Perhaps I’m reading too much into a trivial online poll, but to me, the news that Sean Connery has been voted the best Bond is a sign that the agent is an icon of Britain past. It’s a sign that while Ian Fleming’s secret service sex symbol is a fine vintage unrivalled in nostalgia value, there’s no market for further reinvention. It’s time to close the book and decommission the agent once and for all.
When 007 first strode onto the big screen in the 60s in the body of a Scotsman, he was conceived as a lovable player, a one-liner machine who picked up women as effortlessly as his martini glass. The character worked because he was of his time, and if you can ignore the shameless misogyny and extremely problematic depictions of race (most notably when Connery’s Bond disguises himself as Japanese fisherman in You Only Live Twice) it’s an entertaining stroll into simpler times. Timothy Dalton, runner up in the survey, saw the spy through the 80s, oozing with trademark charisma and class; even by the 90s, Pierce Brosnan – who sits comfortably in third place – was able to pull off that corny charm. They claim the top positions because they delivered exactly what we wanted: easy, cheesy viewing.
Craig, on the other hand, came out badly in this particular poll. This is not a measure of his talent; when he took on the mantel in 2006, the actor undoubtedly brought the most cerebral performance to the role. With his entry into the franchise, the story became much darker, responding to a grittier cinematic shift by morphing into something sleek and sophisticated. In place of puns and punchlines, there is trauma, torture and a whole lot of sexual tension. And yet, there’s something that doesn’t sit right when you drag Bond into the 21st century. A nuanced, realist portrayal is slightly out of sync with the caricatured European villains and their personal vendettas.
Craig, by his own admission, has suffered under the pressures of the franchise – though the paychecks were understandably enough incentive to keep him on board for five movies. Some of his films – Casino Royale and Skyfall, in particular, were more than box-office contenders; they were actually well-made films. Spectre, too, had its strengths – the most notable admittedly a sprawling steady cam shot in the opening scene, stitched together with seamless VFX. But when it comes to the actual content, it’s a premise that read better in the last century. No one blinked an eye when Connery reeled in an endless stream of Bond girls, but nowadays, however suave he is, Craig’s pairing with a love interest almost 20 years his junior still comes across a little creepy. The “boys will be boys” mentality no longer plays; the cheeky habits feel tired and there’s a distinct feeling he should be settling down.
When the suggestion of Jane Bond came into the picture a few years ago, it wasn’t a bad idea because a woman couldn’t play the part; it was a bad idea because a woman shouldn’t play the part. This tale of espionage has had a good run, but now it’s time to create a female-led spy thriller series in which they can craft a new legacy free from a history of objectification. Or even better, how about one that resists the dusty white, heteronormative mould? Bond has been archived in the popular imagination, and the current iteration lives on a bit like an overdue library book. The fines will only increase until we shelf him for good.