Why the Bond Reboots Are (Mostly) a Failure
This article contains spoilers for Skyfall and No Time to Die.
When Casino Royale released in 2006, the reboot of the beloved 007 franchise was hailed as a resounding success. It had been over 40 years since Sean Connery first watched Ursula Andress striding out of the ocean, the franchise had been stagnating for a while, and fans were keen to see it re-invented. But in the ensuing fifteen years, it’s become more apparent than ever how much Bond has aged. Looking back, only two of the five modern Bond films have actually been any good. Is it time to acknowledge that the project to reboot Bond has, in fact, been mostly a failure?
It started out so well. Daniel Craig was a welcome departure from his sanitised predecessors, who looked like they were ripped straight out of the glossy pages of a fashion magazine. Craig’s Bond was rugged and real — he bled and he got knocked around and he…fell in love?? This was a Bond for the twenty-first century, and we embraced him wholeheartedly.
But after the explosive start that was Casino Royale, things began getting very humdrum very quickly. Quantum of Solace and Spectre were both forgettable installments, and the brand new No Time to Die is perhaps the most pedestrian of them all. Craig looks visibly tired in almost every scene, and it’s no wonder — he’s 53 goddamn years old. Craig has made no secret of the fact that he’s sick to death of Bond, and my goodness does it show in the new film. He’s still going through the motions — quipping with Q, ordering that vodka martini, shacking up with much younger women — but it all feels like a bedtime routine at this point. When Bond delivers another cheesy pun after brutally murdering a goon, he may as well be wearing a night cap and sipping a Sleepytime tea for all the enthusiasm he’s putting into it.
And who can blame him? The film gives us nothing to get enthusiastic about. Rami Malek is your stock-standard Bond villain, complete with hideous facial deformity, foreign accent and “here are my evil motivations Mr. Bond” speech — except, to be honest with you, I still did not understand what the heck his motivations were even after the speech. We get it, you have a scar so you’re evil, there’s no need to explain further.
Speaking of things that are convincing no one, when’s the last time anybody gave two shits about Her Majesty’s Secret Service? At the time of writing, the UK is an absolute shitshow, having woefully mismanaged a health crisis and economically crippled itself in a wave of right-wing populism. The British Empire is dying with a whimper and yet the Bond films keep plodding on as though Mother England is still the bastion of justice and order in the world.
The best thing the film does is mercy kill Bond, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief seeing everything go up in smoke. I liked the decision to give him another love interest for the final farewell, even if the whole thing comes out of nowhere and feels like being introduced to your new stepmother (who is also your age) — “meet your new mum, by the way she’s the love of my life and always has been, who’s up for waffles?” Still, if nothing else the film recognises that Craig’s Bond has always been the human Bond — the one who loves and hurts and cares — and this is reflected in his send-off.
But aside from doing a bit of justice to Craig’s Bond, and having the good sense to kill him off, No Time to Die struggles to find its own raison d’être. Even the central theme of the film is muddled — the title and theme song would have us believe it’s “time”, but what the hell does that even mean? The film itself doesn’t appear to know, and settles on having its characters say the word “time” now and again in a desperate attempt to make it seem like there’s any kind of meaningful idea being explored here.
If there’s anything the new Bond flick is trying to say, it might be “this is all a bit shit isn’t it, let’s just put a match to this son of a bitch and watch it burn”, but even this is half-hearted. I wish it had actually embraced some chaos and given in to wild abandon, but it’s mostly content to serve us the same tired tropes and one-liners we’ve been swallowing for 60 years now. A better modern Bond film would have taken that feeling of weariness, that idea of time running out, and used it to make a critical commentary on the franchise itself, the dying empire it is repeatedly forced to valorise, and the fading relevance of Bond in a post-Cold War world where “the bad guys” are rarely as easily identifiable as they once were.
That film was already made. That film is Skyfall.
Where No Time to Die does lip service to burning it all down, Skyfall takes us to Bond’s childhood home and literally burns it down. There are no muddled ideas or half-assed attempts at commentary in Skyfall. The central theme of resurrection manifests everywhere: in the dialogue, in the central premise (Bond “dies” and then re-enters the Service), and in how the film re-interprets classic characters and franchise tropes. Moneypenny is a kick-ass field agent, Q is a sexy young whiz kid, and Bond is a drunk wash-up who can’t shoot straight. The film not only resurrects the Bond franchise with humour and wit and emotional gravitas (the slightly wobbly Bond is the most relatable he’s ever been), but it also dares to take a critical look at M and the organisation she represents.
We still have a classic Bond villain in the form of Raoul Silva (played to spine-chilling perfection by Javier Bardem), but there’s a twist — this monster is of M’s own making. We discover that Silva used to be MI6’s most brilliant and loyal field agent, before M threw him away like a used paper towel. Bardem brings a heart-breaking, relatable agony to the role as he describes being captured and tortured for five months, before realising that it was M who had traded him away and left him to rot.
And critically, his status as an ex-MI6 agent is exactly what makes Silva one of the most formidable foes in Bond history, using his inside knowledge to cause chaos and lure Bond and M into meticulously laid traps. Meanwhile, a government inquiry tears into M and the Secret Service for being antiquated, deluded and unable to keep up with the complicated realities of the modern world. And as Bond runs around after Silva like a frantic clown and MI6 plunges into another panic mode as their systems are hacked yet again, you can’t help but wonder — what is the point of all this? Is the Secret Service just a geriatric organisation playing around callously with human lives while fighting an imaginary “good guys versus bad guys” war that ended in the 90s? Are the bad guys really…us?
Although Skyfall ultimately concludes that the Secret Service are still mostly the good guys, the world needs Bond and “the old ways are sometimes best”, it recognised the urgent need to re-invent the dinosaur that is the 007 franchise. How disappointing, then, that the series fell right back into stagnation with the unremarkable Spectre and No Time to Die. Skyfall was a clarion call for Bond to leave the past behind and look to the future, and if you ask me, it should have been a turning point for the series. Somewhere out there, among all the infinite universes, there’s an alternate reality in which the film that followed Skyfall dared to make even more radical changes, and to see how far Bond could bend before he broke. What if we did away with the idea that there’s always “a bad guy”, and Bond had to take down a leaderless group of vigilantes? Where would Bond be without a Bond villain? What if his iron-clad love of country was tested by, I don’t know, acknowledging the rather obvious fact that England is not at all a “good guy” but actually kind of a mess? What if a corrupt government started using MI6 for its own ends, and Bond had to choose between devotion to the institution and devotion to the people? Would he still be James Bond if he betrayed MI6? Would he still be “007”?
I’m not saying any of this specifically needs to happen, I’m just trying to illustrate the kinds of directions I wish the modern films were bold enough to pursue, the kinds of innovation that Skyfall set the stage for. I want Bond to be challenged and to have to change and I want him to be forced to answer the question of who he is in the modern world, and who he wants to become. And I want the answer to that question to be more satisfying than the one provided by No Time to Die: “I’m utterly irrelevant and I just need to die”. That may end up being true if the series doesn’t figure out how to renew itself and fast, and frankly I’d rather have Bond put out of his misery for good than be forced to stumble half-heartedly through an endless parade of lukewarm adaptations. The window of relevance is quickly shrinking, and if he can’t find a way forward, Bond will very soon be left behind.
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Other published work: https://intothespine.com/2020/10/12/in-search-of-the-blue/