If you’ve paid any attention at all to Daniel Craig’s press tour for the new James Bond film, Spectre, you’d be aware that Craig is pretty well disenchanted with 007. Maybe “really fucking over it” is a better description. He’s described Bond as a “misogynist”, noting that “a lot of women are drawn to him chiefly because he embodies a certain kind of danger and never sticks around for too long.” When asked by Time Out about the chance of him doing another Bond film, he replied “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists.”
So it’s reasonable to conclude that Spectre, arriving just shy of a decade since his debut in Casino Royale, is likely the last time we’ll see Craig assume the iconic role. With this in mind, it’s worth asking – what’s the legacy of Daniel Craig’s James Bond? By and large, his four films have been a reflection of contemporary action filmmaking trends – rather than an influence on same – but beyond that, what do they have to say? Taken in concert, do they amount to anything beyond the sum of their parts?
Spectre, from Skyfall director Sam Mendes, certainly seems committed to establishing some kind of cohesion. While the 24th Bond film doesn’t pander to nostalgia quite as shamelessly as its predecessor – which incorporated Goldfinger’s Aston Martin for no apparent reason and reportedly considered including a Connery cameo – the series’ history, both recent and distant, is nonetheless indelicately woven through its strained fabric. The From Russian with Love train confrontation is restaged, with Dave Bautista’s assassin replacing Robert Shaw and considerably more destruction, besides. The volcano lair of You Only Live Twice is reimagined as a (more expensive, more expansive) surveillance-complex in the heart of a meteor crater. There’s even a white pussycat in the mix, however briefly.
But Spectre seems primarily intent on tying together the frayed narrative threads of the previous films, which up until now have operated somewhat unconvincingly as the Bond Cinematic Universe modern audiences (apparently) demand. Bond’s background as an orphan – mentioned offhand in Casino Royale and reconstituted into an integral part of Skyfall’s climax – is revisited and reimagined. We eye a videotape bearing Vesper’s (Eva Green’s) name. We are paraded past the faces of villains Craig tackled as Bond – Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, Jesper Christensen’s ‘Mr White’, Javier Bardem’s Silva. Again, the Bond girl ‘relationship’ is complicated by an unexpected confession of love; again, Bond’s morality is tested in a climactic decision whether or not to shoot someone in cold blood (as per the finale of the deservedly-forgotten Quantum of Solace). Even the moment that began Casino Royale – someone infiltrating another’s office, and stealing the bullets to their gun – is re-enacted, though with different players. (There are countless other examples, but hopefully you take my point.)
It’s clear that these films are torn between the past and the future. It’s also become clear, with the relative disappointment of Spectre, that Casino Royale, for all its successes (and they’re manifold – it’s a great dang film), set the series on a path it was not prepared to follow. Martin Campbell’s 2006 ‘reboot’ carved Bond down to his essence, stripping away the traditional accoutrements – Q and his gadgets were nowhere to be seen, and even the theme music didn’t appear until the film’s final seconds – for a muscularity and brutality that stood in stark contrast with the camp of Roger Moore and the later Brosnan films.
What felt truly revolutionary about Casino Royale, though, was how it engaged with the darker side of Bond’s character. Specifically, his misogyny. Think the scene where Craig gazes dispassionately on the twisted corpse of the woman he’d doomed to death through half-hearted seduction, or the cold way he tells M, “The bitch is dead,” after Vesper’s watery demise. While the James Bond films have rarely regarded their hero as entirely heroic, this felt different: a clear-eyed view on the kind of man whose life revolves around murdering people – “half-monk, half-hitman” (in his words).
The film was also very much about Craig becoming Bond – hence the last-minute appearance of the theme song – but that path was defined by an exaggeration of these pseudo-sociopathic qualities. Vesper’s death is implied to have also killed off his ability to love, and to trust. As hundreds of people have said, the film is Bond’s Batman Begins – the first step towards a more serious, realistic take on the character.
In a perfect world, Quantum of Solace would have been a continuation of these themes, a second act that investigated the twin tensions of navigating high-stakes espionage and coping with a deep emotional wound. Instead, Marc Forster’s faux-Greengrass direction and an ill-timed writers’ strike resulted in a sketchy mediocrity, and it took Sam Mendes to course-correct the series with Skyfall, a film whose success is severely limited by its inability to work within the framework established in Casino Royale.
Specifically, Casino Royale was a rejection of the increasingly-tired clichés that had defined the Bond films for the previous half-century (by drawing heavily from Dalton’s Bond, admittedly). By dismissing the extraneous bullshit – “Do I look like I give a damn?” – it found a freshness the series had been lacking. Skyfall, meanwhile, is torn between glorifying the old stuff – look, it’s Q! and Moneypenny! and the classic Aston Martin! – and trying to hold true to the deconstructed Bond of two films prior. Mendes’ first run at the character is undeniably both entertaining and impeccably shot (all hail Deakins), but it can’t seem to decide if Bond is an exemplar of how intelligence agencies should operate or the complete opposite.
Craig’s Bond is still regarded as a relic: a rough-edged, antiquated thug; a symbol of retrograde English imperialism. But Skyfall sees him as necessary, and superior to the alternative: transparent intelligence organisations. Depending on your perspective, you could read the film as siding with the committee questioning M’s decision-making, memorably summed up by Fiennes’ quip: “We’re a bunch of antiquated bloody idiots fighting a war we don’t understand and can’t possibly win.” This reading isn’t too hard to support; after all, Bond’s attempts to ‘go back in time’ result in failure. He kills Silva, but not before Silva achieves his sole objective – the murder of Judi Dench’s M, who frankly admits to ruining Silva’s life for the sake of diplomacy.
