Is Daniel Craig a bad James Bond?
It hadn’t occurred to me that anybody might not like the movie Skyfall until I watched it with my brother. He was largely unimpressed by it because James Bond spends most of the movie failing to do the type of superspy heroics that he normally accomplishes. That leads me to wonder: are the Daniel Craig films bad Bond movies?
I don’t think there’s any question that Casino Royale and Skyfall are excellent films. I think Quantum of Solace is equally good, but I appear to be in the minority on that. But there’s a difference between a good movie and a good James Bond movie. How does the Daniel Craig Bond stand up in the face of this mammoth franchise?
It’s worth noting that the Daniel Craig Bond is pretty close to the character we were introduced to in Ian Fleming’s novels beginning with Casino Royale. Fleming’s Bond had his charms, but he wasn’t as suave or handsome as he appears in most movies. He had a scar on his cheek and, during Casino Royale, picked up another scar that got carved into his hand by an enemy agent. His mouth was described as cruel and he tended to be a bit of a psychopath. This is very close to Craig’s Bond – the three movies we’ve seen him in so far indicate that if it wasn’t for the fact that MI-6 found a use for him as an agent, he would probably be a criminal.
But that’s not the Bond that most people remember. The Bond of popular culture is largely shaped by Roger Moore, who plays the character through the 1970s and 1980s. While Sean Connery had his charms, he was still rough around the edges. Moore’s Bond was more dapper and unflappable. His films leaned more toward camp. There was critical backlash when the franchise tried to go back to a more serious, deadly Bond with Timothy Dalton. As a result, the 1990s brought us Pierce Brosnan’s version of the character, which was very much in line with Moore’s witty, less physical Bond.
When Daniel Craig came aboard, there were 20 James Bond films over the course of 40 years. Between Moore and Brosnan, the witty, funny Bond had existed for 11 films and a combined 20 years – more if you consider that Connery’s Bond, who started off on a note similar to Craig’s Bond without a lot of tech and with more lethal missions, eventually strayed toward the realm of camp and humor as well. Anybody who grew up in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s saw James Bond as a guy who always had the right gadget for the job, whose hair never got mussed, and who always had the right pun for the situation. This was the modern interpretation of the character.
Enter Casino Royale in 2006, which brought Bond closer to the Ian Fleming and early Sean Connery films. This Bond was a thug in a tuxedo whose charms served as a thin veneer over the heart of a cold-blooded killer. He no longer had a gadget for every situation (“You were expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that kind of thing anymore.”). When captured, he didn’t get placed in an elaborate deathtrap. Instead, the villain opted for a wooden chair and a length of knotted rope.
There’s one other important change that came with Craig’s Bond – his missions actually took an emotional toll on him. His heart was broken in Casino Royale and he didn’t get much closure until the very end of Quantum of Solace. The cold open of Skyfall left Bond traumatized to the point where he was barely effective as an agent. He aptly describes murder as “employment.” While this Bond still has a wit, it’s clear that being a glorified killer for hire has done a lot of damage to this man.
For years and years, James Bond was a character who embodied all the male fantasies – he always killed the bad guy, got the girl, and looked good doing it. Daniel Craig’s Bond has turned a lot of that on its head – he still indulges in those male fantasies, but the films show us just a hint of what that sort of lifestyle would do to a person. Killing so many people causes him to see life as cheapened. He’s basically a deathtrap to women, with almost every woman who sleeps with him winding up murdered. In Skyfall, we even see him drunk and correctly diagnosed with a psychological dependency on alcohol.
The Daniel Craig Bond films are excellent movies. But are they excellent Bond movies?
I think they are, even if they aren’t what some fans expect when they think of the franchise. This Bond does two things. First, he hearkens back to the darker version of the character introduced by Ian Fleming, who put more than a little of his own military experience into those tales. Second, he shows a cultural shift in the current generation. James Bond has always been a guy who has fought against the things we as a culture are afraid of, be it the Soviet Union, drug dealers, or corrupt corporations. In addition to battling against terrorists, Craig’s Bond is battling against the consequences of his own actions.
The current generation is facing a lot of problems that can be directly tied to the excesses of previous generations. Years of fiscal irresponsibility had led to a global recession. Wasteful practices of the past have caused long-term environmental damage. The Cold War, while over, left the world filled to the brim with deadly weapons of mass destruction and no sign of disarmament in sight. While not every problem has its roots in years past, today’s generation has a big mess left by the irresponsible actions of the past. It only makes sense for the modern James Bond to take the excesses that existed in the previous incarnations and show the kind of damage it can do over the long haul.
One of the things that has made James Bond such a cultural icon is that he faces the fears we have as a society. For that reason, I think that the Daniel Craig films fit right in with the rest of the franchise, even if they seem different on the surface. Of course, if your idea of the character is one who always comes out on top and never deals with the consequences of his actions, you might be surprised or even disappointed by the sudden swerve Bond took when Daniel Craig stepped into the role.