“I’ve Been Inspecting You, Mister Bond”
Crisis, Catharsis, and Calculation in Daniel Craig’s Twenty-First-Century 007
by Jonathan Murray
It’s advisable not to treat real life like it’s a James Bond movie. But in both it’s wise to take any senior U.K. government official’s pronouncements with a pinch of salt. Thus, when Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the recently installed new Head of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, opines towards the end of Spectre (2015) that “maybe it’s the fate of spies to just disappear,” you have to wonder who this plummy Brit thinks he’s kidding. Fifty-four years and twenty-four official 007 films in, and the combined best efforts of Mike Myers, Jason Bourne, and Britain’s ongoing postimperial twilight notwithstanding, James Bond remains The Spy Who Dogs Us, the hardest-bitten, longest-toothed survivor in cinema history.
Whatever else it may be, then, Daniel Craig’s four-film tenure as 007 looks like mission accomplished in commercial and, to an extent, critical terms alike. Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012) are among the most acclaimed entries in a franchise that in its time has fielded as many brickbats as bouquets. The latter film’s five Oscar nominations nearly doubled the entire series’ running tally to that point. Craig’s increasingly virile box-office performance more than meets his superspy’s dry cleaning bills, too. Casino Royale’s $599 million global gross was almost doubled by Skyfall, the highest-earning Bond movie to date. As the planet coos “Oh, James” in unison, now is an opportune moment to ask how Craig and his key collaborators did it—and what (if anything substantial) is at stake, creatively and ideologically speaking, in their self-consciously rebooted twenty-first-century 007. As we shall see, the answers to such questions lie with four of the present-day accessories possessed by Craig’s Bond that can’t be run up by either Q Branch or a good Savile Row tailor: his body, backstory, Britishness, and finite ability to keep bouncing back for future missions.
It’s useful first of all, however, to return to the idea that art occasionally mirrors life, even when the art (or, if you prefer, dross) in question is a Bond flick. Key here is the Craig cycle’s pronounced emphasis on the desirability of a dependable backroom team. Casino Royale and its successors steer the complicated Oedipal-cum-operational dynamic between Bond and Judi Dench’s M, a two-handed study of backhanded relationships that dominated proceedings from Goldeneye (1995) onwards, to a close by Skyfall’s end. Replacing that dyad has been a wider ensemble of secondary characters familiar from the overlapping universes of previous Bond films and the Ian Fleming novels that birthed them. Quantum of Solace (2008) reintroduces Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear), MI6’s Chief of Staff, a figure last seen in The World Is Not Enough (1999). Skyfall then brought back Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), both absent from the series since Die Another Day (2002), and introduced a new M played by Ralph Fiennes with more than a passing nod to the pre-Brosnan occupants of the role, Bernard Lee and Robert Brown. Moreover, Skyfall and Spectre both accord these supporting protagonists far more narrative agency and action than any previous Bond jaunt, the extended overseas outing of Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in Licence to Kill (1989) possibly excepted. Add to this roster returning CIA wingman Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), a reliable back-up in the field last seen by viewers in Licence to Kill, and by Spectre’s end Bond is an agent embedded as never before within a collective working unit.
The Craig movies’ relatively even-handed emphasis on squad and striker alike usefully directs attention to the one-sided nature of traditional conceptions of who and what primarily authors the Bond franchise throughout its various cycles. Most familiar is the notion that the star sets the scene: Connery swaggers, Moore smarms, Dalton suffers, Brosnan is self-satisfied. Less frequent is the ascription of authorship to the occasional prestigious occupant of the directorial chair. Significant amounts of speculation have swirled, for example, around the extent of director Sam Mendes’s influence over Skyfall and Spectre. Mendes himself encourages this form of analysis when he notes that he “did not expect…a giant, multi-million-dollar franchise [to afford] as many opportunities for personal filmmaking as there have been.”
Least common of all, however, is the view that screenwriters typically wield the greatest control over the Bond franchise’s survival and strategic evolution. The period of transition spanning Sean Connery’s protracted disengagement from the role can, for example, be viewed as one of continuity, with Richard Maibaum and/or Tom Mankiewicz penning the scripts for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Live and Let Die (1973). But the idea that a Parker pen wields more clout than a Walther PPK offers the best way of understanding the creative structure and commercial and critical success of Daniel Craig’s Bond tenure. Indeed, the actor himself has acknowledged script-related considerations as the reason behind his original decision to accept the role: “I had been prepared to read a [stereotypical] Bond script and I didn’t…it felt to me they were offering me a blueprint, and saying: ‘Form it around that.’” The script in question (for Casino Royale) was written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the screenwriting duo primarily responsible, with occasional additional input—most notably, from Paul Haggis (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) and John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre)—for all Bond movies since The World Is Not Enough.
Purvis and Wade’s public comments either side of Casino Royale on their approach to perpetuating the franchise are telling. In 2004, Wade conceded that “the Fleming books are really interesting because they’re underneath the surface of the character and cinema isn’t like that…with a character who doesn’t express his emotions, you’re constantly struggling to suggest them.” Two years on, and one day after Casino Royale’s British release, Purvis noted how “over the years the film character has developed into something quite different to Fleming’s [original literary] character…there’s often been talk of going back to basics with Bond [but…] this was the best opportunity ever because we’re starting again with the first novel [from 1953]…giv[ing] you the opportunity for a proper arc to his character.” A decade or so later, these interlocking emphases on reconstruction and revelation, an agenda driven as much by economic calculation as emotional catharsis, remain to the fore in Spectre.
Jonathan Murray teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2