“‘Skyfall’ is the least typical Bond film in the series, which directly correlates to the fact that it might now be my favorite Bond.” — Russ Fischer, /Film
That comment was tweeted last night a short while after “Skyfall“‘s press screening in Austin, and it’s far from unusual. In this week’s Criticwire Survey, six critics named “Skyfall” as their favorite James Bond movie ever — four days before the film even opens in theaters. Improbably, this 23rd James Bond picture may wind up the most critically acclaimed in the franchise’s 50 year history (it’s currently pulling a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and an A- on Criticwire). Those sorts of reviews are something new. Bond’s been beloved throughout his history — but never really respected.
That said, the larger results of this week’s Criticwire Survey surprised me in a way that few have since we started doing them last spring. Out of more than 40 critics, the most popular response to the question “What is your favorite James Bond movie?” was not one of the standard bearers from Sean Connery’s original run, like “Goldfinger” or “From Russia With Love,” but Daniel Craig’s “Casino Royale.” When you tallied up the votes by Bond actor, Craig came out on top that way, too; his three films scored 19 votes to Connery’s 14 (followed by Roger Moore with 9, George Lazenby with 4, Pierce Brosnan with 2, and Timothy Dalton dead last with a single, measly vote). It’s one decidedly unscientific poll with a very small sample size, but it suggests the success and popularity of Craig’s version of character. Which is interesting for one very big reason: Craig doesn’t really play “James Bond” — at least not as he’s been played by the five men who came before him.
Every actor to play Bond has brought something different to the part, but they all essentially followed the template established by Connery: confidence, dark wit, machismo. Connery’s replacements were less entirely new characters than variations on a theme: Moore emphasized humor, Brosnan played up the sexuality and the swagger. It wasn’t just the actors who adhered to a template, either. Their films did as well: gun barrel intro, cold open, Binder/Kleinman opening titles, M briefing, Moneypenny flirting, Q gadgetry, assault on the villain’s island lair, all sprinkled with assorted sexual encounters and double entendres. The phrase “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” has rarely applied more clearly — or more deliberately — to a film series. Historically, Bond movies didn’t attempt to defy their audience’s expectations, they tried to play into and satisfy every single one of them.
Craig’s tenure, in contrast, has been defined by its (and his) surprises. Every other Bond, even Connery’s, arrived fully formed, without origin or motivation. Bond is simply Bond, and no more explanation was required. Craig’s Bond, on the other hand, is not yet the suave, confident gentleman spy. As “Casino Royale” begins, he hasn’t even earned the codename 007 yet (even more troubling: his taste for floral prints). He has no support from Moneypenny and Q; he almost never jokes, rarely uses gadgets, and even less rarely uses women. Instead, they use him — even, to some extent, his M, played by Judi Dench.
With a few notable exceptions, no matter who played Bond, no matter which of his traits they emphasized, he was always one thing: untouchable, physically and emotionally. Craig’s Bond is all vulnerability: seduced and controlled by women, then consumed with his thirst for vengeance after they’re taken from him. It is hard to conceive any of the other 007s (except maybe Dalton) cuddling with a woman in the shower to help her deal with the shock of a violent assault. Craig did it before he ever introduced himself as “Bond, James Bond.” Connery et. al. presented Bond as the ultimate flawless man; Craig’s is all flaws.
In essence, Craig (and the filmmakers he’s worked with) have specifically positioned him as an alternative to classic Bond. As Russ Fischer put it, Craig makes “the least typical” Bond films — 007 for people who don’t like 007. But, by that rationale, if Craig is your favorite Bond — and if “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall” is your favorite Bond movie — then does that mean you’re not really a Bond fan? Going to a Bond movie has, for decades, been a ritual of nostalgic identification: the actor in the role may change, the effects may get bigger, but the traditions remain the same. Craig’s 007 upends tradition. His Bond is defined by his lack of Bondian qualities. So is a vote for him as the best of all time a vote against Bond in general?
Not exactly. Craig’s Bond is markedly different from the rest, but he’s similar in one key respect: like all the others, he reflects the times in which he lives. As the world as changed, so has Bond; each time the character faced extinction as a result of real-world developments, he’s evolved — and endured. Brosnan’s final Bond, “Die Another Day,” was big and bright and outrageous — and, released thirteen months after 9/11, wildly out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist. After you’ve seen real world villains carry out a plan as diabolical as any cooked up by SMERSH, it’s hard to crack jokes and shag ladies when you should be out catching the bad guys. After our own intelligence community failed to protect us, it made sense to have a Bond who could — and sometimes did — fail to protect the people around him. Saving the world was serious business again. It required a more serious Bond. Enter Daniel Craig.
There’s an interesting epilogue to this story that’s about to play out in movie theaters around the world. Without giving too much away about “Skyfall,” I have to disagree with some of Fischer’s comments. The film is much more beautiful and far more thoughtful than your typical Bond, but it’s actually the most traditional 007 adventure Craig has made. Characters missing from “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” return, as do some of the most famous gadgets, and a power-mad villain in the mold of the great SPECTRE baddies of Bond’s past. A decade after 9/11, Bond is slowly evolving again — back into the man we recognize from his earliest adventures. The end of “Skyfall” can be seen as a sort of reconfirmation of the vitality of the oldest of Bond traditions. For all the new things he’s brought to the man, Craig’s Bond is still Bond. And the more he changes, the more he stays the same.