To onlookers, it might seem like a dream come true: the chance to engage with an incomparable cinema icon and find one's place in movie history.
But many a promising director has come a cropper after taking on James Bond, 007. Think Die Another Day's Lee Tamahori, who was given the keys to the kingdom in the wake of the success of Once Were Warriors, and promptly killed off poor Pierce Brosnan's chances of a fifth turn as the suave British spy by introducing invisible cars – and Madonna. Or Quantum of Solace's Marc Forster, who inherited a rejuvenated Bond (Daniel Craig) from the stylish Casino Royale, yet delivered a watered-down, listless sequel.
Directing 007 is not an easy job. One has to hold fast to the essential tenets of the Bond movie – the girls, the villains, the exotic locations – yet keep the audience guessing. That's why Eon Productions, which has overseen the "official" film series since 1962's Dr No, is absolutely right to wait for British director Sam Mendes to return for a second film in the wake of his spectacularly successful Skyfall last year.
If the reports surrounding Mendes and the Bond series turn out to be true, the Oscar-winning film-maker will be back in the hotseat as soon as he's finished with his current work on a stage version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a new take on Shakespeare's King Lear. It would mean another four years before the next 007 film hits cinemas, by which time Daniel Craig will be nearly 50. But the alternative, parachuting in another director, simply makes no sense.
Eon is waking up to the director-driven method of repeating box office and critical success that has become commonplace in Hollywood. Top-class restaurants do not automatically replace brilliant head chefs every two years, no more than successful businesses periodically get rid of their high-achieving chief executives for no good reason. Why risk a drop in standards by bringing in an untried director when Mendes hit on a formula for Bond that delivered the most successful 007 movie for nigh-on 50 years?
What exactly is that blueprint? In short: it is glitz, not glamour. Skyfall retained the gorgeous global backdrops, tantalising eye-candy and visceral action sequences that the series has lately become known for, yet few of us would want to be Bond in 2013. Here is a man who appears to have no real friends or family, is clearly overwhelmed by his regular dances with death and who searches for the answer in the bottom of a bottle. This 007 is the latest in Mendes's long line of lost souls, stretching back to American Beauty's poor, doomed Lester Burnham, via Revolutionary Road's Frank Wheeler and Jarhead's listless Gulf war grunts. The approach is not popular with Bond purists, and even the most ardent proponent would most likely admit to a little heartache when watching Skyfall: a sense of loss for the charismatic, macho 007 that once was. Yet Mendes brings Bond into the modern world in a manner that makes the character relevant again – no small feat. The approach has been so successful that the rival Bourne series, from which recent Bond has borrowed so much, has been left flailing in irrelevancy.
There is another reason why Eon and studios Sony and MGM are better off holding out for Mendes. The four-year wait between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, necessary due to the financial travails of MGM, only served to increase appetite for the series. Few of us would want to see a middling 007 outing such as Quantum of Solace fill the gap before the next, full-blooded Mendes affair arrives in multiplexes. It also gives Craig and his new colleagues Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes – and hopefully cinematographer Roger Deakins (architect of those beautiful night-time shots in the far east as Bond went in search of the nefarious Silva) – time to make themselves available for the next instalment.
Finally, Mendes is the right man to postpone the return to "fun Bond" – which Skyfall's revival of classic characters such as Q and Moneypenny had hinted at – at least until Craig has hung up his Walther PPK for good. When the series does inevitably career back towards its cosier roots, it should do so with an entirely new team on board. And with luck, Eon will choose a director to oversee several films in the new era, rather than picking a new one each time.
Mendes's success (coupled with the fact that the best two previous Bond movies were shot by Martin Campbell) should really send the traditional "musical chairs" approach to picking a 007 director the same way as rocket-firing boomboxes and perfume flamethrowers. There's a reason Bond has always had a handler (M), all the way back to his very first cinematic adventure in the sunny climes of the Caribbean: you need experience in this business.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010