Daniel Craig brought 007 bang up-to-date with his debut as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, but it was a big gamble for the world’s longest-running spy franchise.
Oddly enough, the mixed fortunes of the previous instalment set the wheel turning on the biggest reboot yet.
Less the first Bond film of the 21st century and more like a hangover from what had gone before, 2002’s Die Another Day was the commercially successful yet critically maligned final outing for Pierce Brosnan’s 007.
Like Moonraker before it, the film was a box-office hit, but its brand of expensive camp and VFX-driven spectacle wasn’t sustainable for future films.
In the shadow of both Austin Powers and Jason Bourne, MGM wanted to keep Bond fresh (a young Bond series “like Smallville” was mooted at one point) and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson sensed it was time for a change.
Initially, that involved spinning off Halle Berry’s Die Another Day character Jinx in her own spy thriller, penned by series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and launching an alternating "Winter Olympics" franchise in parallel with the Bond films.
Meanwhile, Broccoli and Wilson also planned to take the 21st Bond film back to basics with a new version of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale.
Yet to be officially adapted due to rights deals pre-dating the Bond franchise itself, the novel’s screen rights had come back to Eon in 1999 following an MGM deal with Columbia Pictures for the former’s stake in Spider-Man.
Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino approached Brosnan and Eon (some reports say it was Columbia he pitched, before the rights went back to Eon) with a radically different 1950s-set take on Casino Royale that he wanted to shoot in black-and-white, but the producers didn’t bite.
After MGM jinxed Jinx and told Eon to focus on Bond 21 instead, the producers decided to tell an origin story, launching the franchise in a new direction rather than retrofitting Casino Royale for the existing version.
After deciding to replace Brosnan (who likely wanted a big pay rise too), the producers started screen-testing new Bonds, but Broccoli had her sights set on one actor from early on.
Cards on the table
In 2004, Daniel Craig was best known for TV’s Our Friends In The North and a more recent breakout role as a nameless gangster in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake.
He didn’t consider himself obvious Bond material, but Eon courted him while they finessed the script. After a polish and a third-act rewrite by Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis, they won Craig over, and he duly signed up as the sixth actor to play Bond on film.
French actor Eva Green won the crucial role of Vesper Lynd, Mads Mikkelsen was cast as Le Chiffre, and Jeffrey Wright became the latest actor to play Bond’s CIA ally Felix Leiter.
The only returning cast member in this one was Dame Judi Dench as M, and her rapport with Craig's Bond became key to the emotional arc of his first three outings.
It wasn’t all change behind the scenes either. Having ushered in the Brosnan era, GoldenEye director Martin Campbell jumped at the chance to go even further with rebooting the series, putting as much into character and drama as stunts and action.
Composer David Arnold also switched things up, withholding the iconic Monty Norman theme in his score until the very end of the film.
In keeping with the script, the traditional theme song is more about Bond’s perspective for a change, and Arnold chose Chris Cornell to co-write and perform You Know My Name. Coupled with a striking B&W opening sequence (like Tarantino suggested!) and Daniel Kleinman’s superb opening titles, the song kicked the door down on the new era.
With a budget of $150m, the film was largely shot in Prague, with production designer Peter Lamont creating sets to double for London, Miami and Montenegro on his ninth and final Bond outing. There was also location shooting in Venice, the UK, and the Bahamas, with paparazzi besieging the shoot as part of sustained negative press coverage pre-release.
Long before Benoit Blanc came along, it was knives out for Craig as soon as his casting was confirmed. Even in the mainstream media, there was a fixation on the vocal minority who were shouting that the star was too ugly, too blond, or otherwise wrong for Bond. To his credit, Craig kept his chin up and worked his backside off to prove them all wrong.
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Indeed, there can be no overstating his influence on the direction of the series, from his physical presence to his acting approach.
Accordingly, the most iconic scene comes not during a crash-bang-wallop fight scene but afterwards, with Bond comforting a fully clothed Vesper in a running shower. While the script called for them to be in their underwear, Craig insisted they be fully clothed. The scene is better for it.
Against the backdrop of the love story, the film has plenty of the attendant bits we expect from Bond.
Granted, the theme doesn’t play until the end, and there’s no Q or Moneypenny, and the Aston Martin crashes into the Guinness Book of Records when Bond rolls it seven times into a field – but the film is also a more faithful adaptation of Fleming than anything we’d seen for a long time. Heck, even the wince-inducing genital torture scene made it in there.
Rather than throw out the formula, it updates it wherever it can, which is key to its success: Casino Royale was a gamble that paid off – and far surpassed Die Another Day’s box-office total – by going in the complete opposite direction.
No Time To Die arrives in cinemas on 30 September. Watch a trailer below.