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Friday, September 11, 2020

What I Learned Watching All of Daniel Craig's James Bond Movies

Partially in preparation for No Time To Die, partially because we are still in the middle of a pandemic and I am bored, and partially because Netflix has Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace to view and I'm a completionist, I recently watched all four of Daniel Craig's James Bond movies: 2006's Casino Royale, 2008's Quantum of Solace, 2012's Skyfall, and 2015's Spectre. I had seem them all before, some of them multiple times, but never in subsequent order back-to-back. 2020 is the year for me watching consecutive franchise films (I started the year watching all Marvel movies in chronological order (from the story's perspective) and have since moved on to watching all 8 Harry Potter films and even saw the first four Pirates of the Caribbean movies). Again, pandemic. Overall, I enjoy all 4 James Bond movies, if not for different reasons. Casino Royale and Skyfall are still the consensus top two and best films out of these four, but I also enjoyed Quantum of Solace and Spectre despite the consensus panning them. I am not a fan of the franchise as whole (it's not like I dislike it or anything, I just haven't seen Bond movie that didn't star Craig or Pierce Brosnan), but I am a movie fan, and these are my thoughts on Daniel Craig's Bond films.

Four years since Pierce Brosnan suited up to play James Bond, the Broccoli family (the producers of the Bond movies) hired Daniel Craig to play the character and rebooted the franchise with Casino Royale. Based on Ian Fleming's book of the same title, it was the perfect film to start over. The 1967 version technically is not a part of the James Bond movie canon and the film was able to capitalize on the online Texas Hold 'Em craze at the time (The mid-2000's were weird man). The film was a gritty, more self-serious take on James Bond which fit perfectly for the era. This was two years before Iron Man was released and so Marvel's light-hearted, rose-colored look at action movies had not taken hold yet, and Casino Royale was released a year after Christopher Nolan's gritty, dark, humorless first take on Batman was praised. We have Mike Myers to thank for this current iteration of James Bond. As Daniel Craig said, "I am huge Mike Myers fan, so don't get me wrong- but he kind of fucked us." Thanks to the wild success of the Austin Powers movies, a direct rip off of the campy early James Bond films, it was hard for these newer Bond films to be humor-filled and campy as well. They needed to distance themselves from the Austin Powers films. Luckily, it worked. 

All four Bond films have the same serious and stylistic feel to them. This is thanks to Martin Campbell's vision in Casino Royale. The film sees James Bond as a "blunt instrument" (as Judy Dench's M calls him) learning how to become a better and sneakier spy. Still widely considered the best Bond film of all time, Royale shoots out of the gate like a bat out of hell with an incredible chase sequence through Uganda where Bond chases an acrobatic parkour expert (again, the mid-2000's man. Parkour!) through a construction site. The film has other exciting action set pieces in them, and surprisingly, the Texas Hold 'Em tournament held by Le Chiffre is just as entertaining and exhilarating. Casino Royale lucked out in a way casting Mads Mikkelsen to play Le Chiffre. Obviously Mikkelsen nailed the audition process and was an excellent heavy in the film, but he would later go on to play an all-time great TV and movie bad guy thanks to his work in Doctor Strange and as the titular character on TV's Hannibal. His work post Bond only helps to solidify the rewatchability of the film. 

Casino Royale smartly played on old James Bond tropes and played into the fact that this is a reboot and an early version of the Bond character. We see Bond struggle to earn his first kill, and instead of ordering a dry martini, he orders three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half measure of Kina Lillet, shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. As turns out when I had my 21st birthday at a T.G.I. Fridays, not an easy order to come by. 

This version of Bond is also more vulnerable which leads him to fall in love with the film's Bond girl, Eva Green's Vesper Lynd. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when it turns out Lynd is a double agent and steals all the money that Bond won at Le Chiffre's poker tournament in order to pay the ransom off for her kidnapped boyfriend. Lynd dies at the end of the film which hardens James Bond and brings him one step closer to the known character of the franchise past. Even after Lynd is revealed to be a double agent, Bond still wants his contact Rene Mathis to be questioned and tortured as well leaving M to say, "You don't trust anyone, do you James?". 

