Has Bond emerged from his turn-of-the-century transformation newly relevant? Did the attempt at making individual entries part of a bigger story work?
BY KEITH PHIPPS for THE INTERNATIONAL CHRONICLES
Before Daniel Craig arrived, James Bond hadn’t made sense for years. That’s not just because the character’s original conception — a borderline sadist who used and discarded women while eating elaborate meals, drinking to excess, and smoking constantly — felt increasingly out of time as the 20th century turned into the 21st. It’s because Bond fans could be driven to the brink of madness trying to connect one film to the next. A new actor would take over as Bond from time to time, but it was unclear whether or not the Bond of the moment and the Bonds of the past shared the same history. Why did some of the supporting cast remain consistent and others did not? Is it any wonder why a fan theory that “James Bond” was just a codename caught on in some corners?
The Craig films, which culminate this year with the fifth film in his cycle, No Time to Die, have treated both Bond’s retrograde personality and tangled continuity as problems that needed solving. They’ve addressed the former without making Bond fundamentally un-Bondian, emphasizing the toughness of his character and the emotional toil of the job rather than, say, his tendency to leer at every woman who crosses his path. And they’ve tried to smooth out the snarls of James Bond continuity while telling a multi-part story with a distinct beginning, middle, and seemingly definitive end.
It’s been a thoughtful overhaul filled with bold choices. But was it successful? Has Bond emerged from his turn-of-the-century transformation newly relevant? Did the attempt at making individual entries part of a bigger story work? To find answers here at the end involves first going back to the beginning.
When Casino Royale hit theaters in 2006, it earned comparisons to the then-fledgling Bourne franchise, and understandably so, given that it took cues from those films’ grittier approach to action — emphasizing tough, intense, sometimes bloody scenes of combat over effects-driven set pieces. The Bourne films were viewed at first as the anti-Bonds, an answer to the excesses—like, say, an ice palace or an invisible car—of the later Pierce Brosnan films.
It wasn’t the first time the Bond films had realigned themselves to suit the tastes of the times. Live and Let Die mimics the blaxploitation films of the early ’70s, awkwardly dropping Roger Moore into a role that elsewhere might have been played by Fred Williamson. Moonraker sent Bond into space at the height of the post-Star Wars science fiction boom. But where those entries felt like trend-chasing, the harder-hitting action of Casino marked the beginning of a longer-lasting shift.
For all the Bourne comparisons, Casino Royale owed as much to the previous year’s Batman Begins, another attempt to figure out how an iconic 20th-century hero would work in the 21st. The solution for Batman proved to be the solution for Bond: strip the character down to its essence and rebuild from there. (Casino Royale co-writer Paul Haggis even acknowledged the influence.) For Bond that meant returning to Fleming’s description of Bond as “quiet, hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic” and a “blunt instrument” wielded by the government to execute nasty business.
Though not exactly an origin story, Casino Royale does contain a flashback to Bond’s first kill. More importantly, it lets Craig’s performance do a lot of the work of redefining Bond. “Quiet, hard, ruthless, sardonic?” Check, check, check, and check. And by film’s end, a kind of resigned fatalism has crept in as well. Craig brings his own terse magnetism to the character, but also a sense of vulnerability, particularly in his scenes with Eva Green, who plays Vesper Lynd, the rare character who feels like a match for Bond and a woman with whom he could truly fall in love. It doesn’t work out, to put it mildly, but their chemistry creates a sense of loss that haunts the character as it hangs over the rest of the films.
That haunted quality made Craig’s Bond a deeper character, but it didn’t always work in the series’ favor. Craig would never find the same chemistry with any of his co-stars after Green. And while Bond would have sex in each successive film, the pairings usually seemed more dutiful than sexy.
Casino Royale’s immediate follow-up, Quantum of Solace, made the choice of continuing the story begun in Casino Royale. Previously, Bond films would more or less forget earlier Bond films existed. Sure, there would be an occasional reference to a past film’s plot development (like Tracy, Bond’s doomed wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and supporting characters like M, Felix Leiter, Moneypenny, and Q would remain (albeit played at various points by different actors), and villains would sometimes return for encores. But the series mostly took a clean slate approach and never demanded viewers have any knowledge of what had come before.
Quantum changed that, picking up almost immediately where Casino Royale left off as Bond deals with a villain left over from his previous adventure. The film ends with him capturing another bad guy tied to Vesper. Rather than a fresh start each time out, Craig’s Bond series would become a continuing story.
That suits Craig’s approach to the character. His Bond becomes increasingly weary as the series progresses. But drawing out the narrative also requires a story that commands interest and demands new chapters, which the Craig era films have never figured out how to do. It’s been easy to care about the stories within individual entries. The good films are quite good and the weaker ones are usually good enough. But the connections between the Daniel Craig Bond movies have largely felt unnecessary, an intriguing idea that never fully took root.
