Friday, 24 July 2015

24/07/15 - Craig, Bond, Spectre, etc

Daniel Craig is the best James Bond.

OK, I’ll just let that statement sink in for a moment. A lot of you won’t agree. The issue of who the best Bond is starts all sorts of arguments – it’s like debating whether Dylan was better acoustic or electric, or that important issue Andrex raised with their ‘Scrunch or Fold?’ campaign. There’s no right answer, just groups of people who care more about one answer above all other options, reasonable or otherwise.
Many people would say that Sean Connery was the archetypal Bond – the original and best. He certainly had a great accent and a very expressive set of eyebrows. But such people receive withering looks from the Roger Moore fans when they say this, as the Moore-ites are pretty die-hard. You get a smattering of Timothy Dalton enthusiasts (who are wrong, obviously), as well as the sardonic smartarses who claim that George Lazenby played the role in the most superior way (c’mon though, he was wearing a bloody cardigan). I always used to assert that Pierce Brosnan was the best one – I love Bond films and, while I have a keen appreciation for the classics, the Brosnan-era movies came out when I was growing up so they had the most resonance for me; OK, his later ones weren’t that great, but that wasn’t Brosnan’s fault, and GoldenEye is one of the best films ever. Not just 007 films, but all films. Try and disagree, see what happens. Yeah? You’ll get a stolen EuroCopter Tiger all up in your grill.

Daniel Craig, however, is a game-changer. Whereas Bonds of old always had a slightly camp and tongue-in-cheek quality, the modern 007 is much darker, more brooding, more intense. There’s a massive build on his back-story, probably brought on by an increasing discomfort among the cinematic community with 007’s penchant for shagging anything that moves, killing without remorse, and generally coming across as a bit of a smiling bastard. Craig’s Bond justifies the bastard, explains him, lets you in on an emotional level, trades smirks for intensity.
Look at Casino Royale, his first outing in the role. That is just a brilliant movie – so much happens in it! – and it neatly undoes the strangeness of the original. (What original? Well, Casino Royale was a 2006 remake of the 1967 film of the same name; a quite-shit quasi-parodic comedy loosely based on Fleming’s first James Bond novel. David Niven plays 007. It is not good.)
Bond’s character develops immensely in this film; whereas he’d always basically been the same one-dimensional spy in the older films, occasionally falling in love or expressing remorse but generally just playing to type, this is the film where we see him as a complex person. He’s fallible, emotional, haunted by demons… and yet unstoppable, irrepressible, ineffably charming.

Quantum of Solace builds on the genius of Casino Royale by firstly being a direct sequel to it (doesn’t happen a lot in the 007 franchise, continuity has always been a malleable entity), and also by being very cleverly made. It sees Bond pursuing personal rather than professional vendettas, becoming increasingly disenchanted and less interested in self-preservation beyond the pursuit of vengeance itself, and it’s artfully constructed to be a modern-era Bond film stuffed with classic cinematic cues: the Douglas DC-3 plane you see in the flight sequence is a vintage icon, the set designs are clearly influenced by Goldfinger and Thunderball – and Bond is deliberately crafted to reveal his dark, grotesque, human side.

It’s Skyfall, however, that is Daniel Craig’s tour de force. It’s genuinely one of the greatest films ever made. And not in that flippant way that I said GoldenEye was earlier, but really, truly. It’s just so beautifully put together – it follows the classic Bond film format to a degree, but takes it to a far, far darker place. Consider all that happens in the film – here’s the plot in a nutshell [caution: spoilers]: James Bond and Eve Moneypenny are trying to recover a stolen hard drive containing the identities of a number of undercover MI6 agents. Eve accidentally shoots Bond, everyone assumes he’s dead, and he disappears.
After the incident, M comes under pressure from above and is encouraged to retire. Then her office blows up and several agents die. Bond learns of the attack and returns to London – he’s out of shape and fails the physical & mental aptitude tests, but M sweeps it under the rug and reinstates his 00 status.
He follows the hard drive thief to Shanghai and kills him, finding a gambling chip among his possessions that leads him to a casino in Macau. The trail then leads to an abandoned island where he’s captured by ex-MI6 agent Raoul Silva, who’s become a cyber-terrorist. Bond brings him in, but it turns out that this was Silva’s plan all along, and he escapes into the Underground tunnels beneath London, eager to carry out his plan to kill M.
Bond whisks M away to Skyfall, his childhood home in Scotland, telling Q to leave an electronic trail to lead Silva up there. Bond and M meet up with Kincade, Skyfall’s gamekeeper, and together they booby-trap the house and wait. Silva turns up with hordes of gun-toting bastards and a big fuck-off helicopter, all kinds of explosions happen, Silva corners M and implores her to kill them both by putting a bullet through their heads; Bond kills Silva and… a massive and horrifying twist closes the narrative. I won’t give it away here (despite, er, just giving away everything else that happens – some things are sacred).
The thread that runs through all of this is that the plot simply wouldn’t work without the darkness that Daniel Craig brings to the role. Brosnan would have smirked too much. Connery would have tried to throw in a bit of slapstick. Modern Bond films are brilliantly written and brilliantly produced, and it all centres around how brilliantly Daniel Craig has made 007 human.

What’s most important about the way Craig plays Bond is that he’s doing it the way Ian Fleming intended. For the sake of box-office sales, Connery’s Bond was inherently sanitised and diluted; charm and cheekiness were dialled in to make the protagonist seem lovable, endearing, aspirational. Every subsequent Bond built on this caricature. But Craig’s Bond strips it down to first principles and rebuilds it from scratch to highlight the one key facet of his character that should have been at the forefront the whole time: while he’s a professional killing machine and a cold-hearted patriot, it’s most important to remember that he’s a bit of a shit. A troubled and misunderstood shit, but a shit nonetheless. Craig does this masterfully. I can’t wait for Spectre.

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