The Daniel Craig era of Bond films is over, and there’s no question he changed the franchise more than any actor since Connery. Of course it was also the work of writers and directors, who constantly had to redefine a Cold War character. In the span of five films, we saw the rebirth, new life, and passing on of an icon: 007. The last of these films brought the story arc full circle.
I was obsessed with 007 after I first played Goldeneye 64, and collected all the films on VHS. By the time I saw Brosnan’s last film, Die Another Day, I felt like 007 needed to retire. I was in high school and was starting to outgrow this stuff. Moviegoers started to agree that Bond should be less Austin Powers and more Jason Bourne.
So they went back to the books. Casino Royale came out with a new actor and a new approach. Retell the story of the first of Fleming’s novels as much as is possible while set in the modern day. We got what some would say is the best of Craig’s films. Over the next five films, we’ve seen male violence explored with a new set of eyes. In fact, the main point of our series has been to brutally turn the male gaze onto the male agent.
Casino Royale—The Birth of a Killer Man
Arm yourself because no one else here will save you
Bond earns his 00 status by proving that he has a tough body (winning a fist fight to the death) and a tough heart (killing a man with a family cold-heartedly). Instead of a girl in a bikini, Bond’s hunky man bod emerges from the beach as quite a specimen, only to be subjected to all manner of deadly strain. He is a tool of death, able to chase down a parkour practitioner (though not parkour himself), seduce a woman, give no tell during a poker match, endure poisons and punches, and withstand immense torture. He only trusts himself, but even when poisoned needs some assistance. The background of one of the scenes depicts a strange art exhibit of skinless bodies at an airport, so out of place that it begs our attention to a study on human anatomy. No matter how tough a man’s skin, he is vulnerable.
Bond is a royal casino, working for the crown, his job a complete and reckless gamble. He should be dead and deals with men who should be dead, all of them bluffing their abilities and possessions (even the bomb maker bears the mark of his risky job). Le Chiffe’s weeping eye is a sinister sign that the soul of violent men are vulnerable in the end. We see the consequences of the spy lifestyle on Bond’s own body, as well as those around him. The last part of him to be punished is his private flesh weapon. Ouch. But just as he comes out of it, the true last part of him to get crushed is his heart, when his love betrays him and commits suicide. We weren’t prepared for him to actually love her. Now we’re not prepared for him to write her off.
The male gaze interrogates the male bluff, a violent move that turns inevitably on the self. Vesper didn’t kill his heart. He sticks the knife in himself to survive at the job.
Quantum of Solace—How A Man Copes With His Violence
Another tricky little gun giving solace to the one that will never see the sunshine
Sort of a sequel, Quantum dives into the long-term repercussions of donning the role of violent state spy. How do we deal with violence done to us? Or violence we have done? The result is an out-of-place attempt at political realism. Based on actual historical recent events. A dull guilty conscience hangs around this movie like we all feel bad for celebrating such a colonialist hero and have to put a leash on him. Which we do. Bond is acting rogue, so we can finger wag. The bond girl doesn’t need his protection any more than he needs hers, and since they’re both damaged, they’re equals. No more stereotyped disfigured bad guy. In fact, the bad guy can be a forgettably regular looking man in a suit and the beautiful good girl horribly scarred (on her back, of course, not her face). No trying to take over the world—just the water prices of a small nation. The giant eye motif in the film’s middle forces us to admit that some atrocities we can’t not see. Unlike the villain, who shields his face from a witness, claiming “he can’t see me.”
We cope by admitting that in real life, sometimes the U.S. cooperates with the villain, because all that’s at stake is the economy of a third world country. Bond has to cope with guilt for mistaking an ally for a friend, and getting that friend killed. He copes by dumping the friend’s body in a dumpster to save his own skin. We cope by watching a melodrama in which the hero tries to find peace by committing more violence. Instead, at the end, Bond has to learn to let go. But, typical violent male that he is, has to measure the amount of solace he’s gained.
It feels like a film we made to bring solace to ourselves for cheering so much violence and control. Did it even work?