There's not a lot of say about Casino Royale because it was praised at the time and rightfully so. The set pieces are excellent, Bond jet sets around the world spending a lot of time enjoying the gorgeous landscapes of Montenegro and Venice, Bond still dresses well and drives an Aston Martin, we still get a "Bond, James Bond" uttered, we're introduced to CIA's Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and the spy aspects are still perfectly Bond. Even the aspects that make it a bookmark for 2006 like poker and parkour still feel fine, even if you're part of a younger (or older) generation that wouldn't remember why they were in the film in the first place. 

Quantum of Solace
 takes place literally where Casino Royale leaves off. After Vesper dies, Bond tracks down Vesper's contact for the ransom, Mr. White. The end of Casino Royale finds Bond meeting up with Mr. White and Quantum of Solace begins with an excellent car chase scene throughout the gorgeous mountains of Italy where the audience discovers at the end that Bond has Mr. White in his trunk. While questioning Mr. White, we learn that he's a part of a criminal organization called Quantum which has agents everywhere, including M's bodyguard. The bodyguard ends up getting killed by Bond, but Mr. White escapes. This leaves MI6 to track money the bodyguard transfers to an account, where the funds were withdrawn from in Haiti. This leads Bond to meet up with Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and the plot of the film truly begins. 

Roger Ebert, seemingly a fan of the franchise, had this to say about Quantum of Solace:

In "Quantum of Solace" [Bond] will share no cozy quality time with the Bond girl
. We fondly remember the immortal names of Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp and Plenty O'Toole, who I have always suspected was a drag queen. In this film, who do we get? Are you ready for this? Camille. That's it. Camille. Not even Camille Squeal. Or Cammy Miami. Or Miss O'Toole's friend Cam Shaft...

Why is [Bond] in Bolivia? In pursuit of a global villain, whose name is not Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Dax or Le Chiffre, but... Dominic Greene. What is Dominic's demented scheme scheme to control the globe? As a start, the fiend desires to corner the water supply of... Bolivia. Ohooo! Nooo! This twisted design, revealed to Bond after at least an hour of death-defying action, reminds me of the famous laboratory mouse who was introduced into a labyrinth. After fighting his way for days through baffling corridors and down dead ends, finally, finally, parched and starving, the little creature crawled at last to the training button and hurled his tiny body against it. And what rolled down the chute as his reward? A licorice gum ball.

Dominic Greene lacks a headquarters on the moon, or on the floor of the sea. He operates out of an ordinary shipping warehouse with loading docks. His evil transport is provided by fork lifts and pick up trucks. Bond doesn't have to creep out on the ledge of an underground volcano to spy on him. He just walks up to the chain-link fence and peers through. Greene could get useful security tips from Wal-Mart.

There is no Q in "Quantum of Solace," except in the title. No Miss Moneypenny at all. M now has a male secretary..."

I think about this review a lot, because for as smart of a man as Roger Ebert was, this is a really dumb and uncritical view of the film. For starters, Ebert isn't criticizing the movie for what it is, but what he wants it to be, which is the worst and laziest form of criticism. This new Bond isn't trying to be super nostalgic and have nods to its previous films, not yet at least. This franchise introduces Moneypenny and Q into its next film, Skyfall, and does so gracefully to fit the themes of that movie. I wouldn't want those characters shoe-horned into Quantum of Solace. And does the name of the villain really matter? If Dominic Greene's name was Senior Googlyfarm Evilpants, would that have made the film better? Additionally, for all the talks of the "normal" name of the Bond girl, Bond does fuck a girl named Strawberry Fields in the film. 

I enjoyed Quantum of Solace because of its set pieces and its beautiful locales. I'm pretty basic when it comes to my Bond action movies. I get that this is not everybody's bag, and again, I'm nowhere close to being a fan of this franchise, but I enjoyed the time I spent watching Solace. When I saw this film (and frankly all of these Bond films the first time), the exposition is done rather quickly and in British accents that sometimes I often lose track of why James Bond is where he is and why he's doing what he's doing. That's why I've often just enjoyed the films for its action and locations. 
But the film always provides valid connective tissue. I had to rewind once or twice, but the film does go into detail to connect everything and overtly tells you how everything tracks. All four of Daniel Craig's Bond films uses solid logic to get Bond from one scene and one locale to another, and for that I appreciate it. A lot of action movies, especially nowadays, drop the ball on this.

