Craig as Bond: A Retrospective

Film Fisher Blog

Craig as Bond: A Retrospective

With No Time to Die out today, Daniel Craig concludes a fifteen year long run playing James Bond, one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. Before the release of the new film, Travis Kyker and Timothy Lawrence revisited Craig’s four previous outings as Bond.

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KYKER: The James Bond franchise is one I’m not too familiar with – beyond the films we’re about to discuss, I’m not sure I’ve seen more than a couple odd entries here and there. So instead of placing Daniel Craig’s (soon to be) five-film run purely against the context of the franchise, I wonder if instead we should also do it against its contemporaries in the genre. You and I have talked before about our mutual admiration for grand, ambitious, and just plain entertaining blockbusters: big movies smart enough to know what they’re doing and nimble enough to actually do it. More specifically, we both have a real soft spot for multiplex films of the 2000s, which often had a real knack for balancing that line between access to unlimited cinematic resources and artistic awareness of the medium they were working in. It’s a nuance that seemed to fade around the turn of the decade, and, from my perspective, has yet to fully return.

The Daniel Craig Bond films are interesting in that they perfectly straddle that dividing line: Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace came out in ‘06 and ‘08, respectively, but Skyfall and Spectre didn’t arrive until ‘12 and ‘15. As we begin our discussion of the series with the first entry, Casino Royale, I’m curious whether you think it’s a shining example of what the 2000s blockbuster could be. Is there anything to distinguish it – from its predecessors in the franchise, sure – but also from the average popcorn flick that comes around every weekend? How does it shake/stir you on a first viewing, or a second, or a third? When the glory of the 1964 Aston Martin fades, is there anything else to keep you coming back?

LAWRENCE: My track record with Bond movies is also pretty spotty. My main memories of the franchise come from the marathons my grandfather would leave running on the television every Thanksgiving week when I was younger. I don’t know that I have seen more than four or five of the pre-Craig films all the way through, but I have probably seen most of them in pieces, broken up by commercial breaks (and probably censored to some extent).

As far as blockbusters of the 21st century go, though, you’re well aware that you’re preaching to the choir. Casino Royale doesn’t have much in common with the epic trilogies I love so dearly (Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars prequels, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean), but I’d say its cinematic craftsmanship and emotional range mark it as a product of its era in all the best ways. Its two closest analogues are Batman Begins, released the previous year, and Superman Returns, which preceded it by less than six months. All three of these films attempt to paint a definitive, comprehensive psychological portrait of a pop culture icon. Superman, Batman, and James Bond are ubiquitous household names; Batman Begins, Superman Returns, and Casino Royale tried to make them into emotionally realistic human beings, too.

Of course, Casino Royale has to reckon with the fact that an “emotionally realistic” James Bond would be a terrible, miserable person. There are at least two sorts of spy movies: those that make international espionage out to be fun, sexy, and exciting (Mission: Impossible and the like), and those that realistically depict it as the lonely, depressing life it must be (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and any other John le Carré adaptation). Casino Royale tries to have it both ways, and, somewhat miraculously, I think it succeeds. Somehow, it balances the thrilling set pieces and larger-than-life glamour so characteristic of the franchise with an inevitably tragic investigation of why James Bond is the way he is. The closing scene, which has Daniel Craig introducing himself for the first time as “Bond, James Bond,” is equal parts triumphant and hollow. “I knew you were you,” M tells him; Casino Royale is great because it makes us wish he didn’t have to be. It is fun, sexy, and exciting, but it is also almost unbearably sad, a sugar rush with a bitter aftertaste.

I would wager it’s the most deeply felt Bond movie by a mile, if not the only one with any real depth of feeling behind it, but what do you think? All of the subsequent Daniel Craig films have tried, with varying degrees of success, to follow the precedent set by Casino Royale – investing the action with personal stakes and trying to present some sort of cohesive moral and emotional arc for Bond. What’s your take on the way Casino Royale defines Bond’s character, and what do you make of the way Quantum of Solace tries to build on it?

