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[This story contains spoilers for No Time to Die.]
A reign has ended. No Time to Die, the 25th installment in Eon’s iconic franchise, has concluded Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond. Director Cary Fukunaga, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside franchise mainstays Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and television auteur Phoebe Waller-Bridge, could not have delivered a more perfect, or emotionally impactful send-off to a Bond whom audiences have lived with for 15 years in films that spanned three decades, more time than any other iteration of the character. Daniel Craig didn’t just play Bond. He changed Bond, for the better.
It’s amusing now, as we celebrate Craig’s final Bond film, to reflect on the controversy surrounding his casting in 2005 from fans who claimed he was too short, too rugged, and most egregious of all: blond. Now, it’s hard to imagine any other actor who could have led us through the murky politics and uneasy morality of the 21st century with such commitment. There have been great portrayals of James Bond before Daniel Craig and there will certainly be great portrayals after him. But Daniel Craig will always be my James Bond.
I didn’t grow up as a Bond fan. I was aware of him of course, but beyond Goldfinger (1964), and the end of A View to a Kill (1985), which I’d caught on TV, I hadn’t seen the movies. This was in part because in those pre-household internet days, there was no easy access to Wikipedia to clue me in on the order of the films — though I’d later come to learn that in the pre-Craig era, continuity didn’t make a huge difference. The other part was that the Bond films of the ’90s, starring Pierce Brosnan, always seemed a bit hammy to me. So, when Casino Royale came out in 2006, I didn’t rush to the theaters. In fact, I didn’t even plan on seeing it until a confluence of events.
The first, I discovered, not long after my grandfather’s passing, that he had been a Bond fan since Sean Connery first appeared on-screen as Ian Fleming’s character in Dr. No (1962). The second, a co-worker at the Marcus theater I worked at told me that the last showing of the film’s theatrical run was playing that night and I had to see it. So that night in January of 2007, fighting off exhaustion from a seven-hour shift, I watched Casino Royale in an empty theater. I was 17, and it was one of the coolest movies I’d ever seen.
What surprised me the most about Craig’s first outing was the fullness of the film. I was aware of enough of the conventions Bond, largely through parody, to know how these films usually went. Bond defeats the villain and gets the girl, who would subsequently never be seen again. But Casino Royale wasn’t that. Bond wasn’t the one to physically defeat Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), and he ended up only being a cog in the machinations of a larger mastermind. Bond got the girl, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) only to lose her after a devastating betrayal. And through these subversions, Craig brought an emotional intensity to the role, a coldness in his ability to take a life, and a vulnerability to his heartbreak. Daniel Craig made James Bond a human being instead of a superhero, and in an age where superheroes were really just getting going on the big screen, Craig’s Bond came to me as a burst of fresh air.
Between the release of Casino Royale and No Time to Die, I’ve seen every Bond film and gone from being a non-fan to a Bond enthusiast, which in turn gave me a connection to my grandfather, who I dearly wish I’d been able to talk Bond with before he passed. For me, this added another layer of emotional investment to No Time to Die. It felt like the closing of a chapter not only in terms of the franchise, but for me personally in terms of a shared connection built on a secondhand account of information I wish I’d known sooner. Yet, that’s the thing about new information. It has a way to strengthen, though not alter, the events of the past, add a new layer of context so that those experiences carry even more weight. This is true of life, and of Craig’s Bond films.
Through Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), Spectre (2015) and No Time to Die, an arc was formed, each piece strengthening the others to create a sense of completion that hinges on the fact that Bond is not, as some of have theorized in the past, an interchangeable code-name, but an individual, flawed as all humans are, who over the course of five films learns to trust, value the lives of his friends and lovers, and leave something behind that’s more important than his history of violence. Just to add more context to that, consider the way Bond reacts to the death of Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) in Quantum of Solace to how he reacts to the death of Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) in No Time to Die. While previous Bond films relished in their one-off nature and largely interchangeable supporting characters, Craig’s run hinges on the fact that the story is incomplete, thematically hollow, without each of his entries charting Bond’s personal relationships and growth as a less toxic version of himself in an increasingly toxic world — literalized by Safin’s (Rami Malek) garden of toxins.
There is a weight to Craig’s Bond films that I don’t feel with the other entries, save for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and GoldenEye (1995). It’s not that the other entries feel disposable, it’s just that they don’t feel interested in interrogating the character or forcing him to change within a changing world. They feel free from the past, yet Craig’s films are entrenched in the past and Bond’s difficulty in letting things go and changing. How can a character change if he’s not confronted with the best and worst parts of himself? So, naturally the Craig films are populated by characters, lovers and enemies, who serve as mirror reflections of Bond himself, all trying to cling to the past and fight some injustice visited there: Vesper, Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), Silva (Javier Bardem), Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux).
While some may argue that the franchise is simply repeating beats, I’d offer that instead, each film is cutting closer to who Bond is and what he fears may be his worst, innermost self: an agent, a man, an orphan, a brother, and a failed lover, all up to the point where he’s forced to reckon with his life and his choices with the deal-making devil himself in the form of the aptly named Lyutsifer Safin in No Time to Die, who is so obsessed with the sins of the past that he’ll destroy the future as he sees fit.
Safin argues that humanity needs to feel there is a presence guiding them, a reason behind their salvation and destruction, a literal hand on the cosmic clock, and thus positions himself as that godlike figure. While obviously, no one involved in these films had any clue what the endgame was, I am enamored with the fact that this series’ emotional resolution turns on minor details, like Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a seemingly disposable lackey for Quantum nee Spectre who has maybe 10 minutes of screentime all together yet is integral to Bond’s journey from his first utterance of “Bond. James Bond” to his final moments. How fitting in a film where the villain seeks to strip away notions of the imperceptible powers of fate and replace it with his own vision, that Bond’s greatest failures and triumphs are born of his almost supernatural association with the Pale King, Mr. White, from blaming him for the death of Vesper to falling in love with and fathering a child with his daughter, Madeline, for whom he ultimately gives his life.
The past, with these five James Bond films, doesn’t just invite nostalgia of earlier eras with its winks and car models, it invites a reflection on these film’s details and the idea that something more than governments, masterminds and spies shape the world. In the end, Bond, who has always fought against the past, learns to accept it and place his trust in the future because that’s the only place where all the time in the world can truly be found.
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