Quantum of Solace doubled down on the gritty Bourne vibe, yet it all feels like more of the same but somehow lesser, despite giving more room to Judi Dench’s M (a rare holdover from the pre-Craig era) and bringing back Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter. There’s nothing awful about Quantum of Solace, but it plays a bit like an idling vehicle after the thrilling Casino Royale.
To kick it back into gear, Bond’s handlers brought in Sam Mendes, a stylish director whose Iraq War drama Jarhead was the closest he’d made to an action film at that point. It was a puzzling decision. The franchise had largely relied on action craftsmen. Mendes was a name, and one best known for dramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. It also proved to be the right choice.
James Bond films have always featured an abundance of beauty: beautiful locations, beautiful people, beautiful clothes, beautiful cars, and so on. But Skyfall is the first entry that can be called a beautiful film. Visually, it’s a stunning achievement, due in no small part to the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. It’s practically a series of #OnePerfectShot scenes after another, whether capturing the mist-swept Scottish hills or the neon-drenched skyline of Macau.
Skyfall also featured a villain who feels like Bond’s equal in the form of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), offered a few suggestions about why Bond became the man he is, introduced Naomie Harris’s winning take on Moneypenny and deepened Bond’s connection to M. (Craig’s Bond would never become a great romantic, but he’s the first Bond to seem like he has deep attachment to his friends.)
The story, a tale of betrayal and revenge played out on a global scale with a John LeCarré-like understanding of the moral murkiness inherent to the spy game, is compelling too. Is it a coincidence that it’s the Craig Bond with the fewest connections to the overarching narrative begun in Casino Royale (at least until its successor forces some retconned connections)?
Still, while the Daniel Craig era’s decision to tell one big story hasn’t always worked, it has always seemed daring. Spectre resumes that attempt in earnest. But rather than look to Bourne or Batman for inspiration, the movie seems to have Marvel on its mind. Christoph Waltz joins the cast as Blofeld, the most famous of all Bond villains (but one kept away from the films by legal disputes for years) who reveals himself as the series’ Thanos, the Big Bad mastermind behind everything that’s come before, thanks to a grudge against Bond that dates back to childhood.
It’s an intriguing idea and an inspired bit of casting. It’s also a huge dud. The big reveal doesn’t really make that much sense and an uncharacteristically dull Waltz performance does little to sell it. If this is what the whole series has been building toward, it wasn’t worth the wait. That’s another problem with turning the Bond films into one long story: a misstep can diminish what’s come before, like a TV series that gets off to a great start then whiffs with later seasons.
Directed by a returning Mendes, Spectre begins well at least, with a thrilling opening sequence set against the backdrop of a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. And though Deakins taps out, director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, a favorite of Christopher Nolan, often matches the visual splendor of Skyfall. It ends intriguingly, too, with Bond and his new love Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), a psychiatrist with ties to Blofeld’s criminal enterprise, heading off to a brighter tomorrow in Bond’s Aston Martin. It could have worked as a happy ending for Craig’s Bond but, as No Time to Die reveals, the series had other plans.
So does the 15-year-long story told by the Craig films stick the landing? Sort of. No Time to Die picks up directly after Spectre’s final moments and invests a lot of energy into continuing its story and connecting it all the way back to the events of Casino Royale. One early scene involves Bond, at Swann’s insistence, visiting Vesper’s grave before returning to begin their new, espionage-free lives together. This doesn’t go according to plan, seemingly confirming Bond’s instinct not to form close relationships with anyone and sending him off to a lonely retirement. (Admittedly, it’s in a tropical paradise, but that doesn’t stop Bond from brooding). He’s eventually drawn back into the spy life by Felix Leiter, then kept there by a sense of duty and a desire for revenge.
As a story, it’s kind of all over the place, whisking Bond from one location to the next for action scenes that range from Bourne-like melees to Fast & Furious-like vehicular acrobatics to a film-opening home invasion sequence. It doesn’t match the highs of Casino Royale and Skyfall but easily outdoes Quantum of Solace and Spectre.
It also confirms how key Craig’s work has been to tying it all together. He plays Bond as a man of few words but deep emotions, emotions that No Time to Die sometimes lets rush to the surface. And it’s here that it gets tricky to talk about the film without spilling details, but suffice it to say that, though weighed-down by a big-but-bland Rami Malek performance, No Time to Die makes some audacious moves in its final acts, laying shocks upon revelations as 007 faces a world-endangering threat while fighting in the midst of a remote, sophisticated, supervillain lair. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and written by Craig-era mainstays Purvis and Wade working with Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it concludes with scenes that feel like the history of the franchise — both the Craig era and what came before — collapsing in on itself. It’s the sort of bold ending that will be talked about for years. And if it did take following Bond through a deeply connected, wildly uneven narrative to get here, it was ultimately worth the journey.