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Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond is coming to an end. This truth has been known ever since it was announced that Craig would reprise the role in No Time to Die, his fifth outing as 007. And yet, given the litany of delays that movie has endured largely due to the pandemic—remember when No Time to Die was slated for November 2019?—the reality of his leaving feels like it’s been almost taken for granted.
The curtain really is coming down this month for UK fans, and the No Time to Die marketing team is now making folks aware of that again with the recent viral clip of Craig’s teary eyed farewell speech from the day production wrapped on the Bond movie. After wearing Bond’s tuxedo for 15 years, Craig closes the book on a run that’s lasted longer than any other Bond actor’s, and with almost as many films as any thespian who’s ever called themselves James Bond. (Sean Connery still has six canonical James Bond movies under his belt, and Roger Moore holds the record with seven.)
So now that the movie is truly here, it’s worth wondering one of the quiet bits out loud: Will Craig do something almost no other Bond actor has done to date and finish his run on a high note? Because when you sit down and think about it, nearly every actor who’s ordered a shaken martini before him has signed off with the worst Bond movie of their tenure.
There are exceptions, of course: George Lazenby only played 007 once, and in a good movie too. But if one wanted to be glib, they could say On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was then both his best and worst Bond entry. Beyond Lazenby’s solitary adventure, however, each Bond actor has ended on a sour note, which puts all the more pressure on No Time to Die to buck this trend…
Sean Connery Goes Bust in Diamonds Are Forever
This phenomenon began with the first and (in this writer’s opinion) best actor to ever purr, “The name’s Bond, James Bond.” As the man who helped invent much of the iconography we associate with the 007 character—imprinting a boyish insolence and brutal physicality to the role that author Ian Fleming arguably did not intend—Sean Connery played Bond in the character’s heyday. And unlike every actor who would follow (again excluding Lazenby), Connery got to enjoy the role at a time when Bond didn’t feel out of step with the zeitgeist and didn’t need to justify his existence. During the glory years of Bondmania, Connery and the producers were shaping pop culture instead of responding to it.
Yet that wasn’t quite true for the last time Connery put on the hairpiece. His initial run in the role included five back-to-back franchise classics in Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), and You Only Live Twice (1967). Admittedly, the first three of those movies have aged far better in the last 60 years than the final two, but all were well received in their moment and helped make an actor Fleming once described as “a ditch digger” into a global superstar who’d eventually be knighted by Her Majesty. Still, after five template-setting adventures, Connery was done—his frustrations over how he was paid for the movies didn’t help.
If Connery had ended his run with You Only Live Twice, his tenure would be seen as glittering as Goldfinger’s house paint. However, after Lazenby elected not to come back for a second outing as 007, and after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service closed out the 1960s as the lowest grossing Bond movie since Connery’s first two installments, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman shipped a small fortune Connery’s way to convince him to return for Diamonds are Forever (1971), which I would charitably suggest is the worst Bond movie ever made.
To be sure, there are flashier targets that could hold that title, many of which do not include actors as generally beloved in the role as Connery. But Diamonds Are Forever featured a tired and bored looking performance from Connery, as well as a script and direction that retreated from the tragic cliffhanger ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in favor of something far more generic. Essentially a reworking of Connery’s previously most outrageous Bond films, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever ups the camp factor as Bond again battles SPECTRE mastermind Blofeld (now played at his worst by Charles Gray). There’s some harebrained plot in which Blofeld is using South African diamonds to power a satellite’s laser that will lead to him holding the world’s nuclear arsenals hostage.
But really it’s just an excuse for Bond to go through the motions as he travels around Las Vegas and the larger American southwest. It then ends Connery’s run by letting 007 have a laugh as Blofeld, ostensibly the man who killed Bond’s wife (though she’s never mentioned in this film), gets away. James then kills two henchmen coded as gay with maximum homophobia while enjoying a cruise. It’s a film that already had one foot in the land of Austin Powers parody.
Technically, Connery would play Bond one more time in the non-Eon produced remake of Thunderball, Never Say Never Again (1983), but that’s not exactly a classic either…
Roger Moore’s Tired View to a Kill
There’s a lot that can be said about Roger Moore’s final 007 adventure, A View to a Kill (1985), but anything positive comes almost exclusively from the absolute banging Duran Duran song. That plus the movie’s less flattering qualities which appeal to connoisseurs of bad movie kitsch. Yes, Christopher Walken really does look high as a kite as he plays ‘80s yuppie supervillain Max Zorin, and Grace Jones as henchwoman May Day appears as though she’ll snap Moore in half.