Further, I enjoyed Amalric's take on Dominic Greene. I think he's a fun,
charismatic heavy. I also liked Kurylenko's Camille and thought she paired just fine with James Bond. The theme of the film is getting over tragic loss and death, and Camille's plan for revenge against Bolivia's General Medrano paired well with Bond still struggling to get over the death of Vesper Lynd, and how revenge offers little relief, or a quantum of solace. The title of the film is a double entendre of this theme and the secret organization Quantum that Bond stumbles across. It's a dumb title for sure, but for all of Ebert's clinging to past films, I don't know why he's upset at this for a franchise that called previous films You Only Live TwiceThe Living Daylights, and Tomorrow Never Dies. This is not a franchise known for amazing film titles. 

The only thing I do think Roger Ebert does correctly nail about this film- and since he was so spot on about this issue, I don't know why he couldn't have taken a second to let his anger pass and write a more nuanced and thoughtful review- is that Greene's plan is a dumb one, and the film takes his plan much more seriously and gives it higher stakes than it deserves. Greene is an agent for Quantum and uses their power to overthrow the current Bolivian government so that General Medrano can be in charge so that he will agree to buy water from Quantum for double the price. I get that Greene is tied to M's bodyguard who tried to kill M and Bond, and eventually Greene does supply Bond with valuable information about Quantum in the end, but the plot mechanics to get there are shaky at best.

As I've said repeatedly, I enjoyed 
Quantum of Solace, though the movie was not a critical success. Since the franchise was already pretty self-serious, and films were now entering an era where excellent directors were making excellent and artful blockbuster action movies, the Broccoli family tapped Oscar winning director Sam Mendes to direct its next film, Skyfall. With him, Mendes brought his frequent collaborator Roger Deakins, now a two-time Oscar winner and one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. The movie also brought in Javier Bardem to play the film's villain, a man who at that time had just won an Academy Award for playing an all-time great villain, No Country For Old Men's Anton Chigurh. The Bond franchise bought heavy-hitting ringers and was rewarded with another excellent film and another contender for the best movie in the franchise. 

The collaboration between Mendes and Deakins shows in the final product. It's slick, sexy, and cool. While James Bond is in a fight with an assassin on the top floor of a building in Hong Kong, Deakins uses the light from the neon sign flashing outside the building to light the room, though many times our principal fighters are fighting in the shadows (a literal representation where many characters say that we need to (symbolically) fight) we never lose sight of the action. About halfway through the film, the audience is introduced to Bardem's Raoul Silva. He enters the room in the background and slowly and creepily moves towards Bond (who is hiding in the foreground of the shot) while telling a monologue about two rats fighting on an island. It's masterful film making. 

The film does give franchise fans like Robert Ebert what they want. It introduces Q, played by Ben Whishaw who looks barely old enough to be a college graduate, because of course a tech genius in 2012 would be a young kid and not an 81 year old man like Desmond Lleweyn's Q in GoldenEye. Q's age and mindset pairs well 
with the theme of the film of the old versus the new. Q proclaims that he can do more in a morning than Bond can do out in the field for an entire year, and after the opening scene where Bond and M let a list of all of MI6's secret agents fall into the wrong hands, M spends the film justifying her and the organization's existence in this new world. 

As excellent as Skyfall is and for as much as it deserves to be praised (Ebert gave the film 4 stars), it does show how unfair, or at least uncritical, the reviews of Quantum of Solace were. Skyfall doesn't have a Bond girl (it briefly introduced sex slave Severine who James Bond appears to fuck without a condom which seems like the most dangerous thing Bond has ever done throughout these past 25 films, and then the film promptly kills her), the only gadgets Q give Bond are a gun that only the secret agent can shoot and a radio transmitter (both of which smartly come into play later in the film, but, you know, aren't the "cool" gadgets of past films), and while it does have Moneypenny, it doesn't introduce her as such until the very end. I also don't know how much the name Raoul Silva is to Blofield, Goldfinger or 
Senior Googlyfarm Evilpants. 

