It’s difficult to remember now, but Daniel Craig was once considered an unusual, even a dubious choice for the role of James Bond. He didn’t look the part, as audiences had come to know it over the decades. His hair was blonde, and he reportedly refused to dye it darker. He was handsome, but in a colder, more alien way—his features tight and narrow, his eyes an icy blue. He almost had more in common, physically, with Robert Shaw in the second-ever Bond movie, From Russia With Love. Back in 2006, in the wake of his casting, you could much more easily picture Craig as the remorseless bad guy, especially if you had seen Road To Perdition, where he played one.
Of course, almost every actor that’s slipped into the tuxedo since Sean Connery vacated it (and then vacated it again, and then once more with feeling) has faced some preliminary skepticism. But has any silenced it as decisively as Craig has? No Time To Die, which opened today in theaters all around the world, marks his fifth and final turn as Bond. He’s been playing 007 for 15 years now—longer, in other words, than anyone before him (unless one counts that second time Connery returned to the role, in the early 1980s, after a decade away from it). To plenty of fans, Craig is Bond.
The Bond movies starring him haven’t all been great. In fact, only two of the five have been especially good: the impossibly cool origin story Casino Royale, which introduced Craig as a younger, tougher, less polished version of MI6’s finest, and the seductively sinister Skyfall, with its smart meditation on the legacy of the character and its jaw-dropping Roger Deakins imagery. As a whole, however, the Craig Bonds pretty neatly accomplished what every cycle of this series has attempted but only sporadically achieved: They brought Bond into a new era, updating his appeal without radically altering it.
You don’t have to squint hard to see the event-movie trends the new Bond films strained, often successfully, to emulate. Christopher Nolan looms heavily over them, his Batman movies informing the gritty, more grounded Bond Begins reboot strategizing of Casino Royale and the operatic sweep (and crazed-villain scheming) of Skyfall. But this franchise-within-the-franchise was also built in the mold of modern serialized blockbusters, some version of what Marvel was doing across town. Where once every new Bond film was a soft reboot—a standalone adventure, even when the lead wasn’t recast—these sequels all lead into each other, picking up where the one before left off. They want to tell a whole story, even if it hasn’t always been clear what that story is.
For a while, it looked like a tragic character arc. What we seemed to be watching, in Casino Royale, was the making of an icon, and maybe the transformation of a flesh-and-blood man into a killing machine of the empire. The Bond we meet in that first movie isn’t the same old Bond. He’s not so refined yet—a brute in a suit is still a brute. He crashes through walls like a wrecking ball, the “blunt instrument” Ian Fleming described. He does not care how you prepare his martini. And yet for all his savagery (there’s almost no traces of Roger Moore playfulness in Craig’s performance), this Bond has hot blood pumping through his veins. He can love, maybe. And he seems like an honest-to-God character again, not just a collection of traits and tropes and catchphrases. It’s part of what made the film so thrilling.
Casino Royale ends with Bond introducing himself as he has for half a century, last name first. Is he finally the Bond we know and love? There’s an implied explanation, even a critique, in the film’s structure—the way it suggests that losing Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) has turned James into the callous, cynical ladykiller and workaholic of silver-screen legend. (It’s like a mirror-image inverse of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, treating loss not as a terrible consequence but as a motivator.)
Yet the series never fully committed to that idea, in part because it never really settled into the status quo of Bond just being Bond. Quantum Of Solace, which picks up right where Casino Royale left off, ties up the first film’s loose ends—okay, we might think, this is the terminus of Bond’s arc into himself. But then came Skyfall, temporarily completing a full trilogy of prequels by offering yet another formative adventure, an exile followed by a return that becomes a climactic reckoning with the past. So was this the final step in Bond’s making-of story? Spectre, the film that followed, comes closest to looking like a traditional Bond movie, but it still can’t resist more backstory, the urge to keep painting the past, not the present, of James Bond. Even the new No Time To Die looks backwards, albeit in a conclusive way.
These films want to deconstruct Bond—to see what makes him tick, to give him shades he hasn’t possessed before, to find a person under the iconography. Which may explain why they never finish laying out his origins. The truth is that the old Bond, the one this new Bond never became, can’t have a psychology. He’s the engine at the center of a franchise designed to continue indefinitely. He can’t change, because changing would mean doing something different than what audiences pay good money to see him do. It’s why the series didn’t die with Connery’s departure from it: Bond, as traditionally conceived, is basically a suit that can be worn by any actor it fits. The Craig Bonds keep the character in indefinite transition because if he ever truly becomes Bond he’ll cease to be interesting anymore. He’ll just be an icon again.
So you could say the tension of these movies lies in the constant negotiation between their reverence for the character and their desire to do something different with him, to go deeper. It’s Craig, though, who breathes life into that sparring match. His take on Bond is, in some respects, its own act of pastiche. There is a little of the masculine brutishness of Sean Connery in his performance. (Craig’s Bond may be the first since Connery’s to look like he’s taken a punch or two in his lifetime.) We get some of Timothy Dalton’s haunted intensity. Again, this is a Bond who feels things, with a heart ticking beneath all that elegant evening wear; in that way, Craig’s version calls back to George Lazenby. He’s the legacy sequel in man form: a greatest hits of James Bond rolled into one slightly unfamiliar package.
Craig’s tightrope act is how he locates humanity in the fundamentals of his shop-worn role: the charm, the smolder, the quips, the cynicism, the physical prowess. Bond movies are machines that run on formula. But in his best moments, Craig was able to complicate or even disguise that, often by making prototypical behavior look spontaneous. One cannot blame him for wanting out of this plum gig—its limits are built into the durable predictability of a series that’s survived this long by never really changing. What more could he do with the role after five installments? But if Craig’s run was uneven, he was rarely the reason why. He kept Bond human to the sentimental end.
Craig, in fact, might be the only actor who’s managed to escape the shadow of Connery—the only Bond not damned by unflattering comparisons to the original. That’s partially time’s doing; there are scores of fans, maybe a whole generation of them, too young to have absorbed Goldfinger even through cultural osmosis. But it’s also a testament to how much Craig made Bond his own, even as the films around him constantly communed with 50-plus years of franchise history. Whoever takes over the role next has their work cut out for them, but also a fine model from which to work.