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Shaken, and Stirred: How Daniel Craig Gave James Bond a Soul

There were ups and downs in the actor’s 15-year tenure as 007, but his greatest accomplishment was making an iconic character seem human 

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

In No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s James Bond exudes weariness in every scene. Bond is, in modern parlance, kind of washed. His 007 moniker is given to a new MI6 agent (played by Lashana Lynch), who quips that she doesn’t want to hurt the only one of his knees that still works, while Bond’s usual seduction methods—this time directed at Ana de Armas as a green CIA operative based out of Cuba—fail spectacularly. (Her character’s reaction is basically: “Oh god, this old guy is hitting on me.”) There might not be any time to die in the latest entry of the Bond franchise, but as it turns out, there is plenty of time to dwell on the character’s encroaching obsolescence.

Call it art imitating life. It was Craig, after all, who infamously declared he would rather slash his wrists than make another Bond movie after the underwhelming Spectre—and who, after one of his many on-set injuries, actually did need knee surgery. (As for participating in another film, a $25 million payday goes a long way toward changing minds.) But even when the injuries aren’t factored into it, this I’m Getting Too Old for This Shit attitude seems appropriate for Craig. Other actors have played Bond in more films—Roger Moore and Sean Connery both did seven movies, respectively—but none have endured a longer tenure than Craig, who has been the face of 007 for 15 years. It’s enough time that the Craig era began with Bond as a rookie spy earning his license to kill and now ends with him mulling retirement (again).

Trying to determine which actor is the single best Bond would be like sparking a debate about Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the Snyder Cut: It’s just an invitation for people to argue online, very loudly, in perpetuity. Instead, it’s best to agree that all the Bond actors have brought something distinct to the role, and that Craig is no exception. Across five films—some great, others wholly forgettable—Craig has cemented himself as the franchise’s most fallible, fatalistic, and most of all, human Bond.

Opening with his first kill, Craig’s debut in Casino Royale underlines Bond’s inexperience. This leads to memorably impulsive decision-making, like entering a foreign embassy in Madagascar after an intense parkour session to apprehend a target before shooting said target and blowing up part of the embassy. (Even for 007 standards, that’s a big no-no.) But the cocksure demeanor, which gives the impression that this Bond is the type of ruthless killing machine his government requires him to be, is also revealed to be masking deep-seated insecurities. Naturally, the character who starts causing Bond’s facade to crack is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Casino Royale’s breathtaking rebuke to the prototypical Bond Girl—someone who resonates beyond being conventionally attractive. Their first meeting, over dinner on a train headed to Montenegro, is crackling with chemistry as Bond and Vesper size each other up in every sense of the term.

After Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous, poker-savvy Le Chiffre is dispatched—though not before an unforgettable scene of testicular torture—Bond, completely smitten with Vesper, resigns from MI6 to be with her. It’s in these moments of intimacy that Craig’s Bond shows a self-awareness about the existential toll of his line of work. “You do what I do for too long, and there won’t be any soul left to salvage,” he tells her. “I’m leaving with what little I have left.” Sadly, their love is fleeting: Vesper is coaxed into becoming a double agent for the shadowy organization whose finances Le Chiffre gambled with, and by the end of the film she drowns in Venice’s Grand Canal in front of Bond, in a sequence in which all of his pain is laid bare. Returning to his 00 status with a renewed sense of purpose, Bond nevertheless feels haunted and betrayed by losing the one person he was willing to be vulnerable with.

Rather than reset Craig’s Bond with another stand-alone adventure, which was the norm, the franchise decided to embrace a serialized arc with Quantum of Solace. The film essentially functions as an epilogue to Casino Royale, and Bond looks to avenge Vesper’s death by taking down the organization known as Quantum. In his second turn, Craig fully embraces being the Gritty James Bond: killing without remorse, once again treating women as objects, and desperately cloaking his inner demons. The acts of violence and the meaningless sex that comes with the franchise’s territory belie a Bond that is, in his own twisted way, in a state of mourning.

Quantum of Solace’s dour tone is admirably off-putting, and there’s no denying the movie has some interesting ideas rattling under the hood. The death of MI6 agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), who drowned in oil, is a callback to Goldfinger that also functions as a crude reminder that oil is the true currency of the times. But using another easily discarded woman for such blunt messaging felt both outdated and sexist—Arterton has said as much herself—and the film is so concerned with the traumatic events of Casino Royale that it makes you want to just go back to rewatch it instead. (The 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, which led to Craig rewriting some of the film’s scenes during production, didn’t help matters.) Through two movies, the Craig era had one undeniable hit and one ambitious miss.

