For a moment Bond looked up into two glittering eyes behind a narrow black mask. There was the impression of a crag-like face under a hat-brim, the collar of a fawn mackintosh. He could take in nothing more before his head was pushed down again.
“You are fortunate,” said the voice.
“I have no orders to kill you…but I shall leave you my visiting card. You are a gambler. You play at cards. One day perhaps you will play against one of us. It would be well that you should be known as a spy.”
—excerpt from Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, Chapter 18, “A Crag-Like Face.”
In the book Casino Royale, the “crag-like face” belongs to the SMERSH operative who spares 007’s life after assassinating the villainous Le Chiffre. Taking the passage as metaphor, the broken, tortured, and barely conscious James Bond could be said to represent the state of the Eon Productions film series after the dizzyingly excessive (if reliably profitable) Die Another Day.
The unlikely-looking man to the rescue? Daniel Craig.
Nobody Does Bond Better, 006: A Craig-Like Face
Pierce Brosnan had expressed the desire to make the official film of Casino Royale, and after the long-unavailable rights to the book were at last freed up for Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson to produce the “official” version—thus wresting all exclusive claims of legitimacy away from the modest 1954 television adaptation and the farcical 1967 romp—it seemed as if Brosnan might get his wish to, at long last, sink his teeth into a (actually, the) definitive Fleming spy saga.
It was not to be. The Bond producers decided that the filming of the first novel represented a prime opportunity to rejuvenate the series by taking it in radically new directions—which would necessarily involve recasting the lead role. Brosnan was out (rather publicly, and messily), and the speculation grew hot over who would replace him.
A few likely candidates popped up, with Clive Owen emerging as a favorite among fans to take over the role, but when the announcement of the sixth actor to play Bond was made, Eon’s choice of the then-37 years old, blonder-than-Fleming’s-Bond Craig caused stormy reactions in the fan community. In fact, the controversy over Craig’s casting grew so heated an entire website was set up to protest it. Not attractive enough! He’s too short! He’s got blond hair! James Bond is not a thug!
No amount of sneering and grousing appeared to shake the confidence of Broccoli, Wilson, or Craig, however, as they prepared to undertake what would be perhaps the greatest challenge of the entire series—the “reboot” of the entire franchise, the scrapping of the character’s onscreen history as it had accumulated in the 20 films that came before it. James Bond would be deposited in the 21st century as a freshman spy, acquiring his “00” license to kill in the story’s opening moments and embarking upon his first-ever assignment as 007 with an outsized ego and little experience to back it up.
The story—as crafted by screenwriters Robert Wade, Neal Purvis, and Paul Haggis—would also tell the “other” most important romantic story of Bond’s lifetime, his love affair with Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and the tragedy that eventually turns James into Bond.
Martin Campbell returned to the director’s chair for his second time with the series, having successfully introduced Brosnan as Bond in GoldenEye. His mandate was to return to the spirit of Fleming, much as Eon had done with For Your Eyes Only after the excesses of Moonraker, and as they had likewise done with The Living Daylights after the Roger Moore era limped to a tepid conclusion with A View to a Kill.
And, as an origin story for Bond that would focus on the evolution of his personal character, the success of this installment would depend more than ever on the performance of the leading man.
I won’t fuss around: I think the critics of Craig’s casting were proven wrong in a most devastating fashion. Like many fans, I responded to the Craig announcement with a little fanboy-ish hesitation as he looked just a little unlike most of the other Bonds. I had a “Denny Miller-as-Tarzan” moment of worry. (Tarzan geeks know what I mean)
And then I saw Craig in Munich.
Craig’s icy intensity in Steven Spielberg’s taut historical thriller is eerie, and his physical resemblance to Hollywood icon Steve McQueen (which has not gone unnoticed by those interested in mounting a McQueen biopic) made for a thrilling combination of charisma and cool. I was instantly sold on his casting as Bond, and felt right away that given the right set of circumstances, he might not just be a good 007, but a great one.
His interpretation of Bond came with a focused ruthlessness, coiled capacity for shocking violence, and a dry wit that masked vulnerabilities always threatening to explode to the surface. So…am I saying “Nobody Does Bond Better” than Daniel Craig? Don’t skip ahead, now, before we take a quick look at the superlative achievements of the Craig era just two films in:
How smart was it to reverse the famous Honey Rider-from-the-sea moment by selling the beefcake? Really, really smart. Not only did Craig’s swimsuit scene steer the considerable appeal of the series to men more explicitly towards women (and gay men?), it gave us the first vivid indications of a Bond whose sheer physicality is the most imposing of any of Craig’s predecessors—and it does a good job of setting up his self-deprecating “I’m all ears” joke later in the film. (Not that many people were probably looking at his ears during that shot, though)
Best (Meaning Worst) Interrogation: Casino Royale
Yes, the laser beam scene in Goldfinger is fun. But for sheer fidelity to Fleming and brutish audacity, nothing tops the interrogation in CR. After kidnapping Vesper Lynd and forcing Bond’s Aston Martin into a Guinness Book of World Records-setting crash, terrorist bankroller Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) takes 007 prisoner, strips him naked and whacks the end of a thick, knotted rope against his testicles over and over again in an effort to get back the cash he lost in their poker tournament. Mikkelsen—whose baddie comes across as a delightfully weaselly mix of Peter Lorre and Louis Jourdan—is at his sweaty and desperate best here. And there is no other Bond in the entire series you can imagine being as fully credible in such a violent, over-the-top sequence. The scene is hardcore wince-inducing and also manages the extra feat of containing Craig’s biggest laugh line.