Like with Casino Royale, I don't have a lot to say about Skyfall just because of how excellent in quality it is. O
bviously, a movie directed by Sam Mendes and shot by Roger Deakins is going to be quality work. Skyfall works as a stand alone Bond film while also bringing the franchise closer to the nostalgia of its previous iterations that fans like Roger Ebert claim they want. I phrase it this way because a lot of times fans claim they want the films and scenes and characters of their past, but often times when it's actually given to them, they complain. The complaints are often justified, but only because it's impossible to deliver on what fans think they want. Especially considering fans like the idea of something over the materialization of the idea. This concept becomes clearer in Spectre.

While Ebert was not alive or well-enough to review Spectre, it gave the fans what they claimed they wanted, and the fans promptly rejected it. Like all of Daniel Craig's Bond films, I enjoyed Spectre as it's still a Sam Mendes feature (although the film was shot by excellent, but seemingly perennial back-up choice and awesomely-named Hoyte van Hoytema), but I think its flaws come into play as a result of the film trying to retcon the future in with the past. 
Dave Bautista plays Mr. Hinx, a character seemingly heavily influenced by Oddjob, all-time great movie villain actor Christoph Waltz plays iconic Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofield and gets the iconic face scar in the film, and the movie, as the title suggests, gives us the criminal organization Spectre. The movie even gives Bond a Q created stereotypical Bond car. But where the film mainly fails is its poor attempt to stitch this new franchise into the old. Blofield states he's responsible for Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva as Spectre controls all, but it doesn't fit with what we saw in the previous three films. From the get go, producer Kevin Fiege made sure all Marvel movies connected (as best as they could) and really tried to make the films like a TV show. As Marvel films became the biggest films in the world, we saw other franchises tried to follow-suit, mainly the DC Justice League films and the new Star Wars movies. It seems as if Bond was trying to do the same, but since the Broccoli family didn't plan this out from the beginning (and didn't have the foresight to do so in 2006) forcing Spectre plot points into Craig's Bond franchise as a whole was not successful.

Luckily, Waltz is barely in Spectre as the main heavy throughout most of the film is actually Mr. Hinx (I do think THIS was purposeful as I think the producers had more plans for Blofield in the sequel(s) and Waltz is listed as a major player on IMDb for No Time To Die) so the Blofield plot holes didn't bother me as much. From what I've seen anecdotally, a major reason for Spectre's non-successful critical response was that it was boring. I can understand that, as the lack of a climatic and suspenseful third act a la Josh Trank's Fantastic Four doesn't help its case, but again, the film does give us some entertaining set pieces like the oner to begin the film in Mexico City (and of course the rest of the scene as well) and a snowy car vs. airplane chase sequence in Austria. I do find the movie propulsive, even if the propulsion isn't as strong as it could be. 
And again, like all of Craig's Bond films, the action tracks; the connective tissue is strong.

Spectre also suffers from having a lack of a strong theme. Casino Royale was all about Bond learning to be a spy as opposed to just a "blunt instrument". Quantum of Solace is about overcoming grief and revenge (even if it's execution wasn't all there). Skyfall is all about the new world taking over the old way of life. I think Spectre tries to piggyback off of this idea of old vs. new with C (Andrew Scott) shutting down the Double Oh program, but the film quickly dispatches with this idea and moves on to other plot points. 

It'll be interesting to see where No Time To Die takes the franchise. The two times Daniel Craig's Bond movies have been successful are the times it told a stand-alone story. Casino Royale was obviously a self-contained story (it didn't have anything else to go off as it was the first reboot) and Skyfall was a first in the sense that it set the stage for these new Bond films to become like the old. This is compared to Quantum of Solace and Spectre which feel like direct sequels to its immediate predecessor (I know they are all literal sequels, but Skyfall feels more like its own thing than a sequel, do you know what I mean?). Now that the franchise has set its world solidly in the realm of classic canon, will be successful or will it try to please both die hard fans and everyday common movie goers, and fail at both? We will have to soon see.