BEWARE: THERE BE SPOILERS HERE!
In anticipation of Daniel Criag’s swan song, “No Time To Die”, I’ve revisited his previous 4 outings as James Bond and one of the many things I’ve found myself wondering about is which theme song best encapsulates his era as 007? There’s no doubt Adele’s “Skyfall” theme is the best. Alicia Keys and Jack White’s “Another Way To Die” was an absolute mess. And both Sam Smith and Billie Eilish did exactly what they had to do. (Wonder if Eilish will win the Oscar, as the previous 2 Bond theme songs have. Check back in a couple months.)
Yet, once given enough time to sink in, it’s hard to evade the realization that Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” is the most emblematic of Craig-era Bond. It’s rough and in your face. Not just defiant, it’s actually cocky. And the track is unapologetically imperfect in the human way previous Bonds never got the chance to be. Tells you nothing about the film, can’t be bothered to name-check the title.
“You know my name,” the hook insists. Fuck yeah, we do.
I’m gonna miss Craig as Bond. It can’t be overstated how much he’s helped redefine this character and bring him into a post-Jason Bourne world. After “Die Another Day” and its invisible car and space laser (???), it felt like maybe this franchise had reached its expiry date. And I’m not hating on that film; in fact I’m still pretty pissed we never got the Halle Berry “Jinx” spin-off there were rumblings about. Yet even when it premiered, the movie already felt dated. More than just been there, done that, it felt a little cartoonish. A throwback to the 1960’s Bond that completely misunderstood what bits of nostalgia fans would actually respond to. (“Skyfall” would absolutely nail this a decade later.)
And that’s the note Pierce Brosnan bowed out on. (Brosnan, it should be noted, remains by far the most stunningly good looking person to play Bond. You can argue in your chat groups about who’s your favorite but no one’s touching Brosnan when it comes to just unreal handsomeness. Don’t believe me? Check out ANY interview of him in the late 80s (when he was first offered the role but had to miss out cos of a bizarre contractual mixup with his TV show, “Remington Steele”). And he’s still a fox in his 60s but 1980s Pierce Brosnan was a road hazard level distraction.)
Then along came the surly Craig, who before you hear him speak, definitely has the aura of a retired boxer that never really made it. Oh sure, we have since come to appreciate his charm and appeal, but go back to before his Ursula Andress emerging from the water tribute, go back to when they’d just announced him and you’ll find some of the nastiest headlines they’ve ever printed about someone who hasn’t done anything yet. Suffice it to say, Craig stepped into the role with a massive chip on his shoulder and there’s no doubt he took that as inspiration for how he’d play the man we all thought we knew up to that point.
Sure, he could still charm the swimsuit off a stranger but it almost felt like he didn’t care to be the Bond we knew. No gun barrel sequence. No bedhopping from one cringily-named Bond girl to the next. In fact, and I didn’t notice this until my latest rewatch, Craig’s Bond doesn’t bed a single woman in “Casino Royale” until Vesper at the end of the film (and this is only implied and takes place offscreen if it even happens). He seduces one of the villain’s wives early in the film but ducks out before they consummate as he’s extracted the information from her that he was after. That’s the thing about Craig-era Bond: sex isn’t the perk of the gig previous Bond’s have portrayed it as. It’s a tool to get access to something or someone. It’s a thing that will be done if it must be done. He’s an assassin; a fighter, not a lover. A blunt instrument, as Judi Dench’s M puts it. (I miss Dench’s M as much as I’m going to miss Craig’s Bond but more on that below.)
So when Vesper slithers into his life, knocks him on the back of his feet and turns him into basically a schoolboy, like putty in her hands, well… let’s just say it’s a little hard to watch certain scenes in “Casino Royale” once you know how it ends. Our guy is so whipped he doesn’t care about how quickly he melts into the corniest, dumbstruck mess you’ve ever seen carry a Walther PPK. (He actually carries a Walther P99 in this film but I had to shout out his signature gun). Bond literally quits his job at the snap of a finger and is like, “I have some money; let’s just sail around the world and be in love.” And Vesper’s forcing a smile but she can’t help sorta side-eying Jimmy’s plans (he’s Jimmy now cos he’s so whipped) thinking about her actual boyfriend being held hostage somewhere (by Quantum, who he in fact works for).
And here’s where the writers of this version of Bond first proved their clear ambitions to redefine this character: Vesper wasn’t actually evil. She wasn’t some caricature vixen, devil woman using Bond to get what she wanted before she callously disposed of him. Previous Bonds would have gone down this route and it would make sense that Bond would then be able to shrug her off and just move forward like she never happened to him. Not Criag’s Bond. Not Vesper. Because the filmmakers crafted her as a 3-dimensional character, with a life before this story, who genuinely comes to care for Bond (and as Mathis reveals in “QoS”, eventually trades her life along with the money so Bond’s life would be spared), Vesper reverberates in some form or another throughout these 5 films, culminating in a moment so beautiful in “No Time To Die” that I’m honestly still surprised they let that in.
