With this week’s release of Spectre, the sixth official actor to play James Bond, Daniel Craig, makes his fourth outing. This essay won’t be about Spectre but instead about Craig’s three films leading up to it. For my review of Spectre, click here.
In the years following Die Another Day, rumors were bandied around as to what the next James Bond 007 film would be. Pierce Brosnan’s final outing was pretty roundly mocked and EON productions had finally gotten the rights back for Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale — the only novel not adapted into a film, at least in name. EON went with a controversial decision to reboot the franchise, focusing on Bond in his younger days, and for this they would need a much younger actor to take over the role.
Daniel Craig, who was 38 at the time, was named as the new 007, which proved an interesting choice. Many Bond purists objected to Craig’s blonde hair and blue eyes, attributes the literary character did not share. However, Craig would soon establish himself as maybe the best actor to play James Bond, and certainly the second-best actor at playing James Bond (following Connery).
In 2006, Casino Royale in many ways returned the character and the franchise to the way it had been in the 1960s, focusing on espionage and relative realism, while keeping the ’90s character development and stunt-based action. Casino Royale was directed by Martin Campbell (he directed Brosnan’s inaugural story, GoldenEye), who again proved he knows how to shoot action, with several impressive sequences, not the least of which is a massive free-running chase through Madagascar to open the film. Campbell can also adapt to the times. In a response to the massively successful Bourne trilogy, Campbell included many scenes of close-quarters, fast-paced hand-to-hand combat without aping those films’ visual style. With two films, Martin Campbell cemented himself as among the series’ best directors, alongside Terence Young and Peter R. Hunt.
The storyline for Casino Royale keeps almost the entirety of the original novel but adds to it a large prologue and the idea of this being Bond’s first mission as a Double-O. Indeed, the film’s first 45 minutes or so are completely added material with several action sequences and the obligatory Bond-sleeping-with-a-beautiful-woman scene. Somehow, these scenes work, and connect to the original novel material quite well. In the novel, Bond is just a name and a job until he gets emotionally involved; in Casino Royale we see the young agent as brash and arrogant who must learn to control his ego. In the novel, Bond also lets his guard down with a woman and allows himself to connect. It proves, ultimately, to be a poor decision in both stories, and this goes a long way in explaining Bond’s black heart.
Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is easily the deepest and richest Bond Girl ever depicted in the movies. She begins very much the “ice queen” type who has open contempt for Bond and what she perceives as his reckless arrogance. The two engage in verbal sparring matches and seem to enjoy annoying one another. While it’s clear Bond likes and is attracted to her, Vesper is initially immune to his boyish charms. She would likely have remained unimpressed by Bond had it not been for an incident in a stairwell. Bond and Vesper are attacked by two Ugandan militants who’ve just threatened Le Chiffre (a blood-crying Mads Mikkelsen) to get their money back. Vesper is forced to slam a bad guy’s hand against the ground for his gun, allowing Bond the opportunity to finally end his life. This leads to a breakdown for Vesper. Bond returns to their suite later to find her, fully clothed, sitting curled up in the shower as it runs. Bond merely goes and sits next to her and puts a comforting arm around her. Her feelings for Bond are solidified later in the film when Bond endures horrible physical torture when attempting to rescue her from Le Chiffre.
This relationship is important to Bond as he tenders his resignation near the end of the film in order to be with her. Unfortunately, for both of them, Vesper had been blackmailed by the criminal organization which funded Le Chiffre to give them Bond’s poker winnings instead of delivering it back to the UK treasury. Bond discovers this, through clues left by Vesper herself, and when he tries to intercept her delivery of the money to some bad guys in Venice, a gun battle erupts and Vesper is eventually trapped underwater where she prevents Bond from saving her, utterly ashamed of herself. This defeat guts Bond, building his emotional shell again, stronger than ever. Part of Bond’s literary character, which is often overlooked in the films, is that, for all his sleeping with random women he meets on the job, he is incredibly unlucky with long-lasting relationships. This film and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are the only two films which effectively depict this. It’s no coincidence that these are the two films with the best and most well-rounded storylines.
Casino Royale did exceptionally well both with audiences and critics, earning nearly $600 million worldwide and several BAFTA award nominations. How were they going to follow up on such a massive hit? Could they live up to their own success? Well, they tried.
Two years later in 2008, Quantum of Solace was released. The title comes from an Ian Fleming short story, but has almost nothing to do with it. This is the first film in the franchise to be a direct sequel and the first not to begin with stasis. The irony of course is that, while this film follows up immediately from the last, as films, they could not be more disparate. For evidence, look no further than the running times: Casino Royale is 144 minutes long, the longest film in the series, whereas Quantum of Solace is 108 minutes, the shortest film in the series. What makes for the drastically different lengths? Due to a Writers Guild strike, Quantum of Solace was forced to dispense with those pesky time fillers like character development and romance and instead jam it with one action set piece after another.