KYKER: You hit the impressiveness of Casino Royale’s balancing act right on the head. It’s an admirably confident film; for every exhilarating action movie moment, there’s a tinge of acidic deflation to remind us exactly who we’re rooting for, and maybe turn that applause to sympathy. The film does a great job grounding Bond as this intensely physical character – in the carnal sense, yes, which is nothing new, but also painting him as a kind of mechanic agent of pure force. The opening chase sequence establishes this quite well – while his quarry runs and leaps gracefully from obstacle to obstacle, Bond tears through them in a bulldozer; when his target slips through narrow windows, Bond smashes through the wall. In the film, this immense physical strength is played against a kind of emotional, spiritual weakness; Bond’s abilities might make him near superhuman, but if so, that’s all he is. This tension between the body and the spirit makes up the thematic core of Casino Royale, and in doing so, as you inferred, it asks the question of what the things Bond does with his body would do to his soul.

The answer the film gives is, essentially, “Who said Bond has a soul?” Craig’s iteration of the character is painted as an almost otherworldly figure, an alive-yet-not-alive merchant of violence. In the film’s opening scene, Bond’s first target as a 00 agent asks, “How did you die?” He’s referencing the 00’s final step of going into deep cover, but also implying that their world of espionage trades on a kind of spiritual deprivation. The idea of Bond as pure, soulless matter is reinforced when a target leads him to Body World, a museum exhibit of human anatomy in varying states of deconstruction. The image seems to ask whether, once the skin and organs and muscle tissue are stripped back, there is anything else left.

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Bond’s arc in the film, then, is that consistent question: has he lost his soul? Can he get it back? That tension plays out through the character of Vesper, who in a previous film might have been relegated to the rote, sex-object “Bond girl,” but here occupies a significantly more substantial posture. I know you’ve talked before about the relationship Casino Royale builds between trust and spirit, how Bond lacks a soul because he is completely unable to trust anyone. It makes sense that none of the franchise’s previous entries felt the need to interrogate this friction, as the women in those films function primarily as ends to Bond’s desires. Vesper is perhaps the first time he is tempted to love a woman as opposed to merely lust after her, and this idea is crystallized when a clothed Bond joins her in the shower, not for sex, but to offer comfort. If he ever has a soul, it’s in this brief moment of baptismal vulnerability.

Of course, this fragile attempt at humanity can’t coexist with the inhumane life Bond leads. Near the end, the little sailboat he and Vesper share is the Spirit, buoying them above the water by virtue of their shared trust. When that trust is shattered by Vesper’s treachery, so is Bond’s soul – their spiritual boat sinks beneath the waves, and Vesper drowns. Bond’s tentative resignation from MI6, initiated because of her, is annulled. “Why should I need more time?” Bond replies coldly when M offers him the chance to grieve his loss before returning. “The bitch is dead.” He trusted someone once, and now he knows never to do it again.

You said above that Casino Royale is the only Bond film with a real depth of feeling, but if there’s an exception to be found I’d argue it’s Quantum of Solace. Traditionally the least respected of Craig’s installments, it really functions as more of an epilogue to Royale than a true continuation of the series. At its best, though, Solace is a furious, rage-fueled fever dream, and if its emotional range wants for nuance, it certainly makes up for it in its narrow but bitterly tangible expression of Bond’s anger and grief. After revisiting it last night I feel more vindicated than ever in my appreciation for it. Am I in good company on this one, or do you fall more in line with the masses?

LAWRENCE: You are in good company! I like Quantum of Solace a whole lot, even if I can see why others don’t. It’s an oddly paced and structured little film that lacks the polished finesse of its canonized predecessor. That jagged, unruly quality is exactly what I like about it, though. In terms of plot and emotion, Quantum of Solace is a footnote to Casino Royale, which is why it is probably doomed to be a footnote in Bond movie history. In terms of filmmaking, however, it is entirely its own unique, experimental thing.

