The 00-cycle: How Daniel Craig’s films succeeded in rebooting James Bond
Ivan Radford | On 20, Oct 2015
As Daniel Craig returns to play James Bond in SPECTRE, the 24th film in the franchise could be his last in the role. Whether that’s the case or not, it marks the completion of a mission his films set out to accomplish: the rebooting of James Bond for the modern age.
This isn’t the first time the franchise has tried to return to its roots, though. In fact, this is the third, maybe even the fourth, reboot that 007 has undergone in his 24 outings, each one designed to recalibrate the series back to zero.
Craig’s tenure began with 2006’s Casino Royale, a stripped-down thriller that removed most of the familiar elements from the 007 formula. The car chase was scaled back to a single, high-speed drive down a country road; the bad guy, Le Chiffre, was in finance, concerned with numbers not world domination; the conversations with M took place in her flat, not Vauxhall Cross; the music, by David Arnold, studiously avoided the Monty Norman theme tune. Even colour was taken away: the film started with a black-and-white prologue, the only time Bond has embraced monochrome, its office set of glass and shadows a long way from the lush Technicolor visuals of the Caribbean-set Dr. No or the CGI surfing of Die Another Day.
It’s as thick a line as returning director Martin Campbell could draw between Craig’s Bond and the one played by Pierce Brosnan – a dramatic push of the reset button before things could escalate any further from the absurd extremes of invisible cars and DNA-changing masks. For Your Eyes Only did the same thing during Roger Moore’s heyday. Hot on the heels of the overblown Moonraker, which saw 007’s eyebrows blast off into space, it was agreed that a more grounded approach would be best for the next movie. And so For Your Eyes Only blew up Bond’s car, leaving him with a Citroen 2CV, and swapped a megalomaniacal villain for, as Moore put it in his book, Bond on Bond, the “good old, dependable Russians”. Most significant of all, the film opened with James kneeling at the grave of his wife, Tracy, last seen when she was murdered by Ernst Stavro Blofeld at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
When it comes to serious character drama, there’s something of a tradition in connecting 007 and revenge: Licence to Kill, which again brought Bond back to basics after the Christopher Walken-starring A View to a Kill, told the straightforward tale of avenging the murder of Felix Leiter. Only two films later, GoldenEye, the start of the Brosnan era, also directed by Campbell, re-introduced the secret agent virtually from scratch with a new back-story involving back-stabbing best friend 006. “For England, James?” taunted Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan at the climax. “No,” came the reply. “For me.”
What else could motivate a cold-hearted spy other than betrayal and loss? That was, after all, the starting point for Ian Fleming’s books: Casino Royale saw 007 heartbroken by Vesper Lynd, who unwillingly crossed him (and committed suicide) come the final page. “The bitch is dead now,” said Bond, a line repeated almost word-for-word on screen. The hardened killer was born.
Nonetheless, rebooting doesn’t automatically equal success. Roger Moore’s reign swiftly swung back into silly ways after FYEO’s tender tombstone tribute. In fact, the pre-credits sequence helped to do it almost immediately, by featuring a sequence involving a wheelchair-bound figure being dropped down a chimney from a helicopter. That unnamed man was meant to represent Blofeld, his death a cutting-off point for the series from that archest of villains – but the act was more laughable than symbolic, accompanied by cheesy music and 007 making jokes about his nemesis’ lack of hair.
It didn’t help that they couldn’t call the man Blofeld. Why? Because of a legal battle with one Kevin McClory, who, at the time, held the rights to both the Thunderball story and Ernst Stavro’s organisation, SPECTRE.
Legal wrangling has often played a part in Bond’s cycle of boom and busts. In 1983, McClory mounted his own attempt at a Bond franchise with Never Say Never Again, effectively a remake of Thunderball, featuring Sean Connery as Bond once more. That also made a point of departing from 007 hallmarks: the car chase became a motorbike chase; composer John Barry was swapped for Michel Legrand; there was even a Black Felix Leiter.
The result, of course, could never really compete with the juggernaut of MGM’s officially licensed franchise – although the unofficial Bond did reasonably well at the box office – leaving 007 to continue his oft-repeated journey to the brink of implausibility and back.
So what made Craig’s attempt work so well? Like For Your Eyes Only, which combined elements from Fleming’s short stories, 2006’s Casino Royale smartly based its reboot on the books: going back to basics for Bond, as with the violent, gritty Licence to Kill, has always been thought of in terms of accuracy to the author’s text.
Daniel Craig’s 007 builds on that principle by studiously exploring our three-dimensional hero across several adventures: the impact of Vesper’s death isn’t just an end-of-story twist, but an event that ripples through the whole of Quantum of Solace. That emotional fragility was visible physically too: in Die Another Day, Rick Yune’s cartoon villain had glistening scars caused by a explosion and some diamonds. In Casino and Quantum, it was Craig who was the vulnerable one, his face regularly battered and bruised. (The recognisable Bond riff only briefly plays in the background of Casino during a rare scene where he looks clean and polished in a tux – a flash of the former, glamorous 007.)
Quantum was a hugely flawed entry in the Bond canon, largely thanks to the writers’ strike at the time, which left the production with a half-finished script and an art-house director (Marc Forster) trying to pad out the lack of substance with surface style. But that concerted effort to reboot Bond was still evident.