Quantum was directed by Marc Forster, the German-Swiss filmmaker of Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and Stranger than Fiction. Not exactly the kind of films one would immediately associate with an action movie, and I think he knew it. Forster seems keen to prove he can direct action, as evidenced by the fact that in the movie’s first half hour, there are five different chases (car, foot, car, motorcycle, boat) and later on we get a sixth (in an airplane this time). He also uses a lot of CGI in the action sequences and as a new form of table-top computing system. It’s not bad CGI, but it is very noticeable and sticks out. Very little time is spent on the story and truthfully, it feels like all the interesting or important stuff in the movie were things they had to cut out of Casino Royale because of time.
Essentially, the movie is about Bond finding the criminal organization, called Quantum, that was behind Vesper’s death and M being very suspicious that Bond is letting his rage cloud his judgment. While it’s cool to see Bond in revenge mode, the film lacks him doing Bond-like things, which had worked so well for Craig.
Luckily, Craig would have another chance at playing the world’s greatest superspy. With MGM’s bankruptcy, the future of the franchise was up in the air. While the idea was to have a new Bond film in 2010, it took an extra two years to get it going, once Sony picked up the slack. Coinciding with the film franchise’s 50th Anniversary, the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, was going to have to be something special…and my heavens was it. Directed by Academy Award nominee Sam Mendes and shot by the legendary Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, Skyfall is easily the nicest looking and best-directed Bond of the bunch. While Craig’s first two films dealt with him being the young upstart, this one was all about Bond being somewhat off his game, older, less fit, a “physical wreck.” Sure, I’ll buy that.
Skyfall is all about taking 007 back to his roots, which is something that all of the Craig films had done, but this time it was his family history. The film also dealt with M (Judi Dench)’s history both with Bond and with other agents. In this case, it’s the utterly warped former protege of M, Silva (Javier Bardem), who blames “mummy” for her heartless nature, something Bond knows all too well following a disastrous call on her part that led to our hero’s supposed death. M is a complicated character, and Dench plays her like a stern authoritarian. Bond has always tried to get M’s approval, filling the paternal void his dead father and mother left behind. Bond fails in his task in this movie, and is always on the back foot, but he ultimately learns to face his past, defending his childhood home, Skyfall, in Scotland against Silva’s goons.
The movie at once deals with Bond getting older and the MI-6 we’ve known being severely changed. It also reestablishes all of the Bond characters that we’d been missing, like Q (now played by Ben Whishaw), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and even the new M (Ralph Fiennes) who is ironically supposed to be the same M that Bernard Lee played in the ’60s. There are lots of nods to Bond’s past, but never at the expense of the story at hand. If the film has any detractors, they often cite the straightforward, almost painfully gadget-free storyline and action sequences, but this is about getting the franchise back to its beginnings. Even though Casino Royale was supposed to do that, it wasn’t until Skyfall that it came full circle.
This year, the 24th James Bond film, Spectre, is released, and with it comes, finally, the return of the evil organization SPECTRE, which was unable to be used following some legal problems. Untied and able to be used, Spectre sees the series back at full strength, though there’s much debate as to whether Daniel Craig will come back for a fifth film. It certainly takes a physical toll on him, and he’s no spring chicken. However, it’d be nice if he came back just once more to round everything out. It feels like there’s more story left to tell. A recasting doesn’t necessarily mean another reboot (in fact, I hope it doesn’t), but I just think Daniel Craig is so fantastic, and his films are uniformly quite good, that I’d hate to see him leave just yet.
So there we have it; James Bond in film. James Bond is a fascinating character as well as a fun and indelible hero, and seeing multiple realizations of him is educational. Even after watching all 23 (24 now), I still like them and would and will watch some of them again, probably soon. As a film fan, I’m happy that, like the end of each film promises, “James Bond Will Return.”
And, for the sake of argument, I’m going to list the films I think are legitimately the best. There’s a difference between a good Bond movie and a good movie, but a handful of them I would say fit into both camps. Of the 23 first films, I’d have to say there are 8 that stand up as being great movies in any sense of the word. Those are: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and Skyfall. These should be on anyone’s list of great action movies, and a few maybe even belong on a greatest movies of all time list.
Thanks for reading this series, and let me know your thoughts on the Bond series and Daniel Craig’s Bonds specifically in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!