You drew attention to the Casino Royale chase scene where Bond goes barreling mindlessly through walls, and the idea of Bond-as-freight-train gets a major workout in Quantum of Solace, which spends most of its runtime in the same kind of heedless, barely-controlled forward motion. It’s as if the film itself shares Bond’s unwillingness to sit still; apparently, it cuts so fast that the average shot lasts a mere 1.7 seconds. Usually, this frenetic, daring-you-to-get-a-headache style of editing would just exasperate me, but for whatever reason, I love it here. The car chase that starts the film could be my favorite Bond cold open; it’s like a thesis statement typed in all caps. Surely no other Bond movie is so unrelentingly experiential. I don’t think that visceral quality is simply aiming to provide cheap thrills, either; it gets us into Bond’s disoriented headspace, into his whirlpool of anger and grief. Quantum’s editing style recalls the jittery, faux-documentarian aesthetic that the Bourne franchise had popularized at the time, but where Jason Bourne movies cut quickly to create an illusion of realism – “Wouldn’t fights like these be chaotic in real life?” they ask – Quantum edits its action scenes to the point of abstraction. It doesn’t bring them down to earth, it elevates them, and never moreso than the incredible sequence in which a gunfight is intercut with a performance of Puccini’s Tosca. The violence is almost subliminally juxtaposed with the onstage, literally operatic performance of a woman stabbing her lover. What is this but an oblique expression of the film’s driving force, Bond’s grief over Vesper’s betrayal? To call Quantum of Solace “the arthouse James Bond movie” would be a bit much, perhaps, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth, either.

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Over and against this frenetic quality, the film’s moments of stillness are all the more striking. You mentioned the key scene in Royale where Bond tenderly cradles the traumatized Vesper in the shower – a scene repeated not once but twice in Quantum. First, Bond holds his dying friend Mathis in his arms, then unceremoniously drops his corpse in a dumpster. (Here is an extension of Royale’s “soulless matter” motif; in this cosmos, a dead body is just trash.) More pointedly, Bond cradles the traumatized Camille in a burning hotel room – a direct, elemental reversal of the earlier scene with Vesper. The watery, baptismal imagery of Royale gives way, in Quantum, to purgation by fire. Moreover, Camille’s role in the film is rather unusual for the franchise; like Vesper, she is not reduced to a sex object, but unlike Vesper, she is not even a love interest, exactly. She does not exist to gratify Bond’s desire but to prompt him to self-reflection. Her need to quench her grief with vengeance mirrors his.

From L to R: "Casino Royale" (2006), "Quantum of Solace" (2008)

From L to R: “Casino Royale” (2006), “Quantum of Solace” (2008)

In a kind of dark running joke, nearly every action sequence in the film ends with Bond killing his enemies, ruining M’s plans to bring them in for questioning. Ultimately, however, he finally harnesses his anger into something more controlled: he lets Greene live (after a fashion) and refrains from killing the man responsible for Vesper’s betrayal. I like Quantum of Solace because it is a sequel to Casino Royale in the same way that The Two Jakes is a sequel to Chinatown or 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love: in essence, it is an extended grieving process dealing with the tragic conclusion of its predecessor. Bond deals with his grief by going, going, going, until he finally burns himself out. “It would have to be a pretty cold bastard that didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved,” M suggests in the film’s first dialogue scene. By its last, Bond has become that cold bastard. He lets Vesper go, dropping her “love knot” necklace in the snow; he has unbound himself from love. Quantum of Solace doesn’t redeem James Bond so much as it refines him; it continues Casino Royale’s origin story by pressing him further into the mold of James Bond’s cold, dispassionate persona.

Quantum of Solace was not popular when it was released in 2008, and Skyfall certainly seems like an attempt at course-correction. It was certainly more warmly received; I remember many hailing it as the best Bond film ever made when it came out in 2012. What is it that you admire about Quantum of Solace? And, in light of that, what do you think about the different direction Skyfall took the franchise in?