Equally, you can argue that Skyfall is actually celebrating this kind of old-fashioned approach to espionage. The film ends with all the old Bond shit reinstated, after all: M’s now an upper-class white dude again, Moneypenny is back to being behind a desk. We end on the classic rifle-cam: this is the Bond we remember.
This ambiguity is actually great, I reckon. The inability to reconcile the brutishness of ‘licenses to kill’ and the like with the realities of modern surveillance seems, well, honest. Per a recent Entertainment Weekly piece (arguing that about half of Spectre is a dream sequence, as you do): “You need to always remember that the geopolitics of the James Bond franchise is a load of hot nonsense. “ Skyfall’s apparent inability to decide if Bond is a necessary antihero or just a plain ol’ hero is endearing, really.
Enter Spectre. As a piece of entertainment, it’s a damp squib. Hoytema’s cinematography is unfortunately bland. Outside of the impressive opening sequence, the action setpieces are expensive but rarely exciting. Casino Royale may have excised the camp, but it kept a sharp sense of humour that’s, sadly, almost entirely atrophied at this stage. Daniel Craig looks deathly tired in the role and, for once, Léa Seydoux disappoints. (Oh, and Judi Dench is sorely, sorely missed.) At least the outfits and cars look nice. But this is subjective shit; the real disappointment is how thoroughly it squanders anything interesting that preceded it in the series.
Gone is any moral ambiguity around Bond, James Bond. An elaborate backstory is substituted for character depth. He’s a good guy now. He only shoots bad guys, and even then, not always (it’s essentially impossible to intelligently reconcile the opening scene of Casino Royale, where Bond shoots a guy for light treachery, with the climax of Spectre). Pretty much all the Bond tropes are entrenched by now, whether it’s opening with said rifle-cam or including an exploding watch in a franchise that, up ‘til now, had a tiny radio as its most elaborate gadget.
Spectre restages Skyfall’s ideological conflict around intelligence organisations; but instead of the transparency-secrecy dichotomy, we’ve got a man with a gun versus drones with cameras. The past versus the future. The avatar of the future is one Max Denbigh, aka ‘C’ (Andrew Scott), who advocates for an international system of surveillance. He wants to bring the “prehistoric” MI6 “out of the dark ages and into the light.” Perhaps, like Fiennes in Skyfall, his apparent smugness is misleading, not a signal of villainy? Nope, he’s a bad guy.
To return to Nolan’s Batman films, this is beginning to feel a lot like when The Dark Knight used invasive surveillance to hunt down the Joker then emphasised that Spying On People Is Bad, or The Dark Knight Rise’s shameless incorporation of Occupy rhetoric into its screenplay. Like these films, Spectre’s exploiting hot-button issues – hey, the bad guy’s lair looks kinda like the White House from this angle! – without any coherent thesis to back it up (much like this essay, I guess). The film is essentially arguing that some guy with a gun (and limited information) is better than a drone because that some guy has to look someone in the eyes before he kills them, which is an intensely problematic point of view to adopt. It neatly contradicts everything we’ve seen in the previous three films, in which Bond relied quite heavily on surveillance and pretty much always operated without official permission. It wants us to cheer as our hero drives off in the sunset, without any acknowledgment that the organisation he’s working for is barely distinguishable from the organisation he’s combatting.
I’ve been trying to work out what these films have to say for some 1,500 words now, and I think the answer is pretty simple: nothing. Like a mid-range Bond film, the Craig Bonds swerve from setpiece to setpiece through a flimsy narrative that falls to pieces upon inspection. The problem, I suspect, isn’t as much with the films as with my assumption: that you can expect any coherent throughline from a franchise driven pretty well entirely by commercial concerns.
I mean, who’s the auteur here? The one – well, two – constants across the series are screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who only rebuilt Bond into respectability with Casino Royale after jettisoning his reputation with the last couple Brosnan films. How do two writers produce six films so drastically different? (Granted, Quantum of Solace is somewhat explained by the writer’s strike.) The answer is, I suspect, that they’re craftsmen rather than artists. The real authors here are the executive producers, pumping in tens of millions of dollars and ensuring that they’re compensated accordingly.
This is why we get the return of an apparently iconic villain in Spectre (I won’t name him, but, c’mon): because that’s what the fans want, never mind that it’s antithetical to the framework set up three films prior. An Omega watch features prominently in a third act setpiece because they presumably paid a lot of money to appear in the film, and you’re going to make the most impact if you’re a plot point (it’s debatable if this is any better or worse than Bond and Vesper’s awkward train conversation in Royale). The most egregious example of the influence of commercial concerns is Spectre’s opening scene, rewritten to feature Mexico City more prominently and – get this – to make a corrupt mayor a generic assassin after Mexico gave them a cool 20 million dollars. It’s no wonder these films’ politics are so muddled.
It would have been nice to see Craig’s final three films operate as a continuation of Casino Royale: to provide exhilarating action combined with moral ambiguity and an authentic emotional foundation. Instead, the curve trends back towards the conventional – the gadgets and Ms Moneypenny and another fucking Aston Martin – because that’s what sells. Because audiences want something recognisable, someone else to fit into the tuxedo after Daniel Craig’s left. He might live on to speak the truth about his character – this charming, alcoholic misogynist – but that tuxedo’s going to hold its shape without him. Pity. Empty suits don’t tend to have much to say.