Goodbye, Mr. Bond: An Appreciation of Daniel Craig's Franchise-Altering Reign
Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Craig has become so synonymous with James Bond that it’s easy to forget just how royally pissed off a lot of 007 fans were when his casting was first announced. Shortly after the gruffly handsome, but relatively unknown, Brit was anointed as Pierce Brosnan’s successor at a splashy London press conference on October 14, 2005, the Bond faithful rushed to their computers and began firing, behaving with the same trollish, knee-jerk wrath that would soon become the favorite pastime of Marvel fanboys. Their boycott-threatening beefs mostly hinged on the belief that at 5’ 10” Craig was simply too short to play the iconic character (Bond is six-feet tall in Ian Fleming’s novels). Secondary was that the notion of a blonde Bond bordered on sacrilege. Before he’d even reported for duty, Craig was basically being called New Coke in a dinner jacket.
At first, even he wasn’t sure he wanted the part. The 37-year-old had been knocking around for years in forgettable parts in even more forgettable films. But his career was finally starting to gather some momentum. He had impressed critics with his hair-trigger turn in 2002’s Road to Perdition, he’d smoldered opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003’s arthouse drama Sylvia, and he’d shown off his more brutish, bareknuckle side in the stylish 2004 underworld caper Layer Cake. It wasn't quite the stuff that gets you invited to the A-list, but he was certainly inching up on the B+-list. Why did he need all of the headache that came with being Bond? And yet…one does not turn their nose up at the prospect of getting behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB-5 and playing the most famous character in movie history lightly. He literally and figuratively pulled the trigger.
At 37 and somewhat waffling in his career, Craig was initially hesitant to take on 007. Here, he’s pictured in Casino Royale, his first Bond film.
As the actor’s fifth and final 007 installment, No Time to Die, finally arrives in theaters, the Craig-as-Bond controversy couldn’t seem more absurd. In fact, you could make a pretty air-tight case that no one has done more for the double-o franchise than Daniel Craig. (Well, no one who isn’t named Sean Connery at least.) And the evidence was right in front of our eyes from the very beginning.
It took about three minutes—tops—to get past whatever prejudicial baggage audiences brought to the multiplex in his inaugural outing as MI6’s license-to-kill agent, 2006’s Casino Royale. Before the opening credits even rolled, Craig’s 007 was beating the shit out of a Euro-goon in a Prague men’s room. Fists were smashing into tile. Heads were being slammed into sinks. There was blood, bone, and brutality. It was beautiful, and light years away from the suave sophistication of Brosnan or the cocked-eyebrow ham-and-cheese of Roger Moore. Who knew New Coke could taste this good?
Actually, Ian Fleming did. In the author’s original series of 007 novels, he described his literary creation as a “blunt instrument,” a ruthless, remorseless killer for the sole cause of Queen and Country. But that idea seemed to vanish when Connery left the series behind after 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Height and hair color be damned, Craig was a throwback to Fleming and Connery’s conception of 007. He was cold and brutal, but beneath all the physical and psychological scar tissue, there was a soul…albeit a haunted one.
In Casino Royale, Craig’s Bond finds himself at the posh Montenegro gambling den named in the title. In a now-iconic exchange, he swaggers up to the bar and asks for a vodka martini and the natty bartender asks if he wants it shaken not stirred. Craig’s menace-eyed comeback pretty much sums up his take on 007: “Do I look like I give a damn?” It was the perfect recalibration of a character who had grown sexless and soft. Craig’s Bond didn’t speak in cheeky double entendres, he spoke with his fists—weapons that would become pretty raw and skinned over the next decade and a half.
Timing, of course, had something to do with the course correction. Bond had to change in the post-9/11 world. The harrowing political realities of the new millennium were too complex and morally ambiguous to keep chugging along like a Cold War playboy dinosaur. Now, the agent was as much a risk to MI6 as he was an asset. And operating in the thicket-y psychic grey zone of the 21st century, the new Bond seemed to cherry-pick the must-have qualities of each 007 actor who came before him. He had Connery’s hard-edged danger, Moore’s carnal appetite, Timothy Dalton’s laser-eyed focus, and Brosnan’s confidence. He even threw in a dash of George Lazenby’s romantic vulnerability—even if by letting down his guard to allow a woman in essentially signed her death warrant. But more than anything, Daniel Craig was 100 percent Daniel Craig. And it was exactly what we all needed.