Best Felix Leiter: Jeffrey Wright
Jack Lord, you were cool. David Hedison, I felt bad when you disagreed with something that ate you. Bernie Casey, you were the first black Felix Leiter, but Jeffrey Wright is the best, and the best Leiter full stop. Wright makes the most of his screen time as Leiter by imagining him as perpetually disgruntled and cynical. In Quantum of Solace, Wright perfects what we’ll call the Clint Eastwood Scowl, stealing scene after scene with his (mostly) silent disgust as his superior officer (David Harbour) sacrifices American values to get into bed with the bad guys. To be fairer to the many fine actors who preceded Wright, I should say that it’s just as much due to the rich scripts of the Craig era that Leiter comes across as something other than just an ineffectual second banana to Bond.
Best Foreign Policy: Quantum of Solace
A scene like this is one of the staples of the Bond series: Villain threatens corrupt-but-spineless associates to go along with his master plan or face punishment. The writing here kills, and it’s delivered as the Roman Polanski of James Bond villains (Mathieu Amalric) makes an offer that recently elevated Bolivian strongman General Medrano (Joaquín Cosio) cannot refuse:
“You should know something about me and the people I work with. We deal with the left and the right, dictators or liberators. If the current president had been more agreeable, I wouldn’t be talking to you. So if you decide not to sign, you’ll wake up with your balls in your mouth and your willing replacement standing over you. If you doubt that, then shoot me, take that money and have a good night’s sleep.”
Best Post-Binder Titles
Tie: Casino Royale & Quantum of Solace
I’m never gonna get anywhere suggesting that any set of Bond titles could surpass the artistry originated for the series by Maurice Binder—and I’m not sure I think that has happened yet, anyway. In my opinion, Daniel Kleinman (who took over the title design task with GoldenEye) did a decent job with the Brosnan films, but really came into his own with the sequence in Casino Royale.
Not only did Kleinman have the smarts to play up the origin angle of the film by excluding the usual array of nude, silhouetted women (because they, of course, would all come “later”), the film’s titles also play up the meta elements, things existing outside the actual text of the movie. The smashing Chris Cornell/David Arnold title song contains lyrics that operate on many levels. “You Know My Name” could variously be Bond speaking, Death giving the agent some useful advice, or Eon Productions supplying a cautionary note to any actor with the guts to accept the 007 role: You yourself are nothing so divine/Just next in line/Arm yourself because no one else here will save you/The odds will betray you and I will replace you/You can’t deny the prize it may never fulfill you/It longs to kill you…are you willing to die…
The closing images are key. Craig’s face emerges from the empty space of the Bond silhouette to fill the screen for a long time, as if to say: This Is James Bond. Get Used To It. And then, in a nifty bit that goes retro-Diabolik-cool, a black mask slices across Craig’s face, rendering him invisible again before zooming inside his head:
This is the story of how one man vanishes and is replaced with another. This film takes us inside the personal darkness of James Bond.
Meanwhile, I will just quickly add that a lot of fans complained about director Marc Forster bringing on MK12 to do the QoS titles. I thought they did an excellent job. Take the integration of the gunbarrel motif, the retro font, the mix of the sensuous desert imagery with women rising up all around Bond balanced against some hard jump cuts and stylishly vertiginous camera moves, add a Bond song with both something new (a duet) and something vintage (clean, uncluttered orchestration) and you have titles that are completely in the Binder tradition but elevated by the execution possible only with today’s technology.
Best Martini Shaken, Not Stirred: the Vesper, in Quantum of Solace
Three measures of Gordon’s
One measure of vodka
Half a measure of Kina Lillet
Shake very well until ice-cold, add a large thin slice of lemon peel
In QoS, though, we finally got to see something we’ve never seen before: Bond drunk. Craig’s performance here is subtle in a scene that could be so easily unconvincing or played too broadly. The film deepens our concept of Bond as a conflicted and flawed man who’s not always in 100% control.
Despite the fact that MGM’s financial woes have caused a hiccup in the steady progression of the Craig films (with “Bond 23” now scheduled for a November 9, 2012 release), the 007 series is in the midst of a creative renaissance. Broccoli and Wilson are leaning much on prestige talent, securing the special services of Oscar-friendly artists like Paul Haggis (co-scripter on Craig’s first two films), Forster (for my money, the best one-off director they ever hired, some clumsy action set-pieces be damned) and Sam Mendes, named as director of the yet-to-be-named next picture. Let the speculation commence and fill in your title of choice—mine’s Risico… (UPDATE: So, “Bond 23″ turned out to be named Skyfall. Considering how cleverly they integrated that title into the plot, I suppose I have to admit that worked out just fine. Now that speculation is well underway as to the title of “Bond 24,” I can re-up my hopes that Eon will pillage Fleming at least once more for their title…but I’m not getting my hopes up!)
It’s finally time for me to answer the question: Who’s the best Bond? This is no monumental cheat, because I really believe it, and heck, I’ve said it at the top of every entry in this series. My answer is: Nobody Does Bond Better.
Each man who filled the role brought something unique to the legacy of 007’s cinematic saga. Each actor who played the character proved to be the perfect Bond for their times, a real testament to the thoughtful way Eon has fought hard to maintain the series’ overall integrity and make the films relevant in every era.
So, with apologies to the die-hards who bought into the ad campaign of You Only Live Twice only to never look forward: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig are James Bond.