Skyfall—A Violent Man Must Belong Nowhere
When it crumbles, we will stand tall, face it all together
In my review of Skyfall, I surmised that the film questions Bond’s place in the world. We get a closeup on who he is, including his background as an orphan. Old secrets resurface, the sky falls, and we are left questioning whether the entire infrastructure that creates men like Bond is any good in the first place. The first shots of the film give us Bond’s eyes, and we look deeper into the man’s own soul. We see soon how alone Bond has been his whole life, possible explaining his drinking and womanizing. He’s not just a cavalier jerk, he suffocates the pains of his childhood and suffers the pain of a lonely and callous profession.
Bond is baited out of retirement when M is threatened. It’s the first film without a major “Bond girl”—unless you count M, who is essentially Bond’s mother. In his career she alone has nurtured him, and even when he temporarily breaks her trust, she never breaks his. It’s a story about a mom and two sons, one whom she abandoned. Is the villain then a creation of the same culture that produced the hero? After all, Bond seduces a sex trafficked woman, quite the villainous move. Bond’s great temptation here is to reject the woman constant woman in his life: his boss. As the song sings, “close your eyes and count to ten,” the movie turns on the relationship between a mother who always fears the death of her sons, and a son who has to hold his mum in his arms as she dies. Bond is an orphan. He came from no family, and he has no family. Maybe he doesn’t deserve to live. But he will always try to earn his mother’s love. Going back to his orphaned home, back to the priest hole, back to the lake, Bond can only live if he continually dies and is reborn.
One of the last lines of the film: Think on your sins. Otherwise, maybe you have no right to be a hero?
Spectre—A Deadly Man in Purgatory
The writing’s on the wall
This was the thesis of my review of Spectre, that Bond as a persona died in the last film and, rather than resurrect, is now in purgatory. The words “The dead are alive” appear on screen, which isn’t supposed to happen. When we first see Bond, he dresses like Baron Samedei. The entire mythology of Bond is turned on its head: A bar serving no alcohol, attending the funeral of a mark, being analyzed by his girl, a villain already dying, and the main baddie is not killed, only arrested.
When Blofeld tortures Bond and tells him “I am the author of all your pain,” we wonder if it’s really the author of all those books. We’re trying to purge Bond of everything about him we should have problems with [see my full review for more]
Spectre. Spectator. Bond is haunted by the eye that always follows. Our eye. Watching him even when he’s past due.
No Time To Die—A Man Come Full Circle
Fool me once, fool me twice
Are you death or paradise?
How many times have we killed off this man’s career? When this story begins, Bond is beyond retired. If the last film was his purgatory, the final film is the “perfect” circle of Paradisio. Bond gets his vacation, gambles with an old friend instead of an enemy, is given his beatific send-off, is granted genetic immortality, and the (perhaps undeserved) legacy of a saint.
In this film is the ultimate tip of the hat to the grand mythology: The villain is and is not Dr. No and is and is not Shatterhand, portraits of old M’s, and instead of a new credits song, we get an old favorite. It’s even strangely like the 1969 parody of Casino Royale: Bond comes out of retirement, there is more than one 007, an evil bioweapon on the loose, and Bond dies in an explosion in the end.
No Time To Die—almost too quickly, as if running out of time—wraps up all the Craig storylines, from his lovers to his career to his nemeses to his allies. But as we see the story arc come to its end, it kind of makes sense. Bond has survived, formed a kind of family, revealed secrets, and challenged himself. Now we get the remaining backstory of his first lover, revisit his first love, and make a man into a father. That’s right. Bond hunted the father of his girlfriend, who killed the family of the villain, who killed the mother of his girlfriend, who bears the child of Bond in the same home in which she grew up in, the home where the villain came for her mother. The full circle is of the killer of life having become a bringer of life—a secret even to him for five years.
This time the eye is a spotlight on Bond. His time is up, and yet he goes on. Even in what was supposed to be his execution by Spectre, he instead witnesses the deaths of his enemies while he does nothing. Meanwhile, the eye of his nemesis watches, being held by one of his henchmen. The eye is now a surrogate eye, passed on from generation to generation. We the viewers will always watch Bond. We will always put the spotlight on him. The eye in the barrel always spying on Bond will continue on to the next generation of moviegoers.
Funny that this last film released in a pandemic shows us Bond’s last act being one of distancing himself from those he loves because he’s carrying a deadly disease. He once pushed his lover away out of broken trust. Now he does it to save her. No more killing. In his final moments he takes no lives, but saves them by sacrificing only himself.
There is no time to die. We have all the time in the world. To live. Thanks to that guy who died. James Bond will return.