It was 2002. The most recent entry in the James Bond series, Die Another Day, had made $431 million at the global box office – making it the highest-grossing film in the franchise that had just celebrated its fortieth anniversary.
The star, Pierce Brosnan, had done four films and was much admired as Bond. He had expressed a desire to do another picture. In showbiz, once a formula for success has been discovered, it is uncompromisingly followed as the sole goal is to set the cash registers ringing. It was, therefore, an obvious choice to forge ahead with Brosnan as Bond and make a film in a vein similar as Die Another Day.
But despite its enormous profits, the producers were aware that Die Another Day was poorly received by Bond fans and most critics. The film began promisingly with Bond being captured, tortured, and suspected of being compromised. But the gritty premise was abandoned in favour of an outlandish resolution, with fantastical elements such as an invisible car and kite surfing over a tsunami, causing the film to devolve into pastiche.
The gravitas, depth, and subtext that Ian Fleming had envisioned had long been missing in the series but it became most apparent in the indifferently made Die Another Day. It also seemed incongruous for the post 9/11 era to have a light-hearted spy thriller. The presence of the spy parodies such as Johnny English and Austin Powers meant that it was impossible for Bond to be more outlandish.
Following the formula could give them short-term profits, but the producers knew that it would be detrimental for the overall life expectancy of the series.
During that time the producers had won a case that gave them exclusive rights to Casino Royale, the first Bond novel by Ian Fleming. It was almost as if providence was leading them in a brave new direction.
Thus defying conventional wisdom and business sense, producers took the first step that began a new journey.
Producer Barbara Broccoli had always been impressed with his screen presence and acting talents of Daniel Craig. The film Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, had a scene with Craig pacing down a corridor in a black robe that resonated his on-screen intensity and convinced Broccoli that Craig had what it took to play Bond. Thus, an Indian connection has been established.
However, unlike Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan, Craig was not the archetypical tall handsome leading man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was a terrific character actor who had earned his mantle playing complex parts in mostly independent pictures.
For most of the franchise, Bond was portrayed as a quasi-superhero with martinis, guns, gadgets, one-liners, villains, and girls. These were light-hearted affairs and Bond’s human side was seldom explored. Timothy Dalton was the only actor to have successfully humanised Bond in his two films, which won him admiration from Bond fans.
Craig understood his innate shortcomings and knew he would fail as Bond in the fantastical universe. In his mind, it was wiser to be a respected character actor rather than being miscast as 007 and earning the permanent infamy of harming the franchise.
Following a series of meetings with the producers, Craig read the script out of courtesy to the makers expecting to hate it. But he was pleasantly surprised to discover that Bond was reconnected to Ian Fleming’s literary works; including the associated complexities and motifs. This was a territory with which Craig was comfortable.
Craig also had premonitions of a jaded elderly version of himself telling strangers in a bar that he was once offered the part of James Bond. There was no reason to say reject this one. Predictably he aced his audition and was signed on. This was a moment of joy for producers and a triumph for Craig.
Craig was unveiled to the world press in true Bond style, he was ferried across the Thames in a Royal Marines speedboat. Craig was dressed in a suit; following standard safety protocol, he wore a lifejacket.
Craig was unaccustomed to being the centre of attention, hence the experience of posing for photographs was uncomfortable, and answering the customary inane showbiz questions at the presser was awkward. Craig appeared reticent, bordering irascible.
The following day, the press had their revenge. He was derided for his height, the colour of his hair, his life jacket and the fact that he didn’t quite “look the part”. The headlines read “Bland, James Bland”.
Alas for Craig, the bad press was merely the beginning of the hateful frenzy. What followed was probably the first instant of pre-social media online trolling.
A group of disgruntled fans – who were vehemently against Craig playing the martini drinking superspy – set up a hate website called CraigNotBond.com. There was a montage of all previous Bond actors in the most handsome form that concluded with a bedraggled looking Craig with horror film screams playing in the background. Clips and screengrabs were chosen from Craig films where he played troubled individuals to prove he was a misfit. It was petty, vicious and personal.
The media, always ravenous for sensationalism, joined the online mob and ran with narrative as if it were an axiomatic fact causing a hysteria of irrational loathing. All this was being done despite not seeing even a minute of the film.
Previous Bond actors, Sir Roger Moore and Sir Sean Connery, expressed their support for Craig.
Craig astutely chose to look beyond the madness and throw himself into the role both literally and metaphorically. He reread all of the Fleming novels and worked closely with the director and writers to grasp the essence of the character. He underwent a total physical transformation, following a strict diet regimen and punishing exercise routine.
The lust for failure online and in the press persisted all through the shoot. It was almost like they were eagerly waiting for a devastating trainwreck to occur upon which they could crucify him.
Finally, it was November 16, 2006 and Casino Royale was out in the public domain.
There was no customary gunbarrel sequence; instead it opened strikingly in black and white. It depicted how Bond earned his license to kill. There were no funny one liners or fantastical set-pieces. It was instead ferocious, bloody and dark. It was also minimalistic and understated which made it very impactful and almost like a throwback to the classic period of film noir. It perfectly set the tone for Daniel Craig’s era.
The film cleverly adapted Fleming’s intricate plot to contemporary times. Judy Dench's M was no longer just the domineering superior who assigned Bond his mission, but a matriarchal figure who mentors and watches over Bond, who often seems like a loose cannon. There was spectacular action, in true Bond fashion, but this time it was the fists and guts. The tender love story between Bond and Vesper Lynd was told with the utmost sensitivity and became the emotional backbone of the story.
