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How Sam Mendes both fixed and failed James Bond

The early noughties were a time of great change for Great Britain’s very best fictional spy, James Bond. Inspired by the gritty, action thrillers that had preceded Daniel Craig’s 21st-century version of the character, Bond had gone from a soft, squishy caricature to one capable of genuine physical and psychological torment. Snappy, brutal set-pieces from films such as Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Beginshad forced the character into a new cinematic reality that demanded to take 007 seriously.

In the monochrome opening to Martin Campbell’s James Bond revival Casino Royale, it quickly became clear that things for the Great British icon were soon going to change. Daniel Craig’s time as the titular character snapped alight like a fuse, building with sophisticated, stylish tension and a staccato espionage soundtrack before exploding into violent life in blinding saturated white. Craig’s Bond was different; even before he’d make the screen bleed in the iconic ‘gun barrel sequence’ to open the film, he appeared a fractured soul, a tough, gruff Bond, worlds away from Pierce Brosnan’s calm British sensibilities. He was a wounded action hero forged from a sincere reality, ready for the uncertain challenges of the new millennium. 

The release of Daniel Craig’s third outing as the character in Skyfall, which coincided with the filmmaking establishment’s 50th anniversary, saw the directorial duties handed over to seasoned filmmaker of American Beauty, Sam Mendes. Describing Bond as experiencing a “combination of lassitude, boredom, depression [and] difficulty with what he’s chosen to do for a living”, Skyfall would continue in the rugged presentation of the country’s finest spy, meeting significant critical and commercial success at the same time. 

Taking place in the enigmatic family home of the iconic character, Skyfall is a landmark James Bond film that teasingly draws back the curtain behind the character’s origins, enough to glimpse and prompt speculation without removing the shroud of mystery from the character. Perfectly poised, Mendes explores a genuinely fascinating story, a choice Daniel Craig is inspired by, noting in an interview with GQ in 2020, “The biggest ideas are the best…And the biggest ideas are love and tragedy and loss. They just are, and that’s what I instinctively want to aim for”. Indeed, these are themes that the franchise had never before seriously dabbled in, with Roger Moore and Sean Connery and Co. often alluding toward sincerity whilst toying with frivolous tales of action and empty romance. 

Post-Skyfall, Bond’s character was in a place of genuine threat, a broken soul with open wounds and a clear pathway for progression in upcoming instalments, though when Sam Mendes came onboard once more for 2015s Spectre, he dragged the character back several steps. 

Attempting to lift the contemporary James Bond character and drop him into a classic narrative that elicited the same corny feel like the films of Connery and Moore was a clash of personalities, with Spectre feeling more like a dry satire of the iconic franchise. Bond is back to being a misogynistic womaniser despite his progression in previous films, as are other cliches, including mute seven-foot henchmen and nonsensical maniacal villains. 

The work that Casino Royale and Skyfall had done to repair the character for a contemporary world was undone, as the character slumped back into his usual cliche. Somehow, Sam Mendes managed to fix and fail the iconic character in the space of three years and two films. 

Let’s hope Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die can bookend Daniel Craig’s reign as the character with suitable aplomb.

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