The pandemic isn’t over, but the long waits for the films it delayed are ending, one by one. Seventeen years after completion and on the anniversary of its fiftieth trailer, Daniel Craig bids farewell to those lovely James Bond paychecks (though not the residuals) as his fifth and final outing No Time to Die is now permitted in American theaters. Exhibitors are next looking forward to the day they can stop showing the same trailers over and over and over for the last major COVID holdout remaining, The King’s Man. This interminable era has not been a fruitful one for British action spies or Ralph Fiennes.
Fans of writer/director Rian Johnson previously saw him dabble in the mystery genre with 2005’s Brick, a hard-boiled high school noir in which murder was afoot and everyone was guilty of something. After dabbling in preexisting universes with key episodes of Breaking Bad and that one time he turned Star Wars fandom into one big West Side Story gang war, Johnson returns to creating his own characters with Knives Out, a stellar whodunit that flips genre expectations, venerates a few old tropes, and, best of all, lets Daniel Craig have a rollicking vacation away from those glum Bond films and their even glummer press junkets.
In one of the precious few MCC movie reviews ever to draw non-positive responses, I called Skyfall my favorite James Bond film of all time, based on having seen maybe ten or eleven of them in all. Even as a kid I never got excited about the concept of a globetrotting sophisticate who’s more into booze and hook-ups than he is into crimefighting. At least Batman confines his vices and his expensive suits to his off-duty civilian hours. If Bond were an Inside Out character, the simplistic emotions ruling his head would be Sex, Suaveness, Sarcasm, and Slaughter.
After the welcome reboot of Casino Royale and the redundant vendetta of Quantum of Solace, Skyfall struck me as the apex of Daniel Craig’s 21st-century take, which built to a genuine emotional arc for the usually one-note character, supported by stunts genuinely thrilling without resorting to renamed sci-fi Bat-gadgetry, by updated camerawork, and with none of the nonsense of the last two Pierce Brosnan farces. It was a film designed to reach beyond the typical fan base, and for me it worked.
Spectre, in contrast, is less about director Sam Mendes deepening the impact he made on the aging series last time, and more of the intellectual property’s longtime producers giving Bond Classic fans more of what they want. Lucky them, I suppose.
Historically speaking, the average moviegoer loves James Bond films a lot more than I do. I have nothing against the spy genre itself, but the Bond concept never appealed to me. Based on the trailers, the TV commercials, the very few Bond films I caught, and the same five scenes constantly referenced throughout pop culture, my impression of the scripts for most Bond films went like so:
PANICKY POLITICIAN: Ladies and gentlemen, a deformed billionaire Dick Tracy reject has a preposterous plan to take over and destroy the world, and we’re not sure in which order. We need our best man to stop him.
BRITISH CIA HEAD: How about James Bond? He’s a millionaire who knows a lot about sex, bartending, and tuxedos.
PANICKY POLITICIAN: Brilliant. Send him a million-dollar car and a box of our latest, deadliest, billion-dollar single-use Sharper Image toys.
BOND JAMES BOND: There’ll be sex, right? I was promised sex.
FUNNY-FACE VILLAIN: I’m killing your sex partner and stealing your scenes! And also incidentally detonating things and ruining world peace because of issues.
BOND JAMES BOND: Not my sex partner! You fiend.
[Bond chases or runs from henchmen, using up his toys one by one. There are explosions.]
BACKUP SEX PARTNER: Job well done. Join me in my lair.
BOND JAMES BOND: Way ahead of you. Do you like expensive booze?
Last weekend I finally watched Daniel Craig’s second James Bond film, Quantum of Solace after years of stalling due to unenthusiastic reviews. I’ve never been a big James Bond fan and, to be honest, have seen less than half the films — one Connery, a few Roger Moore, all the Brosnan ones except Goldeneye, and both Daniel Craig joints. So far, Casino Royale is the only one that I would rate above a B. That may be because Craig is less suave and sophisticated, more pragmatic, and definitely more bruised and bloodied. Not that I crave movie blood, but his Bond sweats and struggles more on the job than his pampered alternate-Earth predecessors did in my limited experience. Heroes spoiled rotten don’t appeal much to me. Batman may be rich, but you can tell he still has to put effort into what he does.
Perhaps it helps that Craig’s Bond seems less like traditional Bond and more like Jason Bourne — an unlikely hero who saves the day through determination, intense fist-fighting, handheld cameras, and smash-cuts into smash-cuts. Quantum of Solace seems brazen about its co-opting of the Bourne method. I didn’t mind at all until the action paused for character moments, few of which stacked up to the quiet moments and tense complications (exception: any and all uses of Dame Judi Dench). With half the movie sturdy and half of it wanting, Quantum didn’t quite find the same balance that director Paul Greengrass did in the second and third Bournes.
It remains to be seen, then, which of the upcoming spy films will rise above and bear the crown of the Bourne heir apparent. In this corner: Craig’s next Bond film, Skyfall:
This first teaser doesn’t offer nearly enough fluid fight samples for my taste, though that shadowy figure near the end is rumored to be special guest villain Javier Bardem. If anyone can grace us with a far more memorable presence than either of Craig’s last two opponents, Bardem is a safe bet.
In the other corner: The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner as a spiritual doppelgänger of Matt Damon.
Stars a-plenty in that one. Edward Norton! Rachel Weisz! Joan Allen! Albert Finney! Rhys Ifans! David Strathairn! And is that Zelkjo Ivanek? (Well, I thought it was him.) And I probably missed even more. The Alley-Swoop-Cam shot at the end shows promise, though it’s a wee derivative of the window-jump shot from The Bourne Ultimatum.
Despite the months separating their release dates, I look forward to the cage match.