What the final film in the Daniel Craig era can learn from past mistakes.
Daniel Craig recently announced on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that, yes, he would be doing the 25th James Bond film, and, yes, it would be his last go. Spectre was assumed to be Daniel Craig’s last turn as 007, but the reception to the film left him cold. Craig’s return is a pleasant surprise, but one more film might not be the farewell party he hopes for. Especially since the last entries haven’t been kind to the men who play Bond. From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, every actor who’s played Bond has suffered from the incremental absurdity that plagues sequels. As we ponder what direction a 25th Bond film will go, it’s worth addressing the franchise’s reliance on upping the stakes.
Here we look at how each of the eras of James Bond ended. In many cases, it didn’t go well.
Sean Connery, for many, is the definitive James Bond, but those same fans wouldn’t acknowledge Diamonds are Forever when building a tribute. Set against the sleaze of Vegas in the 70s, Bond is a shell of his former self as he goes against Blofeld once more, who is this time pretending to be Howard Hughes knock-off, Willard Whyte. Bond races against the clock to stop Blofeld’s latest scheme, diamond-powered satellite lasers. A far cry from the political adventures from Connery’s early days. The whole project feels rather ugly, and not just for leading off with Bond torturing women for information, but the cheap sheen of the finished product. Bond films should be glamorous, Diamonds are Forever looked like a cheap exploitation flick. And the less said about Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wynt, the better. Sean Connery was sleepwalking through the proceedings and so was most of the audience. As it was announced that Sean Connery would be Bond no longer, everyone agreed it was best to move on.
Roger Moore, the man who played Bond longest, didn’t fare any better. Moore rediscovered his vigor with For Your Eyes Only, but, sadly, that was two films prior. By A View to a Kill, Moore looked every bit of his 57 years. While Duran Duran and snowboarding may have suited Timothy Dalton, Moore couldn’t quite cut it in a film aimed at a younger generation. Christopher Walken and Grace Jones were the only actors exhibiting any sort of energy, making Moore’s lethargy much more noticeable. He, like Connery, was mailing it in by his final entry. Moore later went on record saying “I was horrified on the last Bond I did. Whole slews of sequences where Christopher Walken was machine-gunning hundreds of people. I said ‘That wasn’t Bond, those weren’t Bond films.’ It stopped being what they were all about. You didn’t dwell on the blood and the brains spewing all over the place.” Certainly not the farewell Roger Moore was hoping for.
Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films started with the relatively grounded Goldeneye, but every successive flick escalated the over-the-top antics of 007, eventually turning off even the most ardent fans of escapism. Between the white-facing of a North Korean villain, an invisible car, and Madonna as a fencing instructor, James Bond never seemed as ridiculous than he did in Die Another Day. A bit of tongue-in-cheek humor has always been a staple of 007, but this was verging on the camp value of a John Waters flick. Like Connery and Moore before him, Brosnan’s last film is his worst film, and maybe even the worst in the series. When Eon and Sony decided to reboot the character, it came as little surprise.
Four years later, Casino Royale brought the stakes lower–much lower–for Daniel Craig’s debut. If Bond wins a poker tournament, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is arrested and his plot is foiled.
If Bond loses, “the British government will be directly responsible for funding terrorism.” Casino Royale put James Bond in a world we recognized that tore down the mythos of James Bond while following his learning curve. It made him sweat, it made him bleed, and it let audiences in on what made him tick. Craig’s Bond wasn’t afraid to feel, which gave audiences the chance to watch actual character development for the first time in several decades. Quantum of Solace broke Bond down further by having him deal with Vesper’s (Eva Green) death. Then Skyfall built him up again by confronting Bond with his fear of loss, only to reveal his resiliency. At Skyfall’s end, Craig serves as the amalgamation of Bond in Fleming’s novels and the string of movie Bonds.
Which builds a stepping-off point for a fourth Craig film: How do you top Skyfall? Well, you shouldn’t. Bigger rarely means better, despite the insistence of studio math. Going for heavy spectacle didn’t pan out for Sean Connery, Roger Moore, or Pierce Brosnan. Alas, the trend of escalation continued for Craig too. Spectre was bloated and thematically unnecessary. Forced to give Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) relevance in a timeline where S.P.E.C.T.R.E. didn’t exist, the writers tied the entire run of villains together, making Le Chiffre, Mr. White, Greene, Silva, and Vesper agents of Blofeld. Their sole purpose? To bring down James Bond. If that creative decision made suspending disbelief arduous, the constant call-backs to other films made it impossible. Watching Spectre, one could check-off references like a bingo card. Swiss mountain clinic like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Check. A train fist-fight like From Russia with Love? Check. A stylish, yet highly-combustible supervillain hang out like You Only Live Twice? Check. The only original moment from Spectre came from the Mexico City opening, it’s not a coincidence that the film only went downhill after that.
The other issue with Spectre lies with the ending. Previous Craig films made it a point to avoid ending with Bond with a lady on his arm walking into the sunset. Here, Bond has finished all his business with MI6 and, from appearances, intends on taking Madeline (Lea Seydoux) off into a new future. Without calling back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again, it’s difficult to see how Bond could be brought back into the fold. Even if the filmmakers just ignore the end of Spectre as so many Bond films have before, bringing back Blofeld severely limits the storytelling options. Blofeld has escaped time and time again, is it really necessary to repeat that experience? The worst part of Spectre was arguably when the once-vulnerable Craig did an about-face and became an invincible killing machine to escape from Waltz’ desert compound. Recreating that scenario a second time around will only be worse.
This isn’t to say that Spectre guarantees that Craig’s next film will be as dismal, but it did resemble a stumble of sorts for Craig, who has at least two of the best films under his belt (Casino Royale and Skyfall). While the 2015 film touched on the very current paranoia of worldwide surveillance, it also recreated a plot twist from Austin Powers: Goldmember. Turning Bond and Blofeld into Austin Powers and Dr. Evil counterparts should reasonably be the worst to expect, but with writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade on board–the same men that wrote Die Another Day–anything is possible. The opportunity for Craig to redeem himself is exciting, yet the prospects of his finale being of the same quality as his first and third entries are dim. For a man who restored the luster to a franchise that had lost its shine in the 90s, Craig deserves a better send-off. Give him a chance to break the curse that Connery, Moore, and Brosnan couldn’t.
The formula that drives James Bond films still works. Exotic locations, mind-blowing gadgets, gorgeous women, indestructible henchmen, and grandstanding villains have brought audiences back for 55 years. It’s understandable that the brain trust behind 007 keeps revisiting these threads. What’s not understandable is reproducing the same mistakes when it’s still possible to tell fresh stories. What if Bond were to operate under tainted orders from a rogue MI6? What if Bond were on the run from other double-0s? Either scenario would make for an interesting premise, but filmmakers seem content to tread old ground over and over. Or worse yet, doubling down on the excessive frills of egomaniacal madmen, world-ending lasers, and other ridiculousness that turns one of cinema’s most respected properties into a parody of itself.
The spectacle of James Bond will always be popular, but if Bond 25 resorts to the same exaggerated lunacy that plagues every previous 007 actor’s finales, it might be time to say goodbye, not just to Daniel Craig as Bond, but to the franchise itself.
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