KYKER: I’m glad we agree. Your “thesis statement in all caps” assessment is spot on, and nicely characterizes my affection for the film. Quantum of Solace doesn’t often operate with much subtlety, but it rides the high of thoughtful 2000’s blockbusters in spirit if not in letter.

MGM and co., however, were not as gracious as you and I. Skyfall is indeed a course correction, a reactionary diversion against the perceived sins of its predecessor. Where Quantum of Solace was jagged and aggressive, Skyfall is slick and accessible. Instead of Marc Forster’s hyper-cut action and acidic imagery, we get Sam Mendes’ dexterous, cool direction harmonized with Roger Deakins’ splendid visual palette. In Quantum of Solace, you can hardly take a breath without wincing; in Skyfall, every other moment seems calibrated to make you cheer. Not to say that that’s a bad thing! Fan service as a concept often gets a bad rap, and not entirely without reason – its tendency toward superficial pleasures at the expense of real depth is often, to me, more frustrating than satisfying – but here, for whatever reason, those gestures are wholly thrilling. Even if this isn’t my favorite Bond film, it’s invariably the one I have the most fun watching: details like the handprint gun, the Shanghai sequence, and the return of the Aston Martin don’t really mean anything beyond their own iconography, and yet it tempts you to ask if that’s really problematic. Must a Bond film be thematically significant? Is it not enough that he leap into the back of a disintegrating train car and pause to straighten his suit?

A provocative question, but I’ll cop out of it this time, since I think Skyfall does have more going for it than its immediate pleasures. I’m not huge on Mendes as a director (1917 and Road to Perdition are both formally serviceable but ultimately tepid, and neither left a lasting impression), so I wonder whether Skyfall may not be his best film in a few respects. Although it certainly marks an aesthetic departure from Quantum of Solace, the firm thematic continuity that connects the first two entries bridges these two as well. Skyfall therefore continues the spiritual precedent established in the series so far, shifting slightly away from the moral concerns relating to Bond and into more general ideas of death and violence. In many ways, it’s a kind of ghost story: Bond is “killed” in the first moments, shot and submerged in a river (this series loves its water imagery, and this film so much that it uses it twice), where the opening theme treats us to a nightmarish vision of weaponry, paranoia, and death. The foreboding, gloomy animations of knives and guns falling from the sky and turning into tombstones on impact might be a bit on the nose, but it still nicely underlines the conceit of the film, which becomes more doom-laden with each progressive development.

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By the time it’s worked up to that final set piece at the grim manor of Bond’s childhood – a thrillingly gloomy “defend the castle” shootout, Straw Dogs by way of Wuthering Heights – all the sleek tech and modernist trappings have been stripped away to conclude, of all places, among the ruins of an old stone chapel. In a beautifully conceived moment I’ll gladly give him credit for, Mendes merges the quasi-sacramental imagery of the first two films (water in Casino Royale and fire in Quantum of Solace), framing the burning estate behind Bond as he crosses (and plunges beneath) a frozen lake. Moments later, as the only person he has left to care for dies in his arms, it feels like the culmination of the series up to that point, underlining the desolation of a soul that can’t save itself or others no matter how many baptisms or trials by fire it endures. If Craig’s run had ended on this note, I’d call it a pretty fine trilogy.

LAWRENCE: I have a real soft spot for Skyfall. It was the first Bond film I saw in theaters, and I think I watched it nearly a dozen times on home video within a year of its release. All the same, compared to its two predecessors, I’m not sure I’d credit it with as much emotional and thematic weight as you do.

