Bond’s revenge

After making the skeptics eat their words, the best actor ever to play 007 is back, and this time it’s personal

Daniel Craig is on the line from London. He’s being cagey, as if there’s something unmanly about opening up to the media. James Bond would never sit still for it. When I reassure him I’m more curious about Bond’s private life than his own, he expresses relief. Frankly, I’m relieved we’re not talking face to face. Two years ago in New York, when he sat down with a group of journalists to promote his Bond debut in Casino Royale, it was unnerving just to be in the same room. He had a brusque manner and ice-blue eyes that looked like they could bore a hole through your skull. But he was feeling especially prickly then, after skeptics had derided the idea of a blond Bond and dubbed him Mr. Potato Head.

Craig got even, and then some. Now as he anticipates the Nov. 14 launch of the oddly titled Quantum of Solace, the 22nd movie in cinema’s most successful franchise, he has no one to live up to but himself. Casino Royale became the most lucrative Bond movie of all, earning $600 million worldwide. Craig was widely hailed as the best actor ever to have tackled the role. And, blondness notwithstanding, he incarnated the dark menace of the character novelist Ian Fleming created 55 years ago. The debonair stylings of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan had reduced 007 to a male model in a pageant of gadgets, gizmos and campy innuendo. Craig repatriated Bond’s masculinity with visceral power, recasting him as a sophisticated thug. A Bond with balls.

James Bond is the most enduring male sex symbol in the history of movies, and as he gets caught in the riptides of masculine fashion, every era gets the Bond it deserves. In an age that fetishizes hardened physiques and retro styles of macho chic, Craig has created a rugged, messed-up, hyper-masculine 007 who is knotted with repressed rage and treats women as an alien species. “I wish I could say it was my idea,” says Craig, “but Fleming’s Bond is full of self-doubt and his relationship with women is very strange.”

Does Bond even like women? I ask Craig.

“I think he adores them,” he says. “If you’re asking, does he like the touch of a woman’s skin, yes, he does. In handfuls. But the way I perceive it, he has had a male life for a long time, surrounded by men because he’d been fighting for so long . . . I think he has a deep respect for M, and it’s fantastic that Judi [Dench] plays M because that relationship is the key to the whole thing.”

Could M be a kind of Bond girl?

“She is the Bond girl,” says Craig, “because she’s the one person that he probably respects and loves more than anybody.”

Bond’s matriarchal boss has, in fact, been given a larger role in Quantum of Solace, which is a direct sequel to Casino Royale (again co-written by Canadian Paul Haggis). And the movie’s theme, Craig explains, is “loyalty—finding out where your true loyalties lie.”

So if Bond loves M, and M represents the the Queen and Mother England, maybe Bond is just another English schoolboy trying to live up to an imperious mum and an absent dad. Which brings us right back to Ian Fleming, an upper-class Eton boy who lost his father in the Great War at 8 (Winston Churchill wrote his obituary); who fled to Jamaica and thrived on drink, adultery and rough sex; who died at 56 not long after attending his mother’s funeral against the advice of doctors who said he was too ill to go.

For an English-bred boy hitting his teens in the early ’60s, as I was, Bond was the first grown-up icon of aggressively male fantasy—an early commando in the sexual revolution. Until then, we’d doted on men in capes, tights, masks, leather chaps, and coonskin caps—a carnival of superhero drag that included Superman, Batman, Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, Zorro and the Lone Ranger. Then along came this guy who wore a suit. His idea of camouflage was to throw on a tuxedo. He was a secret agent without a secret identity.

“That’s the thing about Bond,” says Craig. “He just walks into a room and goes, ‘I’m Bond, James Bond.’ He’s supposed to be undercover, but it’s like he fights against that every time. He walks straight in and declares himself, and that’s his element of surprise because everybody turns around and goes, ‘Where the f–k . . . where did you come from?’ He’s the perfect anti-spy.”

There was a time when Bond seemed cool, contemporary, even plausible: a brief shining moment that neatly coincided with John F. Kennedy’s presidency (1961-63). As a glamorous, womanizing naval commander who became a Cold War gladiator, JFK seemed akin to Bond. Kennedy, in fact, made him famous by confessing he was a big Fleming fan, and as he played poker with Russia in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. No’s release was delayed because of the resonance: it, too, involved a nuclear showdown on a Caribbean island with the world’s fate in the balance.

