Daniel Craig’s last film as James Bond sees him go out with a bang rather than a whimper. But it’s a rare thing for a Bond star to leave on their own terms, argues James Chapman, University of Leicester.
5 October 2021
The much-anticipated, and much-delayed, release of No Time to Die, the 25th entry in the Eon Productions series chronicling the adventures of Ian Fleming’s apparently ageless secret agent hero, James Bond, closes the ‘era’ of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, which began on 15 October 2005 with that now-notorious press conference beside the River Thames in which Craig, entering via a Royal Navy RIB, was widely if unfairly mocked for wearing a life-jacket. Five films and over US $3 billion at the box office later, and no-one is mocking Craig now. The man who was deemed by some fans ‘too short’ and ‘too blonde’ for Bond has indelibly put his stamp on the role of Britain’s most famous super-spy.
It’s been public knowledge for some time that No Time To Die – delayed first by the departure of original director Danny Boyle and then by successive postponements due to the closure of cinemas during the global Coronavirus pandemic – would be Craig’s last Bond adventure. His place in the history of cinematic Bond is assured. But how does his exit compare to other last films by his predecessors who also carried Bond’s ‘licence to kill’?
It turns out that, rather like politicians and sports stars, Bond actors have rarely had the chance to choose the timing and nature of their exit from the stage.
Never say ‘never’ to Bond
Sean Connery was the first cinematic Bond, beginning with Dr No (1962), and remains the yardstick against which all new Bonds are judged. Connery was also unique in having no fewer than three ‘last’ Bond pictures. He first announced his retirement from Her Majesty’s Secret Service during the shooting of You Only Live Twice (1967) in Japan, where he tired of the constant press intrusion. For those who don’t know their SMERSH from their SPECTRE, You Only Live Twice is the one where the villain’s lair is inside a hollowed-out volcano and mod cons include a pool of man-eating piranhas. Some critics have suggested that Connery looks bored in You Only Live Twice: he certainly looks uneasy during his unconvincing disguise as a Japanese fisherman.
Connery was always going to be a hard act to follow. Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, who starred in On Her Majesty’s Service (1969), lasted for just the one film. Although it was less successful at the box office than previous Bonds, this was probably due as much to the film’s downbeat ending (Bond’s wife Tracy is shot dead before their honeymoon) as to the inexperienced Lazenby, who was excellent in the action sequences and not at all bad in the dramatic moments. But Lazenby felt that Bond was ‘Connery’s gig’ and left of his own accord. OHMSS is now regarded as one of the best Bond films within the fan culture, an early hint of the greater emotional and psychological depth of the Craig films.
The distributor United Artists drew the conclusion that Connery was irreplaceable and lured him back for Diamonds Are Forever (1971) with a bumper salary and an offer to make two other films of his choice. For non-enthusiasts, Diamonds Are Forever is the one where Bond nearly gets cremated, drives a moon buggy across the Nevada desert and gets knocked around by two athletic women called Bambi and Thumper. It would fair to say that Diamonds Are Forever is a mess: the plot doesn’t make much sense (even by the standards of the James Bond films) and the tone is uneven (the death of Plenty O’Toole is particularly nasty in a film that otherwise adopts a tone of high camp). But Connery, purring his way through the film with the self-satisfied smirk of a man earning over $1 million and a percentage of the box office, was clearly enjoying himself more than in Twice.
Connery intended that Diamonds would definitively be his last Bond appearance, telling the press ‘never again’. Like Steve Redgrave after the 1996 Olympics, however, he came back one more time in the ironically-entitled Never Say Never Again (1983). This was a ‘remake’ of Thunderball produced outside the Eon Productions series by Kevin McClory. [i] It’s neither the best nor the worst of the Bond pictures, but Connery’s swansong doesn’t match up to sixties classics such as From Russia With Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964).
More – much more – Roger Moore!
The king of eyebrow acting, Roger Moore starred as Bond in seven films, from Live and Let Die (1973) to A View To a Kill (1985). Three years older than Connery, Moore was 45 when he first uttered the line ‘Bond – James Bond’. Initially signed to a three-picture contract, there was always a sense that Moore was making his last Bond film. The opening scene of For Your Eyes Only (1981) was clearly written to introduce a new actor by linking to Bond’s past, and it’s known that James Brolin screen tested for Octopussy (1983), but in the end the terms were always agreed for ‘one more’ film. Prior to A View To a Kill, however, Moore and Bond producer Cubby Broccoli agreed that this would be his last.