Before I start finding fault, though, let me praise the film for all that it does well. As you say, whether or not it really means anything, it is a splendidly satisfying ride. It may be more style than substance – but good heavens, what style! Thanks to Roger Deakins, it is almost certainly the best-looking blockbuster of its decade: steeped in shadows, yet shot through with lush colors. This is not one of those post-Chris Nolan movies that equate “monochrome” with “moody.” The skyscraper scene with the neon backdrop is so good the John Wick franchise is still ripping it off three movies in, and the finale with the burning manor is just breathtaking. I share your distaste for Mendes (I have a particular bone to pick with 1917), but he deserves a lot of credit here, too; over and over again, he finds the perfect balance between old and new, staging the proceedings with a deliberate, often old-fashioned glamour that never feels too self-consciously arty. Skyfall is very nearly the platonic ideal of this franchise’s particular brand of shallow romanticism.

Alas – as satisfying as the film is on the surface, I am a little disappointed whenever I try to dig deeper. To be sure, it gestures towards a continued exploration of Bond. As he ages, his body is beginning to fail him; what does this mean for a man whose identity is so thoroughly bound up in physicality? Much is made of how Bond is getting old until about halfway through, when Skyfall abandons this line of questioning almost completely and its hero gets back to doing all the fights and chases he would usually do. Sure, we go to his childhood home, but I am not convinced this really tells us anything new about him. It’s Backstory, which is not necessarily the same thing as character development.

I don’t find the film’s attempts to shift its emotional core to M especially compelling, either, and this despite the fact that Judi Dench is something of a national treasure in the role. M is simply not a well-rounded character so much as a type, a figure representing the “old guard.” I find the film most moving as a sort of vague but earnest expression of sentimental British conservatism; I’m thinking, in particular, of the Tennyson montage. When M recites Ulysses – “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven” – she is speaking for herself, and for the aging, potentially obsolete Bond, but also for the country they both love. (Am I wrong in saying that none of the other Craig films seem at all concerned with the character’s Britishness?)

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As you noted, the film concludes much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, with Bond tenderly cradling a woman he loves. I don’t find it quite as poignant as either of its predecessors, but it’s a beautifully staged moment, enriched by the parallel to previous films. The same cannot be said of Skyfall’s answer to Bond and Vesper’s shower scene. In Casino Royale, Bond joined Vesper in the shower to comfort her; for once, it was not about sex, but emotional vulnerability. There, both participants were fully clothed, and yet unveiled to one another in a profound way; here, the clothes are off, but there is no genuine intimacy. Only a few scenes later, Severine dies – wearing a red dress, like Vesper – and this time, Bond is indifferent, shrugging her death off with a quip. I would like to be convinced that this is a deliberate commentary on his character, but I see no indication that the film is at all interested in interrogating the way Bond relates to Severine. Unlike Vesper, she really is just a prop, a sex object, a device to move the plot along.

Even if the Severine subplot is intended as a critique of Bond, it doesn’t land that way because, for all its artful gloom, Skyfall is ultimately a celebration of its hero. Unlike Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, it stacks the deck in his favor; he’s the good guy here! Bond may be a desolate soul who loses the last person he cares about, but the final scene is pretty chipper. What seemed like a bittersweet farewell to an aging Bond actually ends with something more like, “Bond’s back, baby!”

You call Skyfall a ghost story; Spectre really ups the ante on that. It also seems to want to redeem Bond in some way, which is a bold move – a dramatic miscalculation, maybe, but I’m not sure. While I disliked the film (and panned it for FilmFisher) on its release, I’ve liked it a little more each time I’ve revisited it. What do you think?

KYKER: I remember leaving a soft spot for Spectre after my first viewing, but have wondered in the years since if that was actually deserved. Rewatching it now I’d still call it underrated, but perhaps in no stronger terms than that. It certainly lacks the precision of Skyfall or the teeth of Quantum, and though the rigorous thoughtfulness of Casino Royale was never quite replicated again, this is the first time the absence is really felt.