But within a year of Connery’s second 007 outing, From Russia With Love (1963), Bond had been eclipsed by a British invasion of a different kind, led by the Beatles and the Stones. Suddenly 007 seemed square. His macho domain of martinis and Aston Martins was about to be overtaken by a younger wave of free-love fantasy fuelled by drugs and androgyny. By the ’70s, the idea of a misogynist spy swanning about the Third World in decadent luxury seemed comically absurd.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the 007 franchise stayed alive by spoofing its own clichés. Bond’s potency waned with the affectation of Roger Moore and the smooth politesse of Pierce Brosnan: neither seemed capable of cruelty. Meanwhile, the Bond girl grew up to become a castrating sexpot retrofitted with feminist irony—from the dominatrix assassin played by Grace Jones in A View to a Kill to GoldenEye’s Xenia Ontatopp (Famke Janssen), who crushed men to death with her thighs. But Bond has always been allergic to femininity. In Fleming’s novels, his typical turn-on was a distant beauty with a cruel mouth, and if “she drove like a man” nothing could be hotter: i.e., a distaff 007.

Dragging a relic of colonial privilege into the 21st century, Craig has both modernized Bond and restored him. And he has a clear affinity for the actor who created the role, and gave him the insouciant edge of a class-conscious imposter. “Fleming wrote an upper-class character, one who went to Eton,” says Craig. “Then [producer] Cubby Broccoli cast Sean Connery, who is working-class, who is from Scotland, who’s not even English, and made him accessible, a hero for the people. Connery wore suits like nobody else—with disdain. He just put them on and it was like, ‘Yes, it looks great. What do I care?’ ”

Of course, the suit in Casino Royale that everyone talked about was a blue swimsuit that revealed Craig to be the most buff Bond ever to strip off his shirt. And he’s sick of hearing about it. “I’m always going to shy away from a conversation about me walking out of the sea with a pair of trunks on,” he says, “but mainly because it was a total accident. It was meant to be a swimming shot; the water was so shallow I had to stand up.” Whether by design or accident, it looked like an homage to Ursula Andress, the first Bond girl, stepping from the sea in a white bikini as Honey Ryder in Dr. No (1962). Now Bond-sploitation had come full circle: in Casino Royale, the hottest sex object was not another Bond girl, but Bond himself.

Craig has a thespian rational for striking a beefcake pose. “I wanted him to look like he’d just stepped out of the armed forces. That’s why I bulked up. If I’m going to play him running around, jumping, throwing himself off buildings and through windows, if he takes his shirt off, he has to look like he can do it.” He did not get as pumped for Quantum of Solace, he adds. “This movie’s a little different, although I’m actually fitter than I was in the last one, because I wanted to do more. I don’t strip down to my underpants . . . but there’s a little bit o
f flesh.”

Craig is the most athletic Bond we’ve seen, but the bar has been raised since Connery idled through his later films with a marshmallow belly and a rug of chest hair. “You read Fleming,” says Craig, “and it’s like Bond gets up in the morning, has six scrambled eggs made with cream, eight rashers of bacon, four cups of espresso, does 20 press-ups and smokes 20 cigarettes, then has a shot of something. Attitudes have changed. We probably do live in a world of body-fascism now.”

And the enemies have changed. In Quantum of Solace, back to avenge the death of the babe who died in Casino Royale, our former Cold Warrior is now battling conspiracies of high finance—he’s pitted against another sinister businessman (Mathieu Amalric)—which is only fitting in a world on the brink of economic catastrophe. As our wealth evaporates, perhaps Bond offers the ultimate bailout, a fantasy of bottomless opulence. “You update these things at your peril,” says Craig, adding that the new movie derives its style directly from Fleming and is rife with homages to early Bond movies.

Although Quantum of Solace is an original script, its title comes from a Fleming short story that’s unlike anything else he wrote—more in the vein of Somerset Maugham. Trapped on a chintz sofa with the Bahamian governor, Bond says, “If I ever married, I would marry an air hostess,” which prompts the governor to tell the story of a stewardess who found a devoted husband then pushed his trust to the limit with her infidelities—a “quantum of solace” being the modicum of comfort required to sustain a relationship.

Bond “was never comfortable sitting deep in soft cushions,” writes Fleming. “He felt foolish sitting with an elderly bachelor on his bed of rose chintz . . . There was something clubbable, intimate, even rather feminine about the scene and none of these atmospheres was appropriate.” But after that allergic flush of homophobia, by the end Bond is humbled, realizing that “the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow” next to the “real violence” of everyday life.

As I push Craig to psychoanalyze Bond on our own chintz couch of forced intimacy, he seems uneasy. “I feel I’m writing a thesis here,” he finally says, exasperated. “Bond goes after the bad guys and always did. I don’t think there’s anything deeper than that.” Although Craig has reinvented Bond by diving into the psychological depths of Fleming’s alter ego, he’s not about to let the character get under his own skin. “When I’m filming,” he says, “it envelops me. But as soon as I finish, I’m outta there.” Just like Bond.