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Idiosyncratic gadget-meister Q back with Bond

Ben Whishaw stars as Q in the new Bond movie.

FRANCOIS DUHAMEL

Ben Whishaw stars as Q in the new Bond movie.

He’s been called armorer, quartermaster, the equipment officer, and Major Boothroyd. But fans of the James Bond movies will always know him simply as Q — OK, Mr. Q, if you take your cues from “Diamonds Are Forever.” He’s the dapper gent in charge of the British Secret Service’s Q Branch, which supplies Double O agents with all kinds of gadgets and weapons to protect themselves and kill others.

Astute Bond fans know that Q hasn’t been seen, or even mentioned, since the film series was rebooted in 2006, when Daniel Craig took over as the new, improved, leaner, meaner Bond. This guy had no need for Q and his gadgets. All he needed was a gun, a fast car, and brute force. But Q is returning to the Bond fold in the new film, “Skyfall.”

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There was no character named Q in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or short stories, though Fleming’s fictional weapons man, Major Boothroyd, was based on gun expert Geoffrey Boothroyd, with whom Fleming shared a longtime correspondence over what Bond carried in his shoulder holster. But Q became a lovable mainstay of the movies, partly because he was smart, witty, droll, cranky, and a bit randy, partly because he was the only character who refused to take any badgering from Bond. Their relationship was verbally adversarial, but it also gave the films some good laughs.

He was called Boothroyd in “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” but Q from “Goldfinger” on. He was featured in every Bond film except “Live and Let Die,” and was played once each by Peter Burton, Geoffrey Bayldon, Alec McCowan, and John Cleese, and 17 times by Welsh actor Desmond Llewelyn. Llewelyn died in a car crash in 1999, after his character retired in “The World Is Not Enough”; Cleese succeeded him, initially as R.

The new Q is played by fast-rising British actor Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas,” “I’m Not There”), and he’s presented as a Q for today, a computer whiz who’s more concerned with foiling terrorist threats than supplying our hero with glitzy gadgets.

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“I think the writers were looking around at the culture, and the ‘Bourne’ films had sort of challenged Bond, in a way, hadn’t they,” said Whishaw, 32. “So I believe what they were thinking was to bring it completely up to date, really plant the story in the contemporary world, so they asked themselves who this character would be now. That’s why he’s a young man and sort of a computer genius.”

The question is, are loyal fans going to accept that kind of break from formula, especially when dealing with such a beloved character?

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Truth be told, the Bond series has been all about change since “Dr. No” blazed across screens 50 years ago. MI6 head M was seamlessly switched from a man (Bernard Lee) to a woman (Judi Dench); eight different actors have played CIA agent Felix Leiter; and six have been James Bond (seven if you count David Niven in the 1967 spoof “Casino Royale”).

But the difference in “Skyfall” isn’t just one of a new actor. It concerns a man and his gadgets, or a lack of them.

“There aren’t that many gadgets in the new film,” said Whishaw.

What? Not many gadgets?

In fact, the film has a great joke about that. When Bond first meets this new young whippersnapper of a Q, he’s handed a simple homing device and a gun that’s coded to his palm print. Bond looks at Q and says, “Really? That’s it?” Q looks right back and says, “What were you expecting, an exploding pen?”

Well, yeah. Bond aficionados still revel in the crazy items Bond got from Q’s lab: the attaché case containing a folding rifle, extra ammo, a throwing knife, gold sovereigns, and exploding talcum powder in “From Russia With Love”; the camera-rocket launcher in “The Man With the Golden Gun”; the hydrochloric acid-filled fountain pen (no, it didn’t explode) in “Octopussy.”

There was always extra, usually comic, activity going on around other items in the lab, even if Bond didn’t get to use them: an Egyptian smoking pipe-machine gun from “The Spy Who Loved Me”; a boom box-rocket launcher that Q refers to as a “ghetto blaster” in “The Living Daylights”; the flamethrower bagpipes in “The World Is Not Enough.”

Q’s inventions often led to the enjoyably antagonistic repartee between him and Bond. Next to the scene in “Goldfinger” where Bond, a laser pointed at his crotch, says to Goldfinger, “Do you expect me to talk?” and Goldfinger says, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” there’s probably no more famous dialogue than the Bond-Q exchange earlier in that film, when Q tells Bond not to touch the “little red button” in his new Aston Martin DB5.

Bond: “Yeah, why not?”

Q: “Because you’ll release this section of the roof, and engage and then fire the passenger ejector seat.”

Bond: “Ejector seat? You’re joking!”

Q (dramatic pause): “I never joke about my work, Double O Seven.”

There’s a nice nod to that scene in “Die Another Day,” in which Cleese has replaced Llewelyn as Q, and is giving Bond an “invisible” Aston Martin V12 Vanquish.

Bond: “You’re joking!”

Q: “As I learned from my predecessor, Bond, I never joke about my work.”

A goofy scene in “Octopussy” has Q and Bond together in a hot air balloon.

Bond: “I trust you can handle this contraption, Q?”

Q: “It goes by hot air.”

Bond: “Oh, then you can.”

Whishaw’s performance as Q retains the often dry and witty humor between the two men, but there’s also an added friction.

“I am replacing an older Q, so Bond is meeting me for the first time,” said Whishaw. “It starts fairly adversarially because obviously Bond is not expecting Q to be this young guy. The film plays with a tension between us because of my being younger, and the relationship between us being sort of reversed. It’s the experienced one versus the young turk, the relatively inexperienced one, who has the latest knowledge and information.”

In playing the iconic part, Whishaw tried his best to give Q his own stamp.

“I’d seen the other Bond films,” he said. “But I didn’t watch them again. I thought I needed to come to this fresh. The writers had done a brilliant job of capturing the quality that Q traditionally has, whilst reimagining him as this very contemporary young man. So I felt like it was all there on the page, and I suppose I wanted it to be mine and to have the opportunity to reinvent it to some extent.”

But don’t worry. The old relationship between the characters lives on. When Bond and Q first meet in “Skyfall,” the conversation goes like this.

Q: “I’m your new quartermaster.”

Bond: “You must be joking.”

Ed Symkus can be reached at esym
kus@rcn.com
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