Part of that disappointment stems from a sense of wasted potential. Spectre opens with what may be the most thematically provocative kickoff of the series; “The dead are alive,” intones the title card, cutting to Bond in skeletal suit and mask tracking a target through teeming Day of the Dead celebrations. The continuity from Skyfall seems obvious, suggesting a relationship between the films similar to that of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Calling Spectre an epilogue, however, doesn’t feel quite right (and not least because it’s the longest entry of the bunch). Essentially, it doesn’t seem interested in concluding the argument begun in Skyfall – Bond as irreparable messenger of death, doomed to solitude as long as he haunts the UK’s newest enemy – so much as, like you said, trying to suddenly redeem him or provide a sense of catharsis. Not to say this idea is inherently misguided; it merely comes across as hasty and underdeveloped, especially in the context of what limited commentary the film does seem to be attempting.

The most interesting notion Spectre reinforces is Bond’s inability to reckon with his own actions. When Silva hacks MI6’s digital security in Skyfall, his mocking message is to “Think on your sins.” In Spectre, when Madeleine asks Bond how he’s sustained the life that he has – the life she watched destroy her father, and can’t endure the thought of leading herself – he replies, “I don’t stop to think about it.” This is his defining weakness, his belief that he can outrun his sins as long as he keeps moving, and in that sense, Spectre forms a kind of bookend with Casino Royale: Bond chooses not to have a soul, not to stop running, because it would come at the cost of accountability for everything he’s done. Spectre shows this condition as one which torments him, pulling him in two directions fundamentally opposed to one another. “Look, there are two of you. Two Jameses,” Madeleine says, watching him through transparent bed curtains in their hotel room. Intentional or not, the line reminded me of another scene where a French woman addresses her lover’s split nature: in the Redux cut of Apocalypse Now, Roxanne Sarrualt looks at Captain Willard through a similarly gauzy drape, musing “You see, there are two of you. One that kills and one that loves.” It’s true of Willard. Is it true of Bond? Can the latter ever prevail over the former?

From L to R: "Apocalypse Now" (1969), "Spectre" (2015)

From L to R: “Apocalypse Now” (1969), “Spectre” (2015)

There’s a sense in which Spectre doesn’t actually answer. In its final moments, Bond refuses to kill Blofeld (“the author of all his pain,” apparently) and instead resigns to begin a normal life with Madeleine, thus choosing the one who loves over the one who kills. It’s an interesting arc on paper, but somewhat clumsy in execution. Isolated to Spectre as a single film, the ending reads as hastily optimistic, a cop out from the context built up by the three preceding films. However, as a penultimate episode instead of a finale, it sets the stage rather well. Going into No Time to Die, there’s room for both a satisfying conclusion and integrity to the thesis of the series: the groundwork laid by Spectre allows for an ending which develops and refines the sense of optimism we’re left with, but at the same time, there’s also potential to reject the gesture Mendes makes here, realigning and ending the series with the same ideas that began it. There’s promise in either option: coherence or evolution. Let’s just hope they stopped to think about it.

LAWRENCE: Whatever its other virtues, Spectre never totally shakes an unfortunately first-draft-ish quality. As you noted, it can’t help feeling a little disappointing, not only in reference to its estimable predecessors but also in reference to its own lofty ambitions. Mendes and co. are noodling with some truly intriguing ideas – as the Day of the Dead opening sets up, Bond is drifting through a hazy purgatory of old ghosts, with Blofeld and Madeleine both needling him (pun intended) about the past he longs to escape – but I’d be hard-pressed to argue it follows through on them in an unqualifiedly satisfying manner.

Speaking of running, though, I greatly enjoy its languid pacing, a sort of flipside to the frantic energy of Quantum of Solace. While Casino Royale and Skyfall aim squarely at the bullseye of what a James Bond movie is expected to be, Quantum and Spectre are more willing to play fast and loose with the requirements of the franchise. The latter is a Bond film that could reasonably be described as elegiac, even a little contemplative. Nor is it an aesthetic rehash of Skyfall, as I initially thought; since that first viewing, I’ve become a great admirer of its lush, creamy, gauzy, golden palette, and of Hoyte van Hoytema’s shadows, which are even thicker and darker than Roger Deakins’. It’s nowhere near as satisfying – as far as I’m concerned, the train fight is the only action sequence that really lands – but I do like how Mendes slows everything down to luxuriate in the mood, and then adds odd little flourishes like Bond’s shoes floating serenely down into the top of the frame after he uses his ejector seat. I like Blofeld’s retro lair, which looks like it came straight out of a David Hockney painting, and I love his preposterously theatrical displays of villainy, with those hordes of faceless minions filling the shadows around him.

