Bringing full-blooded action realism to a famous franchise drowning in spy-fi, Casino Royale seemingly heralded a new golden age of James Bond films.
Adroit, confident, and bruising, its new-look approach marked a radical reinvention for the series, with a 21st century leading man whose retort to headlines of ‘Bland, James Bland‘ was best epitomized by his double-o’s immortal line “do I look like I give a damn?” But despite making such a bang, Daniel Craig’s 16 years in the role have come to an end having been poorly served by middling sequels—capped by No Time to Die—that fall far short of the standard so tantalisingly set in 2006.
The endeavour to maintain his debut’s quality got off on the wrong foot, with production on Quantum of Solace crippled by writers strikes which in turn crushed its run time down to an unprecedentedly short 106-minues. The finished product may not be the worst of the sequels, but such a butchered gestation ensured it’s certainly the most badly made. Somewhat paradoxically, that’s also what makes it the most fascinating to watch. The editing is spectacularly, beguilingly bad—so neck-breaking in its brutality it could make a Tony Scott thriller look like a Merchant Ivory film. The opening car chase alone is enough to leave otherwise stiff-lipped patrons wondering what on earth is going on as Bond hurtles through jump cut after jump cut. Everything else becomes a footnote, which is a shame in a way, because beneath the on-screen particle annihilation there is a visible fragment of an attempt to make a pathos-raw companion piece to Casino Royale. As it is, marvelling in wonder at cinematic deformity would be its only backhanded saving-grace.
In response, Skyfall was far more professional. Craig’s third outing opened to rapturous applause back in 2012, becoming the first and to date only Bond entry to break $1billion at the worldwide box office. After its predecessor’s chaos, it felt like a reset; espousing a back to basics approach that forewent megalomaniacal supervillainy in favour of a rootsy tale about a psychopath out for matricidal revenge. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins deliver some of the Craig era’s best visuals during its huskily-lit Highlands finale, and Judi Dench finally gets the limelight her M deserves. However, the film lacks any marquee action set pieces that come close to matching Casino Royale’s admittedly outstanding high bar, nothing like parkour in Madagascar or the chase through Miami Airport. It’s marred most of all though by Javier Bardem as big bad Silva, who in gunning for madness can only muster an effeminate imitation of his downright terrifying turn in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Do Bond films live and (let) die by their villains? This one certainly does.
Seemingly apropos of nothing, the autumn of 2015 saw audiences still reeling from the excitement of Skyfall suddenly get lulled to sleep by the tedious follow-up Spectre. Paced in geological terms and colour-graded like the inside of a suitcase, you are left wishing that this grindingly tedious paean to ‘60s Bond had no bigger crime to commit than wasting Christoph Waltz in a glorified cameo. No wonder Daniel Craig quipped he’d rather slash his wrists than reprise the role again, and it’s telling that post-Spectre Craig made a definitive name for himself in distinctly non-Bond films like Logan Lucky and Knives Out, demonstrating that he has range and presence beyond Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Something had evidently changed though by the time No Time to Die came around. But before we look at how his 007 story ends, it pays to remember just how boldly it began. Just what did Casino Royale do so well that its successors have in their multifarious ways so misunderstood? To name just a few things; Chris Cornell’s knock-em-dead theme tune that seeks to thrill rather than moan, a great villain played by mad Mads Mikkelsen who never threatens to monologue, and sparkling, vibrant cinematography—Daniel Craig’s blue eyes never looked more brilliant. And as mentioned, some of the best action set pieces going. There’s a tonal realism to the piece that resembles the revolutionary approach Christopher Nolan applied to the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. At its heart is Craig, with his fiercely athletic, no-nonsense performance aided by a sparse script that now seems tailor made for him.
No Time to Die on the other hand—his long-awaited and long-delayed last hurrah—unkindly exposes his limitations as an actor, burdening him with limp romantic tracts and plot dumps he was ill-suited to deliver. Indeed, it’s like everyone involved has forgotten what was essential to his Bond’s character in the first place. What happened to the terse “blunt instrument” who bulldozed his way through obstacles and protocol with an actual bulldozer? How did we get from “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a writer deciding one of his last ever lines should be “I love you?” It isn’t character development. It’s just bad, continuity-ignorant writing. The script’s problems go deeper than that though, saddled as it is firstly with an overwritten story, and secondly with relentless spy-fi exposition that leaves much of the film resembling a Call of Duty cut scene. That’s tough going at 163 minutes. Yes, there is a fun game of Hans Zimmer bingo to be had out of the soundtrack (you can hear how quickly it had to be put together), but it’s not enough to keep one’s mind off of how indulgently sentimental Craig’s send-off is.
Perhaps a one-hit wonder is all Casino Royale could ever be. After all, the shock of its iconoclasm could only ever work once; Craig storming out of the gates as if 44 years of film history were irrelevant. Meanwhile, the closer to traditional Bond gadgetry, gimmickry and tropes his films have drifted, the saggier they have become. Perhaps that course correction came in response to Quantum of Solace, which lurched even further to the other extreme and ended up with similarly underwhelming results. But in moving to more familiar ground, the various directors and writers of Daniel Craig’s Bond sequels have missed why his striking entrance made such an impression in the first place.
Words by Alex Crisp
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 17:20 on 13 October 2021. The original said that “I love you” is the last line Daniel Craig speaks as James Bond, a line that actually precedes the final lines. The wording has been adjusted accordingly.
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