Daniel Craig boosts Bond franchise

Actor invigorates long-running action film series

LONDON — The name of the production company behind the phenomenally successful James Bond franchise, EON, is an acronym that stands for “Everything Or Nothing.” Suitably, the inferred notion of huge risk was never more apparent than two years ago, when the legendary brand, then recently acquired by Sony after a long association with MGM, underwent a radical transformation.

Daniel Craig was cast as the sixth incarnation of the death-proof superspy — replacing the popular (and profitable) Pierce Brosnan — causing an uproar from hardcore fans who balked at the prospect of a Bond who lacked the suave, handsome elegance a la Brosnan and Roger Moore (and sports blonde hair, no less). Rumors that the franchise would also make a concerted withdrawal from its signature gadget-driven fantasy (which some critics saw as having reached its apex with 2002’s “Die Another Day”) caused further discord among the faithful.

However, the result, “Casino Royale” — the series’ 21st film and the first proper adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel that introduced 007 — saw the gamble pay off in magnificent style: Critics hailed the grittier-than-ever, character-driven film as one of the very best of the series, resulting in nine BAFTA nominations; Craig was feted for his dynamic performance; and, most pertinently, audiences were enthralled, giving the film a franchise-best financial haul of just under $600 million worldwide.

Moreover, “Casino Royale’s” success highlighted a valuable realization for production partners Sony and EON: “What we found is that you can strip away a lot of the bells and whistles, but it still feels uniquely like a Bond film,” notes Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal. “Throughout the history of the franchise, the actors, tone and style of the films have changed, but the fundamental essence of what makes Bond endures.”

Notably, Craig managed to capture that essence while radically departing from his predecessors. “He is a key factor in all of this,” says EON head Barbara Broccoli. “We were very excited that the response to Daniel was so strong.” Consequently, adds the producer, “‘Casino Royale’ has set a new standard, and it’s now a question of meeting those expectations for the next one and delivering a film that is emotional and dramatic as well as action-packed.”

Currently in pre-production for a December start date and a targeted November 2008 release, Bond 22 will retain “Casino Royale’s” trio of scriptwriters — franchise vets Neil Purvis and Robert Wade along with Oscar winner Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “Million-Dollar Baby”) — who will fashion an original script that, according to Broccoli, “will continue the path of Bond trying to find out who was behind the Le Chiffre operation. That’s as much as we’re going to say.”

Haggis elaborates, but only slightly: “I can tell you it starts right where ‘Casino’ left off. Yes, Bond will be going after the organization that we hinted at.” So, Bond 22 will be part of an arc, but will the hero now be the fully fledged 007, or will he still be growing into it?

“It will be the same Bond you saw in ‘Casino,’ ” Haggis says, “a very human and flawed assassin, a man who has to navigate a morally complex and often cynical world while attempting to hold onto his deep beliefs of what is right and wrong.”

Craig, speaking recently to the Chicago Sun-Times, echoes Haggis: “He also has to deal with revenge because he has lost the girl. Bond is still maybe too headstrong, and he doesn’t make all of the right decisions.”

As with “Casino,” the absence of traditional supporting elements like gadget-master Q and Miss Moneypenny will continue: “Certainly, there may come a point where those beloved characters return, but,” Broccoli says, “at the moment, they’re not in 22.”

If original Fleming material has run dry, the author’s spirit is very much present. “You’re always looking back at Fleming for inspiration,” notes Broccoli’s EON partner Michael G. Wilson, “all the writers do. Without getting specific, maybe there will be references to certain episodes. The approach to it is that Fleming is very much in the fabric of it.”

To shepherd the new installment, Sony and EON have settled upon Marc Forster, director of such intimate dramas as “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and the upcoming “The Kite Runner.” “I’ve always been a fan of Bond,” the filmmaker says, “so this has been a childhood dream of mine. Daniel Craig is a fantastic actor, and it becomes more character-driven just because of him. That inspired me to be part of this. It’s important that the action is good, because I want it to be exciting, but it’s important to me to never lose that connection to Bond and the emotional arc he goes on. ”

“We have always believed that great filmmakers can always work in multiple genres,” Broccoli says. “(Forster) is certainly a great filmmaker and a great storyteller. … It will not only pack a dramatic punch, but also deliver on the action.”

Adds Pascal: “Marc is an incredibly sophisticated filmmaker with great visual style and a lot of energy. The pairing of Marc and Daniel is very exciting, and it was in keeping with the new direction of the franchise to bring in a fresh and original talent like Marc.”

Certainly, the pervading air of confidence confirms that the relationship between Sony and the world’s most famous film franchise has started out on firm footing.

“What’s great about Sony is that they are truly with you through thick and thin,” Broccoli observes. “They really want to be partners and are a valuable part of the whole enterprise. They have the passion for it, but will also spend the time when it’s needed and do whatever needs to be done. They are very committed to the partnership. We couldn’t ask for anything better.”