But therein lies one of the film’s many problems: By the time Moore got to his seventh Bond movie, the actor was pushing 60 and looked it. By his own admission, he realized he stayed with the role too long when he met the mother of his leading lady, Tanya Roberts, and discovered she was younger than him. But the geriatric quality of Moore here is just one of a cacophony of woes, which when combined suggested that the series had become long in the tooth.
At his height of popularity, Moore had perfected his jovial gentleman charm offensives, playing a spy more inclined to disarm a situation with a well-placed punchline than a punch. This is exhibited in Moore’s best Bond adventure, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), a classic that plays as much like a romantic comedy as a typical 007 flick… even with the fate of the world hanging in the balance as a megalomaniac attempts to nuke the planet.
After that high bar though, much of the Moore era chased the campy thrills of that movie to far lesser results. The one exception is For Your Eyes Only (1981), an underrated gem in the series which for the most part resembles a genuine Cold War adventure with the occasional concession to Bond formulae. Following that picture, Moore considered hanging up the Walther PPK, but was persuaded to come back for Octopussy (1983) and then A View to a Kill.
It is arguable Moore made worse Bond movies than AVTAK. For sheer camp spectacle, nothing outdoes the outrageousness of Moonraker (1979), and we’d argue Octopussy is one of the more forgettable Bond movies ever made. Yet it is the haggard, over-the-hill quality which makes A View to a Kill come off as faintly desperate, and a little bit sad as the franchise again dregs up the plot of Goldfinger and attempts to redress it with a limited Hollywood understanding of 1980s Silicon Valley, plus more violence and sex. It seemed dated even in ’85. If the Bond franchise is a series of peaks and valleys, Moore ended his run close to sea level.
Timothy Dalton Goes After Scarface in License to Kill
Timothy Dalton is the Bond actor that time has been kindest too. While his aggressive and perpetually angry version of the character was somewhat rejected by late ‘80s audiences who still had Moore’s interpretation fresh in mind—plus the media fiasco of Pierce Brosnan being cast as Bond and then forced to drop out—Dalton’s popularity has grown among diehard fans who enjoyed his underplayed bluntness. It’s an interpretation that looks ahead of its time, too, given the eventual popularity of Craig’s take on the role.
All that being said, I would argue Dalton never starred in a great Bond movie. His first outing, The Living Daylights (1987), has its moments and is another one of the rare Bond films that feels like an actual espionage thriller, even as it lacks the tension of From Russia With Love or the charm and terrific climax of For Your Eyes Only. It was then followed up by License to Kill (1989), a Bond picture that in spite of online chatter to the contrary is not some lost hidden gem.
In truth, License to Kill is one of those middling type of Bond movies that jump on the pop culture bandwagons of their day. In the era of Moore, that meant some uncomfortably tone deaf riffs on Blaxploitation in Live and Let Die (1973) and aping Star Wars in Moonraker. With License to Kill, it meant Bond imitating popular television series Miami Vice and some of the harder edged action movies and crime thrillers of the 1980s, particularly Lethal Weapon (1987) and Scarface (1983). The problem, however, is that License to Kill is still a Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli, who’d been with the series since the beginning, and directed by John Glen, who’d helmed the last four Bond movies, including A View to a Kill.
Whereas the R-rated violence and traumatic cynicism of Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon felt startlingly edgy in the ‘80s, License to Kill looks a bit like the aging hipster who’s still trying to fit in at the nightclub. And seeing Bond go on a vendetta against a South American drug dealer right out of the Tony Montana playbook looked neutered when compared to the actual Tony Montana. Which is a shame, as Bond out on a personal mission of revenge seems like an appealing narrative prompt that the Bond franchise has never quite gotten right. Diamonds Are Forever ignored Bond’s need for retribution following the death of his wife Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Craig’s later rampage movie, Quantum of Solace (2008), squandered the potential left by Casino Royale’s tragic ending two years earlier. Instead Quantum also became distracted by the conventions of its decade, in this case by copying the Jason Bourne movies.
So we see Dalton’s grumpy 007 given a reason to really pout after Felix Leiter has his legs fed to sharks on his wedding night, and Bond then finds the bride murdered the next morning. It’s a grisly but potent setup. Hence the disappointment when you realize the most memorable thing about its third act is the bizarre cameo by Wayne Newton as an evil televangelist.
