November 7, 2012

A Tribute To The One True James Bond

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What is the issue?

Imagine you’re at a meeting with Barbara Broccoli, EON Films, and Sony/MGM. You’re a working actor, familiar for your role in Tomb Raider or your stint on Remington Steele, but now you’ve been called up to the big leagues. The moneymen and brand experts have decided that you look good enough in a tuxedo to play arguably the most famous fictional character of our time. Yes — you are the next James Bond, and you don’t hesitate. Sure, you’ve seen what happened to prior Bonds who struggled to shake their typecast image, spending their declining years in commercials and the likes of Boat Trip, but aaaah, nuts to that. This is immortality. This is a chance at a permanent home in the Blu-Ray boxed sets of millions.

But wait! Imagine the dream has gone sour. Imagine you’re George Lazenby. You’ve stepped up to the plate, put in a perfectly serviceable effort in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and are all set to bask in the glory of your newfound superstardom. But suddenly, the bank has foreclosed on your Aston Martin and your License to Kill has been revoked (metaphorically, and perhaps literally). You’ve been unceremoniously shunted aside to allow Sean Connery a curtain call in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Jay Leno style. And, if that weren’t enough, imagine you live long enough to see an old husk like Roger Moore roll out of bed, throw on a dinner jacket, and frolic in front of a green-screen for eight interchangeable movies. There you are — alone, betrayed, destined to slink through life as history’s greatest monster, the answer to the Trivial Pursuit question, “Who was that no-talent hack with the chutzpah to think he could replace the mighty Connery?” (paraphrased).

“This never happened to the other fellow,” deadpanned Lazenby to the camera in his sole Bond performance. That’s what I like about Lazenby: if Daniel Craig is the tough one, and Pierce Brosnan is the suave one, and Connery is the classic, then Lazenby is the amiable bloke who can’t catch a break. But at least he had the benefit of a big-budget production — imagine, instead, that you’re a bit-part actor in Hong Kong who has been given a cheap tux and a few dollars for a day’s work. When I’m forced to pick just one cinematic Bond as my favorite, there is only one answer. Alexander Grand, who played the role in the unauthorized kung-fu film The Dragon Lives Again (1977), is the definitive 007. He’s a James Bond for the rest of us.

Anyone who has seen it will tell you that The Dragon Lives Again is one of cinema’s finest achievements. Alas, it remains largely unknown to mainstream audiences, despite a storyline that epitomizes “high-concept.” The plot: a deceased Bruce Lee (played by Leung Siu-lung, credited as “Bruce Leung”) wakes up to find himself in the Underworld, a purgatory-like state ruled over by a tyrannical King. Wandering around the Underworld (which looks not unlike a soundstage with a red backdrop), he discovers a plot to overthrow the King by an all-star band of villains: Dracula, the Godfather, the Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood” (or his spaghetti western character), Zatoichi, Emmanuelle (yes, Emmanuelle), and the Spy Who Loved Me himself, James Bond. (Bruce also befriends Popeye the Sailor, but regrettably, his interaction with 007 is minimal).

Alexander Grand only has a few minutes of screen time, but he makes every one of them count. Daniel Craig has earned praise for humanizing Bond, but even in the torture scene from Casino Royale, he struck me as fairly striking and well-fed. In The Dragon Lives Again, Bond sports thick sideburns and unkempt hair, with a tux that looks to have endured a trans-Pacific flight or two. While Connery is remembered fondly for his wry smile and mischievous eyebrow, Alexander Grand is a true master of the weird smirk.

Where other Bonds are quick and resourceful, Grand doesn’t land a single punch. Where other Bonds suffer enormous punishment without mussing their coiffures, Grand is dispatched with a half dozen kicks. Where other Bonds have a stream of gadgets, Grand has only the handgun in his pocket. And where other Bonds punctuate their derring-do with quips and puns, Grand is as monosyllabic as any henchman. Sample dialogue …

BRUCE LEE: What’s inside?

JAMES BOND: None of your business!

Which, to be fair, is preferable to “Now that’s what I call chop-suey!” or whatever else Pierce Brosnan would have said.

I think a lot of us, at some point, have longed for the life of James Bond, generally when we were kids. The fancy gadgets… the car chases… the astonishing stunts… the glory of saving the world for the umpteenth time… the abundant supply of attractive ladies (I recall Tomorrow Never Dies’ Teri Hatcher warming the embers of my 9-year-old heart). It’s not just that Bond lives a life of impossible adventure, but also that Connery, Moore, Brosnan, et al. make it look so easy. There’s a small part of us (well… me, at least) that watches Roger Moore lug his middle-aged body off a cliff and execute a perfectly-timed landing and thinks, “If that geezer can do it, why not me?” Alexander Grand is the exact opposite of the series’ wish-fulfillment mandate, but he’s also hilariously honest. More than even Lazenby, Alexander Grand shows us a brutal, humiliating, and above all realistic side of the 007 lifestyle. And if you can be realistic in a movie where Bruce Lee and Popeye fight Dracula, my hat is off to you.

After his stint as Bond, Alexander Grand popped up in a few more kung-fu movies (including The Clones of Bruce Lee, Soul Brothers of Kung Fu, and Enter Three Dragons) before apparently retiring. Today, his whereabouts are unknown (at least if your scholarly interest fades after a Wikipedia search, as mine does), and his towering performance is conspicuously absent from most Bond retrospectives. I like to think he’s still out there… somewhere… perhaps in a bar in Kowloon, running up a tab, watching ads for Skyfall on TV, and reminding anyone within earshot about the one, true James Bond. TC Mark

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