No one is arguing that each and every Craig-as-Bond chapter deserves a spot in the franchise’s top tier next to Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and The Spy Who Loved Me. But Casino Royale and Skyfall are certainly straight-A 007 films, and the rest aren’t too far behind. Casino Royale was smartly engineered to be less a sequel than a complete makeover of what was becoming a pretty arthritic formula. Squaring off against Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping villain, Le Chiffre, Craig’s Bond would usher in a completely new style of action for the series. Granted, it was pretty shamelessly ripped from the pages of the Jason Bourne playbook, but Craig turned out to be a thrillingly visceral action star. And when he took a punch (or a cudgel to the balls, as he does in the film), you can feel that it hurts. Craig turned Bond from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon into an actual story with real stakes—those of which suddenly seemed the highest when it was his heart that was on the business end of a beating, like the one he goes through with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd.
No one is arguing that each and every Craig-as-Bond chapter deserves a spot in the franchise’s top tier, but Casino Royale and Skyfall (pictured here) are certainly straight-A 007 films.
Casino Royale wasn’t just the first Bond film to win over the critics in ages, it also became the highest-grossing 007 chapter by far ($609 million worldwide) at the time. The trolls who had just a year earlier scoffed at Craig were now breathlessly lining up to see what he would do for an encore. With the albatross of an awful title hanging around its neck, 2008’s Quantum of Solace felt a bit like the rushed follow-up album after its debut predecessor unexpectedly goes platinum. (Call it James Bond’s Van Halen II.) But there’s still enough that’s very good in it to make it better than most Moore/Dalton/Brosnan films. And mostly they involve Craig as action hero: an adrenalized foot chase across the red-tiled roofs of Siena; the Austrian opera house shoot out; a supercool drowning-in-crude-oil death in Bolivia. But the villain (Mathieu Amalric’s eco-warrior Dominic Greene) is a snooze.
During the four-year hiatus leading up to 2012’s Skyfall, Craig was already wrestling with how long he wanted to keep playing James Bond. I remember interviewing him shortly before that film opened and you would have never guessed from his world-weary ambivalence just how good it would end up being. In fact, it would become the first 007 film to break a billion dollars at the box office. Looking back now, it’s easy to see why. Craig had finally loosened up a little and gotten comfortable in a role that was now his. And Sam Mendes’s film swings for the fences, toggling between show-stopping set pieces (the shootout on top of speeding train in Istanbul), a truly first-rate villain (Javier Bardem’s Silva), and an embarrassment of riches when it came to fan service, whether it was the return of the Aston Martin DB-5, our first visit to the Scottish estate where Bond grew up, or tart new layers in his relationship with Judi Dench’s M. Craig would keep soaring as Bond after Skyfall, but never quite as high.
It was hard to know where to go after that triumph, and the chief problem with 2015’s Spectre is that it tries to go everywhere. It’s a half-baked attempt to tie too much together into one giant web of villainy and it doesn’t quite pull it off. But, of course, these are the screenwriter’s problems, not Craig’s. The Day of the Dead Mexico City opening is a honey and Lea Seydoux gives Bond his most interesting romantic foil in ages, but the whole Christoph Waltz-as-tada-Blofeld! gambit feels like a craven cop out.
Now, after 18 months of delays and date changes due to the COVID pandemic, we have No Time to Die. You won’t find any spoilers here. But it would be nice to see Craig go out on a valedictory high. He’s certainly earned it. And he deserves something beyond just our thanks. Maybe some sort of tricked-out gold wristwatch from Q branch—or, at the very least, a long-overdue apology from all of those droolers who bitched about his casting 15 years ago.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.