The latest installment of James Bond is released this Friday and considering this marks the second and initially unlikely team-up of star Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes, the follow-up to the potentially franchise revitalizing Skyfall is more highly anticipated than the usual Bond film. Skyfall was a return to glory for Bond fans, a delightful mix of the modern and classic, with subtle nods to the golden age of the franchise, a kickass opening titles song, and a really, really fantastic villain (Javier Bardem). Craig’s Bond was a revelation, unsteady but relentless, a heady mix of human and hero. Just the title of its direct sequel, Spectre, promises a return to villains and stories of the past, and yet there’s much to cause concern. The film is the most expensive of the series to date and has had extensive re-writes and re-shoots to meet quality standards. Hopefully, this just means that they made the best movie possible and early reviews hail its sexy, campy, Bondian timelessness while noting its occasional clunkiness. The good thing is that you’ve never needed to know anything about James Bond or the Ian Fleming novels from which the character originated, or indeed any of the previous twenty-three movies, to enjoy a good Bond film. But if you’re curious about the cinematic history of the franchise, then here it is. All I’ll say is that its pretty convenient for the format of this column that there have been six actors so far to play Bond.
The original and the best, Sean Connery is the man to beat when it comes to Bonds. Modern audiences are saying that Daniel Craig just might steal the unofficial crown of best Bond, but for my money there’s no one quite like the Scottish born and third place Mr. Universe winner to have ever graced the screen as 007. While Ian Fleming initially thought Connery was too unrefined to play the suave spy, he later changed his mind to say that he was the perfect choice. Connery’s history with Bond has been rocky at best, often bristling at his eternal association with the character, but he still starred in six (or seven, if you count the unofficial installment Never Say Never Again) films before moving on to other things. Several actors were obviously considered when casting the first ever James Bond – among them Connery’s Rank Studio co-star Patrick McGoohan, who turned the role down, as well as Cary Grant and David Niven – but despite Connery’s unrefined and scruffy appearance during the casting meeting, the producers agreed that he exuded something special and made him their choice.
Lazenby gets a tough rap, partly for being the first actor after the popular Connery to take on the role and partly for his characterization and inexperience as an actor. He was a model with no acting experience who was cast for his physique and looks. On His Majesty’s Secret Service sees Bond actually fall in love during the course of a mission and get married at the end, only to tragically lose his new wife to an assassin minutes after saying their vows. I remember not being impressed with Lazenby, but modern opinion seems to give him more slack than contemporary audiences. Still, he was offered a second film, but he declined due to what he felt was disrespectful treatment from the producers and film industry professionals. Amazingly, the producers were able to get Connery back for one last film – Diamonds Are Forever – after the Lazenby experiment.
It was rumored that Roger Moore was among those first considered for Bond, but that they found him too young and pretty at the time (he would have been starring in the spy series The Saint at the time). Moore denies ever being contacted or even hearing about it. Regardless, he won the role for Live and Let Die and ushered in a long, painful era of ham-fisted campiness, schlocky spy plots, and sleazy romance. There is something just too smarmy about Roger Moore for my taste, a touch too condescending and bantery, and eventually – as the longest running James Bond actor clocking in at eight movies – much too old for the role (58). He is, after all, older than Sean Connery who was growing too old for the role when he gave it up nearly fifteen years earlier. At the same time these movies really epitomize that era of spy movies that Austin Powers so perfectly parodies, mostly because the plots are already so campy and ridiculous. They may not be good movies, but they can be a lot of fun to watch.
I happen to really like Dalton as James Bond – or really Dalton in general – but I feel like his woefully short tenure as 007 was tortured with bad writing. Dalton had actually be approached to play Bond twice before – once to replace Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and again in the early 80s – but declined both times. Funnily enough, the producers wanted to cast Pierce Brosnan for these films but couldn’t extract him from his Remington Steele contract. So the role finally went to Dalton. A Shakespearean by trade and a fan of the gritty and realistic Ian Fleming novels, Dalton took a dramatic and academic approach to Bond that is refreshing after Moore’s pop-fluff Bond. Unfortunately, this darker take on Bond also suffered from a comparative humorlessness that distanced casual audiences.
After having to turn down the role due to his contractual obligations, Brosnan understandably thought that his chance had passed him by. However, after Dalton decided not to return for a third film, the producers went right back to Brosnan and cast him for GoldenEye. GoldenEye is the Bond film of my childhood and the Bond film that got me into James Bond. Brosnan’s Bond had a terrific balance of danger, tortured soulfulness, sexiness, and humor. It feels to me like a very modern Bond for the time, not stuck in the past, but still honoring tradition – plus it brought us the GoldenEye video game. The next two installments in the series were of lesser quality but perfectly serviceable films, while Die Another Day was fairly lackluster. It was understandably Brosnan’s last Bond film as the series moved into the new century with a new Bond and a new angle.
I remember thinking that Daniel Craig was an odd choice for Bond, along with quite a lot of other people at the time who were debating the wisdom of his casting. I’m not generally a Daniel Craig fan – I find his screen presence and acting lackluster and uncompelling, though I admit that his physicality is impressive. There are, however, moments in his acting that strike me as incredibly subtle and complex – like his first scene with Javier Bardem or the last act with Judi Dench in Skyfall. I think he’s done a wonderful job with what he has and with what he’s been given, but I’ve never really become a fan. I found his first two installments tedious, overblown, and not very fun. However, I thought Skyfall was thoroughly enjoyable and struck a perfect balance between modern cinematic sensibilities and an essential Bondian tone. Early reviews for Spectre, as well as the title itself, hints at a throwback to earlier, simpler times in Bond’s screen history. Regardless, it looks as though Craig’s tenure as Bond is drawing to a close. The actor has been very vocal of late about his desire to move on from the role, so the casting speculation begins. Many have mentioned Tom Hiddleston as a top choice, while for my money Idris Elba would be the sexiest, suavest, and badass-iest Bond to date.