Casino Royale had emerged as not just an exciting Bond film but a great film generally that delighted many non-Bond fans as well. It accomplished the rare feat of being both artistic and commercial.
This was a total triumph for Daniel Craig who nailed every aspect of Bond. He wisely chose to allow his work to speak for him and it most certainly did. The naysayers had no option but to flee back into their burrows.
The film turned out to be an astute commercial decision for the producers. It earned $616,502,912 worldwide, almost 200 million more than Die Another Day.
The impact was summarised well by a friend with whom I had watched the film. She said, “I entered the cinema expecting to miss the suaveness of Pierce Brosnan. But after watching Casino Royale, I can’t remember a single moment of the previous films.”
To outdo Casino Royale was an impossible feat simply because the magic of discovering something bold and fresh can never be replicated.
Quantum of Solace, the follow-up to Casino Royale, was a cryptic title for any film that already had an uphill task ahead of it owing to unrealistic expectations. It didn’t help that there was a screenwriter strike at that time and any possibility of script rewrites and polishes, that are essential for any film's success, were ruled out.
This film had Bond going rogue in his quest for vengeance against those who had wronged him previously. But the deficiency in writing showed. Bond lacked the depth and dimensions; he appeared sullen, sulky and petulant instead of angst-ridden and angry. There were instances where Bond appeared like the Terminator on a gratuitous killing spree. Craig was competent, despite the underwritten material.
Quantum of Solace was a solid film that attempted to dig deeper into Bond’s psyche with moderate success. But coming on the heels of Casino Royale, it was a disappointment.
The film made $589,580,482 at the worldwide box office.
The magic made a triumphant return in Bond’s next outing Skyfall, a fitting tribute to celebrate the fiftieth year of the series.
Here Bond confronts a ghost from his past. At its heart, it was a psychological thriller with a Nietzschean subtext. There was the deeper exploration of Bond’s mortality and expendability, and his relationship with Judi Dench's M. Standard elements of the Bond universe – such as gadget quartermaster Q and Moneypenny – were cleverly reintroduced which brought back humour to the proceedings.
There were handsomely mounted action sequences. Like all of Craig’s previous entries, there was blood, sweat, and guts. The thrills and suspense were terrific, but it was the riveting underlying drama that made it memorable. Like Casino Royale, it had transcended from being a great Bond film to being a solid piece of cinema in general.
Craig was in sterling form, taking full possession of the part.
The film made $1,108,561,013 worldwide, the first in the series to cross a billion dollars.
Next in the series was Spectre, which attempted to bring back the spirit of fun while retaining the grittiness of the Craig era. It began with the gun-barrel sequence, which was the first for Craig, and the film was sprinkled with subtle tributes to previous Bond films. The action was spectacular and the locations were diverse and exotic. Bond rediscovered love again. The backdrop was of big tech attempting to bring British intelligence out of “the dark ages”. The sinister terror organisation, Spectre, returned and startling secrets were revealed.
The film was enjoyable, if not memorable. However, the twist in the tale seemed terribly contrived.
The film earned $880,681,519 worldwide.
Craig had suffered myriad injuries during the making of Spectre. It was clearly an unpleasant experience. Hence, during an interview immediately after the shoot, he instinctively and resoundingly rejected the possibility of doing another Bond film.
This pugnacious attitude seemed fitting with his interpretation of 007; it also seemed like an end of an era for fans. Thankfully Craig recovered from his momentary lapse of judgment and returned for one last time as 007 in No Time To Die.
The film begins where Spectre ended and promises to reveal secrets from the past and bring every arc from Craig’s previous films to their conclusion. The trailer of the film proved that it has all the elements to please Bond fans.
The film has impressed critics, some even calling it the best among Craig’s Bond films.
After being postponed over five times due to Covid, the film finally makes its way to the big screen, the way it was always meant to be.
As Craig leaves the series, he must feel an immense sense of pride for reimagining, reinvigorating, and reviving what was beginning to look like a flailing franchise.
During his tenure as Bond, several elements that were once key to the success of the franchise, but were beginning to seem like tiresome clichés, were skilfully subverted.
For the first time, Bond was fully fleshed out as a character displaying the entire gamut of human emotions, vulnerabilities and fallibilities. Bond not only fell deeply in love but made an overt display of going soft.
The films became a psychological exploration of Bond, depicting how traumatic occurrences from his past left an indelible impression on his psyche and defined the man he became.
An often ignored achievement is that the films did not glorify violence. After every fistfight, Craig’s Bond was bruised and battered. The films also depicted the harrowing aftermath of violence quite sensitively: the best instance is the scene in Casino Royale between Vesper and Bond where she almost shuddered with horror after participating in an act of violence.
Most importantly, Craig’s Bond never allowed the audience to forget that beneath the perceived heroism there was pain, fear, concern, moral conflict, uncertainty, and even grief that was almost consuming Bond from within. Craig’s Bond wasn’t entirely a super heroic figure you want to emulate.
Craig‘s performances are right up there with the best and most nuanced on-screen acting, not just confined to the Bond universe.
His journey off-screen was also replete with drama. There was the agony when the media and “fans” baselessly turned on him prior to Casino Royale. There was ecstasy of seeing the films earn stupendous acclaim and box office revenues. Like Bond films, the villains were vanquished and his mission of reinventing Bond was resoundingly accomplished.
Daniel Craig is now regarded by many as the definitive Bond and leaves enormous shoes to fill. From film fans, not just Bond fans, he deserves the most profound gratitude.