Then again, for as much mileage as the film gets out of darkness, its most intriguing scene is all blinding, searing white. On this viewing, I was struck by the fact that Spectre’s torture scene is a direct counterpoint to Casino Royale’s. Le Chiffre attacked Bond’s body; he attacked Bond as a physical, sexual being. For the James Bond of Casino Royale, to be rendered incapable of carnal relationship with a woman would be a fate worse than death, but Spectre has different priorities – Blofeld attacks Bond as a mind, a soul. “Of course, the faces of your women are interchangeable, aren’t they, James?” he taunts. “You won’t know who [Madeleine] is. Just another passing face on your way to the grave.” The great horror of Blofeld’s method of torture is that it will render Bond truly and utterly alone: able to have sex with a woman, presumably, but unable to have any meaningful, lasting relationship. The great, dark irony of the scene is that such a fate would be indistinguishable from the one Bond has carved out for himself. Across twenty-five films, over nearly six decades, what defines the character’s legacy more than the fact that he is constantly bedding women who then disappear from his life forever? Blofeld’s torture will only finish the work Bond has already been doing, the work he realizes – perhaps too late – that he wants to stop.

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If there was any doubt the two torture scenes were meant to be read against each other, Bond is saved from Blofeld by Madeleine – the daughter of Mr. White, the one who saved him from Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Bond is haunted by grief over the deaths of the only two women who ever truly knew him, Vesper and M, and Spectre takes great pains to frame Madeleine as the answer to that grief, as a second chance. The scene in which they engage in flirtation and mutual psychoanalysis over dinner on a train parallels Bond’s first meeting with Vesper; Madeleine also shares M’s initial. (“The dead,” as they say, “are alive.”) Vesper and Bond were both orphans, and by the time Bond meets her, Madeline is an orphan, too. Her grief over her father interlinks with Bond’s grief over M, his surrogate mother. They’re meant for each other, like a couple of human jigsaw puzzle pieces! On paper, it’s all very neat – perhaps a bit too neat – but in practice, when Bond has to say the words “I love you,” they don’t land. The film really does not want us to see Madeleine as “just another Bond girl,” but it doesn’t quite manage to make her a plausible human being, either. (She’s not there solely to gratify Bond’s sexual desire – she’s there to meet his psychological needs, too!)

Like Camille in Quantum of Solace, Madeleine spurs Bond to reflect on himself and the line of work he is in. “This is who you are,” she says to Bond, echoing M’s line from Casino Royale – “I knew you were you.” Coming from M, the declaration had a sort of bitter triumph to it. She was his boss, after all, and he was good at the work she needed him for. Coming from Madeleine, though, it is a disappointed lament. Because Bond is Bond, she cannot be with him… unless, of course, Bond could stop being Bond. Spectre concludes on an odd, inconclusive, contradictory note. James Bond leaves MI6 behind, presumably to go live a normal life with Madeleine – in his Aston Martin, as the classic 007 theme song blares! The film plays this like a happy ending, but who is convinced? The end credits promise that “James Bond will return.” If he was really happy, he wouldn’t.

So, who is Bond? Which of the two Jameses is he? The contradiction runs so deep I cannot really fault Spectre for answering “Both,” and while this may be an unsatisfying answer, I cannot really imagine No Time to Die coming down conclusively on one side or the other, either. The way Craig plays him, cynicism and romanticism are equally indispensable facets of who James Bond is. He can never stop killing, but he can never stop loving (or trying to love), either. That’s who he is. That’s who he’s running away from. I don’t know if he will ever stop.

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