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On Daniel Craig's James Bond

Warning: I will be talking plot points in relation to No Time to Die.

My family grew up on James Bond films. I remember when we were kids, these were the movies that we recorded when we first purchased a VCR. In fact, my dad was meticulous in making sure we edited out the commercials as we watched our way through a James Bond television marathon, which lasted for several weeks with one film featured each night. The films weren’t shown in any particular order, so it was easy to confuse Roger Moore with Sean Connery or George Lazenby. At the time, that was the point—a bit of uniformity to what the actors brought to the role. Long before he was cast, we thought Pierce Brosnan could be the perfect James Bond due to his work in Remington Steele. He had the looks, the smooth coolness, and the knack for banter down pat. We picked him because he fit the mold.

Yet I would still argue that each of these actors brought something different to the role. Sean Connery was the iconic James Bond: traditionally masculine, smooth, rarely ruffled, and the wit come out so casually that it would be easy to miss. He was also the only Bond who hit women to put them in their place. Let me clarify these women were not attacking him or attempting to initiate a fight. While this type of violence didn’t happen often, it still said something about the Bond Connery presented, and it was shocking to witness (at least for me) because it didn’t add up with what I understood Bond to be. Connery’s films came out mostly in the 60s and early 70s. They were a reflection of those eras as ALL Bond films are a reflection of the eras in which they are filmed. James Bond hit women because it was acceptable for him to hit women. It was another facet of his masculinity.

In this, Roger Moore was perhaps less traditionally “masculine” than his predecessor but so good with the one-liners, which he delivered with a knowing look, a twinkle in his eye. His Bond is elegantly two-dimensional. He gets the job done, like Connery, and he is rewarded with the girl (like Connery). These women give Bond a focus for completing his mission, and they fall into his bed with a glance because he is just so irresistible. They, in turn, are often forgettable. At times, there is a weakness to the women, a neediness as illustrated by Tanya Roberts’ character in A View to a Kill. “James, don’t leave me!” Roberts shrieks repeatedly during the last half hour of the film. It makes her seem like a nuisance as Bond is rather intent on “saving the world”. In direct contrast to Roberts, Bond’s foe in the film, Grace Jones, is powerful, athletic, and a bit crazy. Obviously, she has to die. This questionable representation of female power during Moore’s reign is highlighted by Jane Seymore’s Solitaire from Live and Let Die. Beyond her youth and beauty, her greatest strength is that she can foretell the future, causing the Bond villain Kananga to prize her for her ability. In this, she is powerful because Kananga uses her fortune telling to guide his actions. Solitaire understands that her psychic abilities are tied to her virginity. In losing her virginity, she loses her power, yet she gives it up without a thought because Roger Moore’s Bond is—well—James Bond. Once stripped of her value, she becomes a pawn between Bond and Kananga, as Bond women often are. Of course, Bond wins her in the end.

When Pierce Brosnan finally stepped into the role in the early 90s, I recall there was much to be made about the “depth” he was bringing to Bond—the vulnerability, which was something we hadn’t seen before. He was as elegant and suave as Moore but with a touch more sincerity, good looks, and class. While the new vulnerability meant that he was more willing to open up to the characters around him, it was fairly limited in scope. Like his predecessors, Brosnan’s Bond gets the job done and receives his female as reward. This is the traditional James Bond formula. However, I would argue that it was Brosnan who opened the door for Daniel Craig because Brosnan’s portrayal illustrated that Bond and the Bond mythology might need to adjust to the times. He illustrated that it was possible to allow the mythology to grow. During Brosnan’s tenure, we see more diverse female roles. Some are villains like Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp. Some are damsels in distress. Some are collaborators and colleagues like Halle Berry’s Jinx. We also see a more diverse group of actresses take on these roles. Finally, we have a female M, played by Judy Dench, who strangely becomes more significant once Daniel Craig steps into the role.

I will admit I was skeptical of Craig when Casino Royale was released. Based on the trailers, he just didn’t seem to fit the part. Yet, as was our tradition, my entire family headed to the theater for a Saturday matinee and watched somewhat grudgingly while the opening sequence began to unfold. Soon Craig’s Bond was chasing a suspected bomb maker through a crowd like an elite parkour pro, running across the boom of a telescopic crane, and then dropping down into a building. The scene was surprising. It was breathtaking. It was sequenced to highlight the physicality of the role. More importantly, it felt believable that Craig could perform such an act, which we cannot say about his predecessors. Craig moved like an athlete. He took a licking, bounced up, and kept going, which we eventually come to understand is Craig’s hallmark as Bond: physical determination.

The second hallmark: uncertainty.