Pierce Brosnan’s Run Needed to Die Another Day
Probably the most notorious final Bond film is Pierce Brosnan’s swan song in Die Another Day (2002). Given the mostly deserved vitriol that movie now receives, it’s hard to remember it was the most successful Bond film ever when it came out (when left unadjusted for inflation). Big and gaudy, the critics mostly accepted it, and it was no deal breaker for Quentin Tarantino who dreamed of working with Brosnan as Bond afterward in a ‘60s-set Casino Royale movie that never materialized.
Of course after the post-40th anniversary haze faded away, fans were left with a pretty lousy flick, which looks all the stranger when you remember the first act is actually pretty solid. The movie starts with Bond double crossed and left to spend 18 months in a prisoner camp in North Korea. In this way, it was the first Bond movie to incorporate the opening title sequence into its narrative, with the naked silhouettes of women being delirious visions Bond has while being tortured. His subsequent escape as a shaggy caveman into Hong Kong high society and then doing Connery-esque low-fi spy work in Cuba is also energetic, frothy fun.
Few folks recall any of this though because the film nosedives into the realm of the wretched and the damned at about the halfway mark. Inexplicably, director Lee Tamahori and the producers decided to celebrate Bond’s 40th by emulating the worst excesses of the Moore years, and even the banality of Diamonds Are Forever’s plot with diamonds and space lasers. It’s just as bad the second time around, but in Die Another Day’s case this also means invisible cars and terrible early 2000s CGI effects as a cartoon version of Brosnan surfs on glaciers and digital waves.
It’s bad, and it undermines Brosnan’s overall tenure. While Brosnan only starred in one great Bond movie, GoldenEye (1995), we’d argue both Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999) are pretty good. The former has aged like wine with its evil news baron that’s obviously a caricature of Rupert Murdoch. To better launch his cable news network, the fiend even manufactures a global crisis that risks lives. Huh. The World Is Not Enough, meanwhile, has one of the best pre-titles action sequences in the whole franchise and one of its best villains. In fact, Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King remains the only female lead who’s also the main vaillain.
Together, all three form a solid enough trilogy in which Brosnan plays a Bond forced to find his place in the changing, destabilized world of the 1990s. The Cold War is over, and the World on Terror is yet to come. In this strange, supposed “end of history” moment, Brosnan’s Bond spent three movies renegotiating the character’s place in a world of upheaval, oblivious to the horrors to come. So Bond faces the threats borne out of a destabilized eastern European bloc, and misleading mass media forces shaping the world for the worst, all of which now looks like prophecy.
While we wish Brosnan had a better fourth film to hang his hat on than Die Another Day, if he’d simply stopped at three, his little ‘90s-specific trilogy would look a lot better.
Can No Time to Die Break the Pattern?
In the end, we won’t know the answer to the above question until we see the movie, however there are many reasons to be hopeful. Unlike three of the four movies at the center of this article, No Time to Die is not a Bond film from a franchise veteran director, who might be happy to go through the usual paces. In fact, one of the most appealing things about Craig’s whole tenure in 007 is how much more willing producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson are to take risks.
After Sam Mendes helmed the one-two punch of Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), to admittedly uneven results, Eon Productions is doubling down on auteur talent by tapping Cary Joji Fukunaga to direct Craig’s final Bond movie. A sometimes overlooked visualist, Fukunaga has style to spare in films like Jane Eyre (2011) and Beasts of No Nation (2015). But even more than his cinematic output, his standing as one of the first filmmakers to prove television can truly be a director’s medium in the first season of True Detective and Netflix’s Maniac suggests he can bring a renewed hunger to making a classic Bond epic that stands apart. The various No Time to Die trailers all seem to suggest this will be one of the chicest looking Bond movies to date.
Additionally, the film benefits from being the grand finale of Craig’s oeuvre. As really the first actor to have an evolving and complex continuity throughout his installments in the franchise, Craig has taken 007 on an emotional journey across the previous four movies. The quality of the films might vary, but Craig’s through-line has been consistently strong, and with No Time to Die the performer and filmmakers know they need to stick a landing that says something resounding about this version of the character. And lastly, the cast for this movie, from returning faces like Ralph Fiennes, Jeffrey Wright, and Léa Seydoux, to new ones, such as Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas, and Rami Malek as a mysterious villain named Safin, suggests this might very well be the best ensemble ever brought together for a Bond movie.
So here’s to hoping Craig can beat the curse and shake things up one more time.