I recently rewatched Daniel Craig’s first three outings as Bond – Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), and Skyfall (2012) – before seeing the latest instalment Spectre (2015). Here’s some thoughts on each. There are *SPOILERS* for all films.
Opening in shadowy black and white with gritty, hand-to-hand combat – this is the new Bond. Craig pivots to face the camera and mercilessly shoots his victim, queuing the famous gun barrel graphic and the opening title sequence. The MI6 agent gets his first kill, acquiring his Licence to Kill and 00-status. A brilliant prologue and introduction.
Casino Royale might as well have been titled James Bond: Origins. The series reboots and starts afresh, right at the beginning of his career with superb results. This Bond is reckless, cheeky, and charismatic but uniquely vulnerable – he’s not yet emotionally-hardened. Casino Royale is about how he earns his armour, both personal and professional, by cause of love-interest Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). His affection for Vesper is ultimately his weakness, becoming susceptible to suffering and blind to betrayal (even if it was ultimately unwilling on her behalf).
M: You don’t trust anyone, do you?
James Bond: No.
M: Then you’ve learned your lesson.
The relationship between Bond and Vesper is a highlight, even if the sweeping romance drags on a bit. Their scintillating chemistry is amplified by sharp, witty dialogue – exemplifying the film’s brilliant script (probably deserving of an Oscar nomination).
Mads Mikkelsen provides still the best villain in Craig’s run so far as Le Chiffre. He’s methodological and menacing, oozing arrogance – making him the perfect match for the big-headed Bond. The torture scene with both characters is already iconic for its ball-busting tension and jocosity. In fact, the film is full of spectacular sequences: the freerunning pursuit in Madagascar, the Miami airport fiasco, the sinking of a Venetian building.
By the end of Casino Royale we’ve witnessed Bond faithfully earn his 00-status and the entitlement to the film’s closing declaration, “The name’s Bond, James Bond”.
Quantum of Solace
As the series’ first sequel, Quantum of Solace takes a glorious misstep in stripping the Bond-ness from the film (despite a brief oil-soaked homage).
It’s essentially an extended epilogue to Casino Royale, which provides some significance but is ultimately superfluous. While the decision to make the film a sequel is partly admissible, with Bond on a path of revenge after the events of Casino Royale, the film’s anonymity and lack of imagination kills any interest instigated by it’s predecessor. What we’re left with is a fairly decent (albeit clumsily edited) action film whose biggest crime is its vanilla-flavoured interpretation.
Skyfall is vexing, but I love it.
It’s the most technically proficient and gorgeous film in the entire series, infinitely rewatchable for its visual splendour alone. Praise be, Roger Deakins. Just look at this eye candy…
It’s thematically rich – but a little heavy-handed. It’s nostalgic and self-referential but almost to the point of being overwrought. It’s character-focused narrative is engaging but littered with silly plot points. But rarely do these shortcomings detract from it’s pure enchantment.
Javier Bardem provides a delightfully camp and memorable villainous performance (although it’s borderline extraneous to the Craig era of films). Yes, his plan to be captured is ridiculous and defies all logic, but it makes for some terrific sequences in the London underground and at the MI6 hearing.
I love that Judi Dench’s M is more or less the ‘Bond girl’ of Skyfall. This is her story as much as it is Bond’s and their relationship is etched out well. It’s a unique twist on Bond, one that feels like an inevitable development following the trajectory initiated by Casino Royale. Similarly, the Bond backstory arc is a noteworthy and refreshing crossroads in the series.
It’s as if director Sam Mendes & co. are re-familiarising audiences with the character; the film is, after all, about resurrection. Since Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were both depictions of Bond at the beginning of his career, Skyfall offers a seasoned version of Bond.
The opening shot is such a perfect lead-in for this objective – Bond steps into the distant end of a hallway, out-of-focus and backlit. He walks forward and reveals himself in a dim hue of light, raising his gun.
Skyfall also seeks to redefine the Bond universe, per se. There’s a new Q (Ben Whishaw), a new HQ, and a Moneypenny too (Naomie Harris). All are great renditions of the series’ iconography, toying with its traditions while respecting its canon. In fact, the entire film is teeming with these *nudge, nudge* self-aware digs at its own cinematic legacy. Skyfall can be, at times, overwhelming in its desire to please its audience, though I find it more endearing than oversweet.
Spectre opens spectacularly with an impressive tracking shot that weaves through the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. The entire sequence is intriguing, amusing and tense, setting up the film with seemingly unsurpassable exhilaration. Unfortunately, what follows can never really match such heights, failing to maintain momentum, despite its good intentions.
After being suspended from duty, Bond goes off the grid, trailing a series of unravelling clues that quickly lead him to SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). The organisation is depicted in constant shadow and there they remain throughout the film. Second-time director Mendes imbues the film with a lingering ominous tone, established by a purposefully drawn out sequence in which we are introduced to SPECTRE. Hoyte Van Hoytema (filling the shoes of tough-act-to-follow Roger Deakins as cinematographer) has fun shooting these scenes.
However, by attempting to build tension through the unknown, the film lacks intensity or drive. The intentions of the ‘bad guys’ are not made clear until the final act and even then, the ‘high stakes’ of their conspiracy are undermined by the film’s big reveal.
It’s good to have the screen rights for the canonical evil organisation back where they belong, but probably without the proper treatment they deserve in Spectre. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been responsible for the past six Bond films – some good, some great, some not so good – so it’s difficult to lay the blame on them. Although, their contribution here is mostly disappointing for its unfocused thematic exploration. The mass surveillance scheme is undercooked – as are references to Bond’s damsel complex or modern relevancy – and the Oberhauser twist is overcooked (despite some fidelity to Ian Fleming’s novels), adding a completely unnecessary layer to the story that only frustrates.
Spectre is essentially Casino Royale 4, attempting to act as the culmination of all events leading up to it. However, by deliberate association, Spectre is bestowed with a sense of grand finality – a sensation it cannot do justice to, leaving the proceedings flat in automatic comparison. It doesn’t help that the ensuing big action set pieces never quite surpass the opening sequence, despite a brutal train brawl between Bond and henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). I can’t help but wonder if the film would’ve benefitted from cutting ties with previous Craig films and asserting itself as a standalone entry.
One of Spectre’s strengths is how it submits to a classic Bond vibe without winking at its audience. It’s nowhere near as accomplished as Casino Royale or Skyfall in terms of character development, but subtle in its references and still commendably distinctive as a Bond film. But Spectre wastes time worrying about its logistical place in the Craig era universe, when it should have focused on its potential to say something more potent than what it parades.
As the series moves forward, it would benefit from an attempt to create new iconography, rather than relying on an attachment to the past. An overhaul of the status quo, similar to Casino Royale, will likely continue to keep audiences interested.