

Published 16 January 2017