Craig’s Bond is a man who struggles with the deaths he incurs thanks to his newly-minted status as 00 and licensed to kill. He also sustains real and lasting injuries. After a bloody and brutal fight scene in Casino Royale, we find him standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at his reflection as he tries to come to terms with the life he’s just taken. This is and should be the emotional toll of the job, yet it took Bond sixty years and six iterations to reach a stage where that toll is truly addressed. Daniel Craig took a caricature of masculinity and morphed him into a living, breathing, and feeling human being. This is what makes his Bond extraordinary. Craig has invited us into the consequences of being 007. To understand those consequences is to understand why he ultimately chooses to die.

And it very much is a choice. When faced with impending doom in the final film, Craig’s Bond simply accepts his fate and stops trying to survive.

For those who finished viewing No Time to Die with a sense of disquiet, you are not alone. This is not the Bond we’ve known throughout the entire franchise. If you weren’t forewarned of the film’s end (unfortunately, I was), then I imagine it would have been shocking. Even with warning, I was overwhelmed because I hadn’t expected Bond would choose to die. For some reason, I had believed he would simply fail at his mission. Except Bond never fails. That is also his hallmark. Up until that final scene, he is as relentless in his survival as he is in pursuing his enemy. It’s why Craig’s physical determination works so well.

That said, it’s this same determination that makes the deviation from the Bond archetype so apparent. With the knowledge that he can never touch Madeleine Swann or his daughter again, Craig’s Bond stills, his actions slow and calm, as he accepts the consequences of completing his mission. However, I would argue that it wasn’t one thing that led to the decision. It was everything, starting with the sheer burden of being James Bond.

Throughout the five-film arc, this burden of the role is heavily intertwined with Bond’s sense of justice and his sense of duty, which are needed to assuage the mental and emotional toll of his actions. But justice and duty prove to be unstable pillars for Craig’s Bond, especially in relation to the superiors who direct his actions and who don’t always make the best decisions. Bond has always been in defiance of M, but Craig brings a higher level of tension to that defiance because his Bond often sees the picture more clearly than his superiors. He also has a higher moral compass, which is another area where each M (both Judy Dench and Ralph Fiennes) falls short. In this, I’ve never seen a James Bond try so hard to escape the world that defines him. He retires to be with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. He disappears after being mistakenly shot in Skyfall. And he has retired again at the beginning of No Time to Die to be with Madeleine Swann. Yet his duty to the world is what constantly reels him back into the life of a 00. It is this innate sense of needing to right the world’s wrongs that drives him even when he feels his country has failed him.

As much as he wants to put the burden down, he ultimately knows that he can’t.

Compounded with this burden are his complex relationships with women. These on their own provide a refreshing twist as Bond’s interactions with women are traditionally shallow. But perhaps most surprising is that Craig’s Bond IS resistible. Moneypenny does not sit at her desk pining for him. She mostly respects him but also finds him frustrating. Similarly, Nomi, who has replaced Bond as the new 007, finds him so irritating that she mutters to Moneypenny, “I can see why you shot him.” To which Moneypenny replies, “Everyone tries at least once.” Beyond the fact that this interaction shows progression in the females of Bonds world, it allows him to have interactions that are not sexual or sex-based in nature. For Craig’s Bond, the women in his world are varied, nuanced, and whole people. While he still has the occasional fling, it is these real relationships with the females in his life that drive his character arc. This is how he deviates from his predecessors the most. He needs these females to counter the weight.

Craig’s Bond wants love—we see that in his relationships with Vesper Lynd and Madeleine Swann. In fact, a surprising portion of Casino Royale is devoted to the impact of letting Vesper Lynd into his life, which sets us up for understanding why her memory follows him throughout the films. He gives up everything to be with her and she betrays him, scarring him to the point that it impacts his relationship with Madeleine Swann. In Madeleine, Craig’s Bond also breaks the traditional pattern for the simple fact that, five years later, he still loves her even with their trust in shambles. It is messy. It is complicated. It is an emotional longevity that doesn’t exist for his predecessors. Beyond the need for romantic love, Craig’s Bond also craves a sense of family, which seems constantly out of his grasp but is also represented by females. Skyfall explores Judy Dench’s M as the surrogate mother whom he is unable to save. In Mathilde, he has the daughter whom he’ll never get to hold. Though his time with her is brief, we can already see how much she means to him by the way he carefully wraps his sweater around her as she and her mother leave the island without him. He also stops mid-mission to retrieve her stuffed bunny. Bond is acting and thinking like a father, which is clearly a role he has embraced. And that role is stripped away as quickly as it is given so that he will, once again, need to venture through the world isolated and alone. Ultimately, without these females, without the ability to know their love, the burden of Bond becomes too much to bear.

I know there are people (including my mother) who weren’t fans of Craig’s portrayal of such an iconic character. For me, the depth of what he brought to the role is unparalleled. Even as we say good-bye to this last Daniel Craig film while simultaneously knowing a new Bond is on the horizon, I understand the death of his Bond is necessary. The story-arc is complete. He has to die so that we can move on to the next iteration.

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