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.