My rewatch has taught me that the 3 most important figures in this version of Bond’s story are Vesper, Judi Dench’s M and my favorite side character, Mr White. Vesper’s mark on Bond is unmissable – and for him unshakable – feeding into what I feel is the most misunderstood and underrated Bond film, “Quantum of Solace”. I pretend to understand the criticism of this film but in truth I don’t get it. “This is not a Bond film”, I remember critics saying and I wonder if they were comparing it to what I assume is their franchise favorite, “Die Another Day”. OK, I’m being an asshole but beyond having a mouthful of a title (which is actually a poetic little nugget of a title, Google it’s meaning and it’ll touch your heart), “QoS” is probably my favorite Bond film though only if watched right after “Casino Royale” as these 2 exist entirely as a double bill. It’s Bond unleashed, this former killing machine that was temporarily made human by (what he thought was) real love, now out in the world running around with an open sore of a heart and his Walther PPK, just wild-eyed and heartbroken. The alcoholism feels real. The arrogance bites. The misogyny slaps (not literally like Sean Connery). He even has a shaken not stirred, but is too drunk to describe to Mathis exactly what he’s having. Poor Mathis. What a good friend.
“QoS” is a post-breakup film for assassins. It’s Adele’s “30” for borderline psychopathic killers. (If you haven’t listened to “30” yet, feel free to substitute “21” here.) The thing about Craig’s Bond is he needs us to understand why he is the things that he is. We know his name, but what do we actually know about the man? About where he comes from? About why he’s so efficient at taking lives and surviving? And why he’s so quick to offer up his actual name to virtually anyone who asks even though he’s meant to be a spy. (He explains this last bit to Vesper in “Casino Royale” as giving the villain information he already has as part of a bigger subterfuge.) “QoS” finds Bond reckoning with his life choices and the consequences of dragging innocents like Strawberry Fields into his bed, or Mathis onto his team.
All the while evading the simple truth M is trying to get him to admit so he can move past it: the thing that happened to you (Vesper) was real and hurt like hell, and “you’d be a pretty cold bastard if you didn’t want revenge for someone you loved.”
I think that’s what Daniel Craig and team added to the mix that made Bond relevant again. They took the grounded, realistic elements from “Jason Bourne” but not just close combat and cool car chases; they applied that same realism to Bond’s story, helping to flesh him out as a human being we could actually feel for, sympathize with and reach towards catharsis for. Bond’s relationship with M was almost mother and son except for the parts where she’d turn around and remind him that ultimately he was expendable. Gotta keep him in check.
And Mr White, the enigmatic force of chaos on the other side of the veil, to me was more compelling than any of the actual villains. Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was disappointingly undercooked, as was Rami Malek’s villain in “No Time To Die”. This was no fault of of the great actors portraying them; its simply how they were used in the story, basically as hurdles for the hero to get over. Le Chiffre was engaging and I enjoyed Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene but ultimately these were mid-level bosses. Mr White, also somewhere in the middle of the food chain, provided the most fully rounded baddie. He wasn’t bound by the requirements of Bond’s journey. He’d pop in and out and stir some shit, and while he didn’t spend a lot of time on screen, you come to realize than not only was he orchestrating the whole thing with Vesper in “Casino Royale”, but he was part of Quantum as revealed in “QoS” and then returned to play a crucial role in “Spectre” and was the unseen, inciting incident of “No Time To Die”. He was just roving anarchy throughout this 5 film series and perhaps understood Bond the best. “You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond,” he remarked right before he checked out. A real gem.
(Almost forgot about Javier Bardem’s Silva from “Skyfall”, who started out promising but was denied a 3rd act.)
Daniel Craig will be missed in the role. He’ll move on to other things (people really enjoyed Benoit Blanc from “Knives Out” I guess) and he might even get back to doing some character work like “Road to Perdition”. Perhaps he’s too high profile to be a character actor once more. Shame. Of all the Bonds, I think he’s been the most gifted as an actor (not as a movie star, shut up. I know Connery has him beat there.) I’ll miss his punches that felt like real havoc when they landed. And his quips that felt of the moment, not merely scripted. I didn’t love “No Time To Die” like I hoped I would and that’s probably cos I never bought Lea Seydoux’s Madeline as the woman Bond would give it all up for (the lack of chemistry was even further highlighted in contrast to the chemistry between Craig’s Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd which we as the audience believed almost as much as Bond did… poor Jimmy). I wish they’d given Ana de Armas’ surprisingly engaging character more screentime and the ending didn’t feel earned, but kudos to the team behind this. It’s worth noting that the writing team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have scripted or co-scripted all 5 of Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies (and 2 of Pierce Brosnan’s). They deserve major credit for reinventing this character for the modern age while figuring out how to call back to the era that started it all.
Speculation is ramping up about who’ll don the tuxedo next. Does it really matter? Have we learned nothing from this experience? Whoever it ends up being is going to be pilloried by folks before the movie even has its first trailer. And when it does finally arrive, only then will we actually be able to determine if they’ve taken Bond to some place new, yet familiar. Somewhere daring, somewhere interesting as a character, not just a scenic location. And if they’ll actually have anything clever to say that we don’t already know.
I hope we’ll walk into that cinema hall, a couple years down the line, and at the end of 2 hours or whatever, we’ll leave feeling like M did at the end of “Quantum of Solace”.
M: “Bond, I need you back.”
Bond: (wry smile over his shoulder as he walks off into the snowy night). “I never left.”