A View To a Kill is undoubtedly one of the weaker Bonds and the consensus is that it was a mission too far for the 57-year-old Moore whose role by now had become akin to a high-salaried stand-in for the teams of stunt performers. Moore’s swansong is saddled with an annoying heroine – the late Tanya Roberts is even less convincing as a geologist than Denise Richards’s nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough – and a poorly structured script that cheats the audience out of the promised showdown between Bond and Grace Jones’s larger-than-life villainess May Day. It’s also the one where Bond escapes Russian pursuers by snowboarding to the strains of ‘Surfing USA’ and reveals his hitherto unknown culinary prowess to demonstrate that real agents do eat quiche. A lukewarm critical reception confirmed that it was time for a change. [ii]
From Dalton to Brosnan
Timothy Dalton – for many Fleming purists the closest to the author’s characterisation of Bond – made only two pictures before a dispute between Eon and distributor MGM/United Artists led to a long hiatus in the early 1990s. The Living Daylights (1987), the 25th anniversary Bond picture, was seen at the time as breathing new life into an old warhorse of a series that had started to look stale, and the classically-trained Dalton was praised for bring fresh vitality and a degree of grittiness to the role. These attributes were highlighted even more prominently in his second outing Licence To Kill (1989). This film deliberately did away with the criminal megalomaniacs and other sensational plot devices of other 007 adventures: Bond is pitted against a ‘real world’ villain in the form of drugs baron Franz Sanchez (a brilliant Robert Davi), though the stunts and action set pieces are as impressive as ever. The harder-edged violence of Licence To Kill earned a more restrictive ‘15’ certificate in the UK which made it off-limits for the traditional family audience of the Bond pictures. It divided critics and underperformed at the US box office, but, like OHMSS, has since received sympathetic reappraisal. Licence To Kill was ahead of its time: the first Daniel Craig Bond film – just without Daniel Craig. It should not have been Dalton’s last.
Dalton had been cast as Bond only when Pierce Brosnan, the original choice for The Living Daylights, became unavailable due to his commitment to the television series Remington Steele. Brosnan’s turn came when Dalton and the producers decided by mutual consent that there had been too long a hiatus between Licence To Kill and GoldenEye (1995). Brosnan pitched his Bond somewhere between the light comedy style of Roger Moore and the seriousness of Timothy Dalton. It was evidently a popular interpretation, as each of Brosnan’s four Bond films took more at the box office than its predecessor. However, like Dalton, the circumstances of his leaving the series were not of his own choosing. His last, Die Another Day (2002), was a mixed bag, never quite able to resolve the internal tension between realism (Bond’s capture and torture ordeal in a North Korean prison) and outright fantasy (this is the one with the Ice Palace and the invisible Aston Martin). For all its popular success, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson resolved that they wanted once again to pursue a grittier style.
The end of an era
Casino Royale (2006) – the first film since the 1960s to use significant amounts of the original novel – marked a new direction for Bond: tougher and more psychologically plausible, even if the action sequences remained as improbable as ever. It met with near-universal critical acclaim. Quantum of Solace (2008) was a mess, its production disrupted by a writers’ strike, but Skyfall (2012) took Bond to new box-office heights, becoming the highest-grossing film in the series to date (unadjusted for inflation), and Spectre (2015) consolidated that success as the second highest-grossing.
The Daniel Craig films differ from previous eras of Bond: there’s a greater emotional depth (albeit within the parameters of what are still big action movies: Bond is no exercise in Ken Loach-style realism) and a continuing narrative arc that links the films. Quantum of Solace was a direct follow-up to Casino Royale and No Time To Die is a sequel to Spectre, with returning characters Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) – the latter in a Hannibal Lecter-style cameo – as well as the now-familiar ‘Scooby Gang’ of ‘M’ (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), ‘Q’ (Ben Wishaw) and Tanner (Rory Kinnear).
Personally I was left rather underwhelmed by No Time to Die: perhaps this time the hype and expectation were too much, especially after the repeated delays to its release. There’s a lot in the film to like, including some nice visual nods to Bond films past and the inclusion of material from Fleming, especially the references to the novel of You Only Live Twice. I liked the character of Paloma (Ana de Armas), though she features rather too briefly, and the banter between the retired Bond and new ‘007’ Nomi (Lashana Lynch) as their relationship develops from initial rivalry to mutual respect. But I felt that the desire to tie up all the left-over plot elements of Craig’s previous films meant the film was too overcrowded. And I never really understood *why* (as opposed to how) the villain Safin (an under-used Rami Malek) wants to wipe out half the human race. Even a Bond megalomaniac needs some sort of warped, perverse logic for the chaos they seek to create.
The Daniel Craig Bond films have succeeded in bringing a new level of critical respectability to a nearly 60-year old film franchise. That deserves to be acknowledged as a major achievement. And Craig got to choose the moment and the manner of his swansong. The end credits of No Time To Die promise (as ever) that ‘James Bond Will Return’. Whoever is the next 007 will have a hard act to follow.
[i] Strictly speaking, Never Say Never Again was ‘based on a screen story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming’ rather than being an actual remake of Thunderball. It’s a moot distinction, but matters to the lawyers.
[ii] Moore later took umbrage at comments in Cubby Broccoli’s autobiography When the Snow Melts (Boxtree, 1998) that he didn’t want to relinquish the role. It may be that Broccoli’s collaborator Donald Zec added the comment to spice up the book.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Licence To Kill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films (I. B. Tauris, 2nd edn 2007). He is currently writing a stand-alone study of the first Bond film, Dr No, to be published by Columbia University Press in October 2022.
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