Olga Kurylenko’s female companion was driven by the urge to avenge her dead parents (a trait last seen in – yes – For Your Eyes Only’s Melina Havelock). That motivation echoed Bond’s own struggle to overcome his personal grief – a reassuring reminder of the writers’ character-driven intentions. After all, when Diamonds Are Forever, which followed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, chose to forget the death of Bond’s wife altogether, the result was a load of bunkum.
The villain, meanwhile, was another attempt at a low-key, political figure, not unlike the vague realism of The World Is Not Enough or Tomorrow Never Dies, although neither of Brosnan’s films succeeded in remaining as grounded as Craig’s Bond. That’s partly down to the actor himself. While he reportedly contributed to script ideas on set, Craig is also a deliberately downbeat hero; he delivers one-liners in a way that makes them sound like a threat. He smiles, yes, but you expect him to punch you afterwards.
In an attempt to continue moving away from the past, Quantum also changed up the 007 aesthetic for something more akin to a Bourne film: Peter Hunt’s editing on Dr. No gave the first Bond film an average shot length of 6.6 seconds. The Bourne Supremacy? A far shorter 2.4 seconds. For Quantum, editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson chopped that average shot length down to 2 seconds flat. The result was faster than a Paul Greengrass flick and more disorienting too: an opening car chase, designed to be different to the ones dotted through 007’s back catalogue, was so bone-crunching you coudn’t tell the difference between the near-identical black cars crashing into each other.
But if Quantum saw the franchise scrabbling to find its footing, Skyfall is where it planted both feet down – and started striding forwards with confidence. Shots slowed down, but the camerawork still shook things up: DoP Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes introduced silhouettes into the world of Bond for the first time, a visual representation of the darker depths given to a once shallow good guy.
The result is less a Bond film and more a film about Bond. Over this mini-origins story trilogy, Craig’s 007 has been turned into a fully-fledged character for the first time since Tracy’s death back in 1969. He’s easier to engage with for modern audiences, now attuned to the brooding saviours of films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman and flawed protagonists of TV shows like Breaking Bad.
Part of that, ironically, lies in positioning the new Bond as an old dog out of step with the contemporary world – a trick that’s also borrowed from the books. It’s been a while since the 007 estate officially started to commission authors to write new Bond novels. In 2011, Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche rebooted Bond as a younger agent with a new biography – an effort that paled in comparison to Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care in 2008, which continued the tale of canonical Bond as a weary veteran, not unlike Craig’s interpretation. (Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books, meanwhile, have also rebooted the story with James as a boy, but taken care to keep his back-story intact, from living with his aunt after his parents died in a climbing accident to learning to drive a Bentley.)
It’s surprising, in fact, just how quickly 007 has aged in this new cycle, from gaining his licence to kill in Casino Royale to considering retirement just two movies later. In GoldenEye, Bond was also dismissed by Judi Dench’s M as a “relic of the Cold War” and a “dinosaur”, but Brosnan showed no intention of quitting – not even when asked to drive a see-through Aston Martin.
Q, on other hand, is younger than ever. But he has been dialled down too: in Skyfall, he gives Bond just a gun and a radio to play with. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” quips Ben Whishaw’s tech expert. “We don’t really go in for that anymore.”
Q’s appearance marks the stealthy return of Bond’s old habits – a pattern that can be traced back through all of Craig’s outings. In Skyfall, after clambering aboard a half-destroyed train, Craig pauses to straighten his shirt cuffs, a move straight out of the Roger Moore Playbook. In Quantum, Gemma Arterton’s character is killed off, Jill Masterson-style, by being covered in oil (rather than gold) and MI6’s office is kitted out with fancy smart tables that make Die Another Day’s car look old-fashioned. In Casino, Craig steps out of the sea in blue Speedos, echoing Honey Ryder back in Dr. No. Aston Martins and martinis, needless to say, have never really gone away.
While Mendes and co. are subtly moving the pieces into place for Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory to become M and Naomie Harris’ Eve to become Moneypenny, you might well wonder why our bad guy (Javier Bardem) has nothing to do with Quantum, so heavily pushed in the previous two outings. The answer, inevitably, goes all the way back to Kevin McClory. It was only in 2013 that a new deal between MGM and McClory brought the rights to Thunderball and Spectre back into the official writers’ room. In 2008, we had a mysterious global organisation being set up called Quantum. In 2015? SPECTRE. The presence of Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White in both groups suggests they’re the same – or that Quantum was always intended to be part of a step back towards the Blofeld days of old. The fact that Quantum’s villain, Dominic Greene, died off-screen – a rare fate for a 007 bad guy – suggests that Quantum, not him, was the real focus of the plot. (Curiously, in Bulgarian, “Quantum” was apparently translated as “Spectre”, which means that the title to Casino Royale’s follow-up was actually called “Spectre of Solace”.)
And so, as SPECTRE looms once more on the 007 horizon, Daniel Craig has brought Bond full circle, a deft balancing act between details from Fleming’s books and rituals from 007’s cinema history, all dressed up in a new, modern skin.
“To hell with dignity, I’ll leave when the job’s done,” declares M, triumphantly, in Skyfall. Will SPECTRE see the franchise complete the cycle established by Moore and Brosnan and slip back into undignified territory? Either way, after a string of failed reboots, Bond is back – and successfully back to square one. If Craig does leave now, his job is undoubtedly done.