In need of a reset, Craig’s third Bond entry, Skyfall, employed Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes—who at the time was better known for tastefully filming plastic bags in the wind than for high-octane action movies. Along with renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, Skyfall staked its claim as the most gorgeous entry in the franchise, one which also presents Bond as the old guard left behind by an increasingly modern world. Granted, accidentally being shot by a fellow agent and presumed dead for months were added obstacles.

When Bond does resurface, he’s not the agent he used to be, and he fails the fitness test and psychological evaluation necessary to be reinstated. (On blind faith, Judi Dench’s M gives him his 00 status back anyway.) Skyfall’s willingness to let Bond appear so flawed was another trademark of the Craig era: The character’s fallibility made him seem like more of a person than a blunt instrument to be wielded for crown and country. Pitted against the flirty cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), Bond’s best recourse is to turn back the clock, staging the climactic battle at the orphanage in the Scottish Highlands where he was raised. There’s plenty to enjoy about Craig’s character executing Home Alone–style booby traps against anonymous henchmen, and the success of these traps proved that all the cool gadgetry in the world is no match for old-fashioned ingenuity. But with M’s death at the end of the film added to his conscience, the emotional toll of the job once again becomes insurmountable.

In all, Skyfall was just as beloved as—if not more beloved than—Casino Royale, and it restored the reputation of the Craig era. But perhaps one of the reasons that Skyfall was so effective is that it’s the follow-up with the least amount of continuity to the other Craig films—it works just as well as a self-contained story. Unfortunately true to its name, Spectre is haunted by 007’s past, twisting and convoluting (and retconning?) its narrative to reveal that the eponymous organization has actually been pulling Bond’s strings from the very beginning. (Quantum is revealed to be a subsidiary of Spectre, because what’s more menacing than a needlessly labyrinthine corporate infrastructure?)

Beyond the awkward insistence on anchoring itself to plot points set up in Casino Royale, Spectre also doubles down on the high-tech wizardry established in Skyfall. Now, the bad guys want to assume control of a global surveillance system—which I almost referred to as God’s Eye before remembering that that’s the equally vague MacGuffin from the Fast and Furious franchise. And having already flirted with Bond’s obsolescence in Skyfall, Spectre doesn’t have anything meaningful to add about where the character fits in the modern world. The recycled plot elements notwithstanding, where Spectre most egregiously failed Bond was in its attempts to add emotional weight to the character’s journey—an area in which Craig typically delivers his best work. The decision to reveal the infamous villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld as Bond’s foster brother is hindered by a surprisingly disinterested Christoph Waltz, who shows none of the charisma that made him a two-time Oscar-winner, while 007’s relationship with Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann doesn’t hold a candle to the character’s fiery chemistry with Vesper Lynd.

Spectre appeared to be a disappointing swan song for Craig, whose sudden and very public disdain put him in a grand tradition of actors getting tired of the role. (Another Bond tradition: The actor’s final film tends to be a stinker.) Of course, that’s where No Time to Die comes in, hoping to break from tradition by giving Craig’s Bond the send-off he deserves. All told, the movie is considerably better than Spectre and Quantum of Solace, which isn’t a high bar to clear. But No Time to Die’s biggest shortcomings come from inheriting such a mess that the movie’s original director, Danny Boyle, exited the project over creative differences. The film’s bloated 163-minute running time is owed to a misguided need to reintroduce characters and tie up loose ends that date back to Casino Royale, forcing No Time to Die to shoulder the burden of both the franchise’s strengths and weaknesses through the past 15 years.

Cary Joji Fukunaga, the first American to direct a Bond film, wastes no time crossing off knot-tying moments from an exhaustive checklist, beginning with Bond visiting Vesper Lynd’s grave in Italy as a final remembrance. But No Time to Die’s heavy emphasis on the past also plays to Craig’s unique strengths in the role. By acknowledging both the passage of time and the trauma he’s suffered throughout the five-film arc, Craig is allowed to convey a vulnerability in Bond that was apparent from the opening moments of Casino Royale. This 007 isn’t hardened by his actions, but rather wounded from them.

After Eon Productions enlists a new Bond actor, a search that will apparently start next year, the franchise might decide it’s better off eschewing another serialized arc in favor of more stand-alone adventures. (When it comes to carefully planned serialized storytelling on the big screen, the Marvel Cinematic Universe still has everyone else beat.) But while the Craig era could be messy and flawed, the disruption of Bond’s status quo as a suave spy who behaves like all the events in the previous movie never happened fit the actor like a well-tailored suit. Thanks to Daniel Craig, James Bond is no longer just an iconic pop culture figure—he’s one with a soul.