In the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., there’s an item on display called the “rectal tool kit” that was the object of a mild stir when the museum opened in 2002. (Pictures of the museum piece are not available online, but this image should give you an idea.) It’s a metal capsule about 4 inches tall that was issued to CIA spies on dangerous missions in the 1960s. A friend visiting the exhibit defined this object as the deal breaker par excellence for James Bond wannabes: Sure, you get the international honeys, the briefcase of fun gadgets, and the tricked-out Aston Martin, but you have to go around with a tube full of minipliers up your butt.
Daniel Craig, the new Agent 007 in Casino Royale (Columbia Pictures), is the first Bond you can imagine actually availing himself of the rectal tool kit. (Sean Connery? Definitely not placing anything in that area. Pierce Brosnan? I don’t even want to think about it.) Craig’s Bond would use the tool kit in a pinch, because he’s hard-core. Less worldly and sophisticated than earlier Bonds, Craig’s version of the character feels raw, dark, and dangerous. And it’s not an “oh, you marvelous rake” kind of danger, but a “this guy could really hurt me” kind of danger.
Upon first hearing in the fall of 2005 that Daniel Craig would be the next James Bond, my first response was, “Daniel wha?” Yet at that point, I had already seen and admired Craig’s performances in at least three movies: The Mother, Sylvia, and Enduring Love. The problem was that Craig disappears into his roles, and I couldn’t keep the actor’s name straight from movie to movie. In an attempt to understand just what about this moody British actor had screamed “Bond. James Bond,” to producer Barbara Broccoli, I recently went on a scouting expedition through some of Craig’s recent work.
If there’s one common theme in Craig’s madly shape-shifting career, it’s intensity. Even playing a neurasthenic philosophy professor in Enduring Love in 2004 (the film with perhaps the most promising opening sequence of the past five years), he boiled over with physical vitality. You could see why the strangely gentle stalker played by Rhys Ifans labored under the impression that he and Craig’s character were meant to be together after their one horrific shared encounter. The movie’s hasty, conventional thriller ending was a disappointment, but Craig’s brooding, introspective performance, like Ifans’ guileless one, burst the bounds of the story.
Though James Bond is clearly an erotic aggressor, Craig’s past roles have been more likely to situate him as the object of others’ desire. In The Mother (2003) his character, an unhappily married building contractor, is the sexual hot potato who gets tossed back and forth between a daughter (Cathryn Bradshaw) and her sexagenarian mother (Anne Reid). The Mother is a deeply unsettling film, not only because of the extended nude love scenes between Craig and Reid, but because neither of these two May-December lovers is particularly lovable. But Craig’s performance is rich enough that, even if you never quite penetrate the mystery of what draws him to this needy older woman, you know he has his reasons.
This is not the place to bewail the miscasting of Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003), a thoroughly misbegotten biopic of the suicidal poet. But Craig’s presence as Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, elevated the whole endeavor. Reciting rapid-fire lines from Romeo’s death scene as he courted Plath in a students’ garret, Craig made it clear that what drew Plath to the brilliant but narcissistic Hughes was inseparable from the death wish that would finally do her in.
In the British heist picture Layer Cake (2004), Craig played a nameless drug dealer referred to in the credits as “XXXX.” Layer Cake was like Sexy Beast without the good parts. The violence was gratuitous to the point of absurdity, and the organized-crime plot was impossible to follow, but Craig’s character was as fearsome, if not as loathsome, as Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan. Amoral and dandified, with a soft spot for the ladies, he was the most Bond-like character Craig had played so far.
Since being cast as Bond, Craig has also played an assassin for the Mossad in Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005). Craig had few lines but a key function: He was the devil-may-care foil to Eric Bana’s more morally tormented hero. More recently, he made out with Truman Capote (Toby Jones) in Infamous, Douglas McGrath’s retelling of the story of the writing of In Cold Blood. As convicted murderer Perry Smith, Craig was mercurial, needy, and frightening.
Craig’s casting, at first, had some Bond fans up in arms, in part because of the color of the actor’s hair. (Ah, blonds. Will their societal oppression never cease?) But it wasn’t just the fair hair that seemed wrong to strict constructionists. Bonds have always belonged to a certain physical model: suave brunettes with side parts, Guy Smiley-types who seem to have been born in a tux. (Hugh Jackman, who was rumored to have been one of the candidates to fill the post, is a prime example.) Don’t get me wrong, Craig rocks a fine tuxedo, but only because he looks like he’s about to burst out of it, Incredible Hulk style.
In a torture scene, Casino Royale’s blood-weeping villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) visits great indignity upon James Bond’s manhood (though to judge from subsequent love scenes in the film, no lasting harm is done). As he readies his instruments, Le Chiffre compliments the naked and bound superspy on the physique he’s about to harm: “You’ve taken good care of your body. Such a waste.” The screening audience laughed aloud at this line, because Daniel Craig’s body is truly something to behold. He’s ripped without being the least bit muscle-bound and possessed of a coiled, catlike grace that’s atypical for an action star. Like Uma Thurman, he’s somehow athletic and delicate at the same time. Craig’s naked body, which is partly, if not fully, on view in virtually every movie he’s made, puts me in mind of a great couplet from Ogden Nash: “Should you behold a panther crouch/ Prepare to say ouch.”
To tell the truth, even those of us with no stake in the creaky Bond franchise had a hard time imagining what a new actor, however magnetic, could bring to the table. Casting such a protean actor was an odd choice on the filmmakers’ part. But maybe that’s the whole point: to subvert the Bond brand. Asked by a bartender if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, Craig’s Bond snaps, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
You might’ve expected that the 21st century would bring us a post-post-Postmodern Bond, so laden with winking references and self-conscious tics that he’d sink under his own weight. Instead, the director, Martin Campbell (who also directed Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as Bond in Goldeneye), has chosen to give us a Bond who’s both metaphorically and literally stripped bare. Let me take this opportunity to thank him for both.