When we first met newly-minted secret agent Daniel Craig in 2006's Casino Royale, he wasn't quite James Bond yet. Confronted by Craig in a darkened office, corrupt former MI6 section chief and double agent Dryden mocks the novice agent. “If M were so sure I was bent," he snears, "she would have sent a 00...Your file shows no kills, and it takes two." Bond shoots him mid-monologue, the flash of his muzzle punctuating the noir tinge of the scene. A quick cut back to his first kill, in the washroom at a cricket match in Pakistan. The opening sequence rolls. Daniel Craig is the new James Bond.
Craig's tenure at 007 has always been somewhat mixed. A relatively new addition to MI6, he's moody, arrogant, and brutal. In contrast to the ever-suave, hypermasculine Sean Connery and the campy, gadget-laden Roger Moore (arguably the two most recognizable actors to bear the name), Craig's Bond was meant to be a whole new animal, a moment to wipe the slate clean from the increasingly embarrassing antics of Pierce Brosnan's run as the character. Obfuscating the characters' past reliance of complicated gadgets, jetting from luxury hotels across the world to his grand old home in Scotland, and embracing the gritty realism that's come to define many rebooted franchises (see: Christopher Nolan's Batman run), Craig's Bond was meant to be a Bond for the modern age, but with an origin that Dr. No never really provided.
In a sense, Spectre, the fourth and reportedly final installment of the Craig era, is the first movie where Craig actually plays the James Bond we're familiar with, the smooth-talking, lady-slaying jokester who manages to save the world just in time for a vodka martini. And it's pretty damn good.
James Bond confronts Mr. White, a former Spectre assassin and thorn in his side since Casino Royale.
The film, which pits Craig against the shadowy crime syndicate that's made the agent's life hell since Ian Flemming's 1961 novel Thunderball, is the culmination of his growth over the previous three films, spanning the tragedy of Casino Royale, the danger of Quantum of Solace, and the seismic, world-changing events of Skyfall. At the conclusion of the latter, we see Craig reporting to brand-new M Ralph Fiennes (with Judi Dench, a last remnant of Brosnan's Bond, dead at the hands of Javier Bardem), a portrait of grand old battleship The Fighting Temeraire hanging in the background. For the first time, we're getting Bond, James Bond, not the brooding would-be 00. It took four films, but Craig has finally become the agent we've expected.
This all become apparent during the opening minutes of the film, which finds Bond preventing a bombing in Mexico City while tracking down agents of the shadowy Spectre. The sequence has everything that makes a Bond movie Bond: the masculine self-assurance of Craig's rooftop swagger, rampant property destruction, and a dizzying mid-air battle aboard of a helicopter. Add a watch laser and a pair of metal teeth, and we're in business. Once he's out of battle, Bond settles into his usual pattern of witty repertoire, flirting with Moneypenny (the lovely Naomie Harris, miles away from the long-suffering secretaries of previous films) and sassing an M currently embroiled in a political battle with a rival intelligence agency (more on that later). Within a half-hour, he's attended the funeral of an assassin he killed and bedded his widow, the gorgeous but underutilized Monica Bellucci.
Bond meets Monica Bellucci
For die-hard fans who grew up playing Goldeneye on their N64 or binge-watching Moore-era howlers with their friends, the film's first act is everything we could have hoped and dreamed for. A friend once commented to me after Skyfall that "Bond is supposed to fight weird henchmen, drive a cool car, and bed hot women, not brood over his pseudo-mommy issues with Dame Judi Dench." After a slow-burning arc, we're finally back to the formula we know and love, lovingly and vividly shot by Sam Mendes. Craig, in Spectre, is the very model of a modern major general — the "relic of the Cold War" who Dench mocked (to Brosnan, of course) in Goldeneye, updated for the 21st century.
This is somehow also Spectre's greatest weakness. With Craig ostensibly leaving the franchise in the near future, Spectre feels like its making up for lost time, jamming in campy dialogue and blurry action sequences to channel the excitement of past box-office potboilers. Sadly, Mendes and co don't always stick the landing, the puzzling one-liners and sexual innuendo (remember "I thought Christmas only came once a year" from The World Is Not Enough? I wish I didn't) now awkward against the backdrop of the previous three movies. This is best exemplified by Craig's brawl against pseudo-Oddjob Hinx (David Bautista) on a Moroccan train. After tossing Hinx out of an open door, an exhausted Bond finds himself next to the pouty Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux). "Now what?" she purrs. The answer is: we bang in a train car. So it goes.
Don't get me wrong: Spectre is an entirely entertaining Bond flick, nowhere near as awful as, say, Die Another Day. But the elements which could make it the explosive conclusion of Daniel Craig's arc feel a bit half-baked. Christoph Waltz does his best to deliver a menacing performance as Spectre patriarch Franz Oberhauser (Ernst Stavro Blofeld), but his backstory of brotherly resentment against Bond is forced and unexplored. Even worse, his role as mastermind behind Bond's three previous foes (Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Raol Silva) all but invalidates their past villainy, reducing the previous three films to little more than an extension of Blofeld's daddy issues. Léa Seydoux stuns on the screen, but vacillates between capable warrior and mewling mistress. Even the subplot of Spectre seizing control of the 'Nine Eyes' global surveillance apparatus through M's political rival feels vapid, contrived and trite, a distracting soliloquy against government power.
It's a good movie, but not a great one — and a damn shame, with Craig's Bond finally becoming the agent we know and love. But besides these rough spots, part of the problem may actually be Craig himself, who seems to be going through the motions on screen. We've known for a bit that Craig was desperately looking forward to moving on to other projects, but recent interviews seem to suggest he simply doesn't like the character much, either. Given that jovial womanizing, drinking and killing are the three things that truly define Classic Bond, it's no wonder that Craig seems more comfortable brooding onscreen.
Christolph Waltz as Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Despite its unevenness, Spectre is a fitting end to Craig's time as 007, an arc that showed us how to tell James Bond's story as a story rather than an anthology of stand-alone missions, highlighting the true potential of the storied franchise. Even though he failed to capitalize on this in Spectre, there's certainly a silver lining: James Bond will return. And we can't wait.
Photos by Columbia Pictures