If you’ve lapped up the pre-release hype, you already know this is a different Bond. Harder, leaner, tougher, meaner. Well, to a point.
Let’s not forget that Casino Royale’s (relatively and – in the torture scene – literally) stripped down approach is actually part of Bond’s regular binge-and-purge cycle. The world’s most bulimic agent has an established routine. First, the constant appetite to top the last film bloats the franchise with ever-bigger but not better adventures. Then, on the brink of parody, comes the purge: the extravasate, the rethink. Bond actually goes ‘back to basics’ remarkably frequently: the lunatic excesses of You Only Live Twice precede the emotionally wrought On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; the space operatics of Moonraker make way for the smarter, darker For Your Eyes Only; the geriatric antics of A View To A Kill provoke the keener edge of the underrated Dalton debut The Living Daylights. The best example? Perhaps the tentative 007 of Licence To Kill leading to the arch, self-aware smarts of GoldenEye (“Sexist, misogynist dinosaur” etc). But even that James got flabby (it was the invisible car that did it). Time then for another purge. And the latest crash diet involves no more silly gadgets, no lame innuendo, no dreadful puns, no bikini-clad ‘equals’ and no Q.
What it does have is The Man With the Golden Hair, Daniel Craig. Yes he is blond. More pertinently, he’s also the first 007 who genuinely looks like he could kill a man with his bare hands. A useful quality for playing an assassin...
The pre-credits set the scene. In a toilet. In grainy black and white. Two kills – one grottily violent – and a couple of pithy remarks later and Bond begins. The credits themselves may look like a slightly lame flash animation (early scripts suggested a more satisfying montage of Bond’s SAS background, crime scene photos from his kills, the double 0s being added to his ID badge), but this misstep doesn’t result in a stumble. Instead, we launch into the much-blarneyed-about Madagascar free-running chase – the refreshed franchise playing its ace early: Craig’s physicality. Never before has a Bond sprinted so hard, fought so meanly or blazed quite so fiercely. By the time the Nambutu Embassy is smouldering, so is Craig’s Bond – this is a killing machine, a lethal weapon. Moore didn’t fit this much action into his entire seven movies. In quick, short breaths we learn the new Bond is a raw, brutal maverick (breaking into M’s house); unsentimental (he prefers married women because, “It keeps things simple”) and uncouth. But he’s also smart and effective, tracking the villains to Nassau, winning his Aston Martin on the casino’s green baize, seducing the sultry Solange (Caterina Murino) with a surgeon’s precision. The foreplay finished, it’s down to the main event: dealt a tough hand by Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), ego challenged by Vesper Lynd (Green), balls battered in a wince-wrenching torture scene. All events which – for the first time in a long while – are actually based on Fleming’s words.
A shame the franchise can’t quite commit to going gritty and relying on audience intel – forcing in Giancarlo Giannini’s local liaison to explain poker for the hard-of-thinking, plus a gimmicky defibrillator scene almost as daft as that car... There’s also the issue of Bond’s volte-face, from callous bastard to lovey dovey doormat, the producers missing the opportunity for the bollock-bruising torture scene to allow for a non-physical connection to develop between 007 and Lynd. Her troubles, too, are barely hinted at, clouding everyone’s motivation at the concluding set-piece in Venice and leaving Bond’s final word on Vesper – a chilling conclusion to the novel – now floating aimlessly.
Still, the decision to dial things down and replace camp with a prickly sense of humour (Martini shaken or stirred? “Do I look like I give a damn?”) does pay dividends. Other gripes – the oh-so-wrong title tune, soulless product placement and David Arnold’s ersatz John Barry score – are forgiven because this is Bond, James Bond and there’s no disputing the icon is re-energised by Craig. It’s been noted he’s an actor more than a star, yet here he needs to be, providing heart to a character that even in this brave new Bond could so easily have become a cipher. Vibrant, vital and violent, when he utters the immortal final line (and the classic theme finally kicks in), your neck hairs spike and your pulse pounds. The purge is complete. Craig is a triumph. The franchise is reborn. As always – and was it ever really in doubt? – James Bond Will Return...
Bond 21 is refreshed yet faithful, any grumbles easily quashed by Craig's powerful presence. The suit fits. And he wears it well.