IN THE opening scenes of Skyfall, the latest instalment of the James Bond mega-franchise, the world's favorite MI6 operative chases bad guy Patrice across Istanbul on motorcycles, through the city's Grand Bazaar and over its minaret-backed rooftops. Bond jumps and weaves with such verve and ease that it's like he knows his way around the city. Has he been there before? Yes and no.
Skyfall hits the cinemas exactly half a century after the first Bond movie, Dr. No. It is the 23rd official Bond movie, and the third one starring Daniel Craig, the sixth man to play 007 on the silver screen. Craig plays a decidedly muscular Bond, less of a gentleman and more of a street-fighter than previous incarnations - an attempt to align the slightly time-worn gentility of the series to grittier espionage oeuvres.
Bond producer Barbara Broccoli claims Istanbul was Bond writer Ian Fleming's favourite city, but it is not the only foreign city to feature prominently in three different Bond movies - Venice and Hong Kong share the accolade. In those 50 years and 23 movies on Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond has seen a lot of the world. He not only has a licence to kill but a travel allowance to kill for. Which is understandable: you can't conference-call your way out of some madman's diabolical plot to wreck the planet.
Taken together, the sum of Bond's 23 erratic itineraries reveals something of the cinematic imperative behind the franchise - Bond movie locations need to be exotic, spectacular and/or glamorous. But there's also the lingering geopolitical motive. After all, Bond's mission is to preserve, protect and promote British influence and interests in the world.
In all, Bond has visited nearly 50 countries. About 20 are in Europe, and about a dozen each in Asia and the Americas. With a mere four visits, Africa scores pretty low on the list. Two were in sub-Saharan Africa - Madagascar and Uganda, both in Casino Royale - which obviously did its best to fill in a blank on Bond's world map. The other two were Morocco, in The Living Daylights, and Egypt, twice, in Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me.
Mentioning those Arab countries touches on a defect of the Bond franchise: he doesn't really go where the action is - in fact, he seems to positively avoid the world's trouble spots. Four Bond movies have been released in the post-9/11 era, but none of them deals even obliquely with the supposed clash with (or within) Islam that has been animating newspaper columns and battlefields since 2001. Apart from an unconnected, brief foray into Pakistan in Casino Royale, Bond never comes near the giant, throbbing conflict zone that stretches from Israel all the way to Kashmir.
This is quite in character. In previous decades, Bond was never the West's fiercest Cold Warrior. Although the Red Menace is a theme throughout the early oeuvre, with forays into Yugoslavia (From Russia with Love) and East Germany (Octopussy), Bond only infiltrates the Evil Empire itself in its final years - merely retrieving a microchip in Siberia in A View to a Kill. In those three movies, however, it's never the Communist establishment that is the enemy, but rather rogue elements within it.
It's a fantasy world in which the moviemakers have the luxury of choosing the United Kingdom's enemies; ones that bear only the slightest resemblance to its real-world opponents. Forget Islamic fundamentalist terrorists blowing up public transport on the streets of London. Instead, it's cartoonish evil geniuses. This takes the politics out of global conflict, and allows Britain to assume the mantle of high morality.
Essential to the crime syndicate/supervillain set-up is the enemy's lair: a secret and sophisticated base bristling with high-tech weapons and teeming with underlings.
Where will the resorts and the lairs of future Bond movies be situated? Bond 24 and Bond 25, as yet unnamed and perhaps still non-location-scouted, are rumoured to be for release in 2014 and 2016. Craig has opined that he would like to shoot some of the new material in Australia. That would make sense, as neither Australia nor New Zealand has seen any Bond action, despite being former outposts of the British Empire.
Other blind spots on the Bond world map include Scandinavia, the Arabian Peninsula and most of Africa and China: aside from the former Western colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, Shanghai is the only bit of mainland China that was featured in a Bond movie. Nor has Canada ever welcomed 007 to its chilly shores.
Wherever they are set, based on previous experience we can safely predict that they won't take place in China. The West's current No. 1 threat is too hot to handle for Bond, who is after all an agent for a power in decline. One could argue that Bond's suavity is a sort of childlike compensation for Britain's past arrogance as the world's only superpower, his go-it-alone attitude a symbol for a homeland bereft of colonies and grovelling allies. But Britain, even in its reduced circumstances, is not without recourse to the ebbing tide of global relevance. Indeed, the movie franchise itself quietly achieves the goals that Bond purports to pursue on the silver screen. As global cinemagoers root for Bond, millions around the world unwittingly subscribe to the idea of the British hero, of Britishness as heroic, and of Britain forever on the side of good and against evil.
Those are valuable assets for a medium-size power, and they won't be squandered in a direct confrontation with China or any other of the world's up-and-coming heavyweights - not even a fictional one. So, yes, maybe Bond will be boxing with kangaroos in the next instalment …
Frank Jacobs is a London-based author, journalist and blogger.