Cary Joji Fukunaga’s career choices have continually wrong-footed fans. The American film director (who has just been announced as Danny Boyle’s surprise replacement on the troubled new James Bond production) has the habit of flitting between the most unlikely projects.
He made his name in 2009 with Sin Nombre, a hard-hitting Mexican-set gangster and immigration drama that won awards at Sundance – and then he came to Britain to direct the umpteenth (and one of the best) screen adaptations of Jane Eyre for BBC Films. That showed his versatility. He was equally comfortable dealing with gun-toting drug runners as well as Bronte heroines in bonnets and brooches.
You can see the thinking of the veteran Bond producers, Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, in recruiting Fukunaga. The clock is running on Bond. Universal has come in to distribute the film after a fiercely competitive bidding process. Studio space at Pinewood has long been booked for the project and Daniel Craig has been retained as the star.
This is too big and important a franchise to risk any further delay, even if the original 25 October 2019 UK release date for the new film has quietly been shelved.
The film is now set to be released on 14 February 2020. That is Valentine’s Day, of course – so it’s fair to expect the movie to have at least some romantic trimmings. It is a cleverly chosen slot that will allow Bond to play in cinemas through the February half-term and right until Easter – and to avoid the logjam of releases in the pre-Christmas period.
Danny Boyle had seemed like an inspired choice, especially given the skit he directed on Bond for the start of the 2012 London Olympics. However, the Trainspotting director has a maverick streak. He and his screenwriter John Hodge clearly had some radical ideas for 007 (there were rumours they even wanted to kill the spy off).
Wilson, Broccoli and the rest of the production team are fiercely protective of a movie character who has helped prop up the British film industry for nearly 60 years now. There is a huge machine behind Bond. The director is allowed to drive it on the strict understanding that the film doesn’t veer too far off the normal track.
Nevertheless, in their choices about how to keep Bond relevant, Wilson and Broccoli will sometimes rely on gut instinct. “The received wisdom, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is a formula for complacency and a disaster for any film franchise,” Wilson observed when he and Broccoli ignored their own research and decided to return to basics by casting Craig in Casino Royale and re-establishing 007 as the “hard, ruthless, sardonic” figure that Ian Fleming had written about it.
Fukunaga seems a very clever pick on two different levels. He has a strong creative reputation – he is an auteur whose latest series Maniac is said to be genre-breaking and mind-bending – but he also knows how to play the game. He can work with big paymasters like HBO and Netflix.
It is very unlikely that Fukunaga’s Bond film will contain much of the eyebrow-raising frivolity, fetish for silly gadgets and all those Moneypenny gags that used to run through 007 in the latter days of the Roger Moore era. One characteristic all his work shows is a darkness and an intensity. He doesn’t do light comedy.
He elicited superb performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the first season of HBO’s True Detective and a terrifying one from Idris Elba as the African warlord in Beasts of No Nation, released by Netflix. The chances are that he will push Craig (whose interest in Bond has often wandered as he looks to take other parts) as hard as Sam Mendes did in Skyfall and Spectre. He will pay as much attention to character as to gunplay.
The next Bond will be the first one since the rise of the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Fukunaga’s films, whether Sin Nombre or Jane Eyre, have often had very strong women characters. He’ll strain out any of the sexism that might have crept into the Bond series in the past.
When directors sign up for Bond, they sometimes lose their creative thrust. By consensus, one of the weakest Bonds of recent times was Quantum of Solace, directed by Marc Forster, who, like Fukunaga, had made his name with hard-hitting, independent films. Quantum was one of the shortest of all the Bond films and the director’s sensibility simply didn’t seem to match with the material. Fukunaga looks like a much better fit.
Throughout its history, the Bond bandwagon has frequently threatened to break down. Disputes over rights, casting and money have jeopardised the series but the producers have always found a way to keep it going. In their choice of new director, they look to have found the perfect solution to their latest crisis.
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