"Ironical, brutal and cold." A "blunt instrument." These are among Ian Fleming's early descriptions of his deathless assassin, James Bond. This is the 007 that the Bond films' producers, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, returned to in 2005, when Daniel Craig's casting was announced. This is the Bond who rescued cinema's longest running series from its status as bloated, incontinent anachronism and returned it, arguably for the first time since the Sixties, to sleek, muscular, potent pop phenomenon: from flaccid to priapic at a single stroke.
We Brits have a funny thing about Bond, British men especially. He occupies a uniquely delicate position in the national psyche. He is a source of both pride and embarrassment. In his twisted way, he exemplifies qualities we believe distinguish us: he's brave, he's tough, he's stylish, he's witty, he's worldly and he knows exactly what to do with Johnny Foreigner (shoot him) and Johnny Foreigner's girlfriend (fuck her, then let someone else shoot her).
It's perhaps best not to linger too long on what it says about us that our most enduring aspirational male fantasy figure is a borderline sociopath with acute abandonment issues and a job that involves state-sponsored killing. But hey, he's nattily dressed, knows a lot about wine, has a bitchin' beach bod and he speaks the international language of shag. So that's OK, then.
Get Bond right, as Craig has done, playing him dead straight without taking him too seriously, and the films can be spectacular fun. Get him wrong and Bond risks seeming risible, a pathetic post-Imperial fantasy of a Britain that is still a leading player on the world stage, as well as a ponderous pub bore's idea of traditional masculine cool. Unattached middle aged men in overpowered two-seater sports cars delude themselves into thinking the rest of us are looking on in admiration, when in reality we suspect they're overcompensating for a lack of thrust in the trouser department. And, at the risk of sounding like Jeremy Clarkson, another troubling representative of British blokeishness, a Bond with no thrust in the trouser department is — pause for emphasis, change down a gear — no Bond at all.
The question, then, is do we Brits want James Bond to project an image that makes us look smart and modern, or crap and knackered? Small wonder it's important to us which actor is chosen to play him, or that the British media (this magazine included) is flushed with fevered speculation. Who fills the tux is important to Bond fans outside Britain, too, but they are, for obvious reasons, less invested: a floppy Bond reflects not at all on a Frenchman.
It's worth noting here that Daniel Craig has not, so far as we know, officially resigned his commission. He may yet star in another Bond film. Certainly everyone connected to the movies must hope so: there's been nothing at all floppy about him, not even his hair. But eventually he is going to holster the Walther PPK for the last time and toss the keys to the DB9 to a younger star.
Esquire has a modest stake in the identity of that star. We've been fortunate to score the first interview with Craig on the occasion of the last two Bond films, and this has had a not inconsiderable effect on our sales. I'm not giving away any trade secrets when I tell you that the biggest selling issue of 2015 was October, with Daniel Craig on the cover, promoting Spectre. The biggest selling issue of 2012 was also October, with Daniel Craig on the cover, promoting Skyfall. And even in 2011, when there was no Bond movie to get behind, we had Daniel Craig on the cover, promoting a film called Cowboys and Aliens. (That was not the best selling issue of that year — but it was close.)
It's easy to forget, now that the Bond brand is so vital, the low ebb the series was at when Craig took the job. In the last film of the Brosnan era, 2002's Die Another Day, poor old Pierce was forced to contend not only with North Korean megalomaniacs and a sword fight with Madonna, but the indignity of driving an invisible car. Craig's hiring was controversial — Too young! Too blond! — but he immediately brought sex and danger and seriousness of purpose to the role. He had built a reputation on stage and screen playing tortured, tormented characters. His Bond, as first revealed in Casino Royale (2006), was intense, kinetic but also wounded, vulnerable. In the films that followed he relaxed into the role, letting some light in without losing the brooding menace. The success — critical and commercial — is without precedent. How on Earth to replace him?
As the astute Bond-watcher Simon Winder has pointed out, the Bond films long ago became locked into a cycle of binge and purge, the relative restraint of the early Sean Connery films eventually supplanted by the corny jokes and creaky plots of the later Roger Moore movies, with a single, oddly tearful buffer between them supplied by the luckless George Lazenby. The jovial, clubbable Moore was replaced by dull, hectored Timothy Dalton, and from there it was back to cardboard suave, with Pierce Brosnan.
If we follow Winder's binge-purge model, the next Bond should be a glib, insubstantial himbo. I think this is unlikely. What is needed is an actor who can put his own stamp on Bond while continuing Craig's work updating the old cove for the 21st century. That, as Ian Fleming probably wouldn't have put it, is a big ask.
Shortly before the announcement of his casting, in 2005, Craig starred in an unsavoury London crime caper called Layer Cake. His performance was widely taken as an extended audition for the part of Bond. (Even if it wasn't, it worked.) The same happened at the beginning of this year for Tom Hiddleston, Esquire's cover star this month, with his role as an undercover agent in the BBC adaptation of John Le Carre's spy novel, The Night Manager. Like Craig, Hiddleston is blond, blue eyed and athletic, as well as an accomplished actor. There the similarities end. Where Craig's physical power is explosive — true to Fleming's "blunt instrument" — Hiddleston has a feline grace. He's leaner and longer, and more languid. He seems more easily amused than Craig's saturnine countenance will allow. But while Craig is a relatively easy read, Hiddleston's charm and politesse seem to mask something darker. One suspects that were he to get the job he might bring a slightly sinister quality to Bond, as he did to Jonathan Pine, in The Night Manager. Spies are not to be trusted, after all: they deal in secrets and lies. And until The Night Manager, Hiddleston was best known as a villain: Loki, in the Marvel comic book movies.
Also like Craig, in the years preceding his appointment to MI6, Hiddleston has built a considerable reputation. At the movies he has worked with Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, Kenneth Branagh and Terence Davies. On the London stage he has been in acclaimed productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov. (In between Eton and Rada, he also took a double first in Classics at Cambridge.) He's 35 years old, famous and popular and critically admired. He'd be a shoo-in were it not for last month's Esquire cover star, the magnificent specimen of British masculinity that is Idris Elba.
Some — not all — of the excitement around the possibility of Elba's casting as 007 comes from the fact that he is black. Fleming's Bond wasn't, but that's no reason at all why the next screen Bond shouldn't be. Elba has said he wouldn't want to be a "black Bond", just as Connery wasn't a "Scottish Bond". He would just want to be "Bond." That seems a forlorn hope to me. (To some, Daniel Craig still is the "blond Bond", and doubtless will always be.) But whatever: Elba is an irresistible actor of real power and charisma. Anyone who has seen him in The Wire or Luther knows he would make a marvellous Bond. If Hiddleston has the obvious edge on him in anything it's only by accident of birth: Elba will be 44 in September, nine years his rival's senior. That might prove the difference.
Tom Hardy, meanwhile, is 38 and entering his prime. No one could dispute his quality; he's the most pulse-quickening actor of his generation, with a gift that seems somehow preternatural. Where Craig and Hiddleston are intellectual actors, thinking their ways into roles, Hardy appears to be purely instinctive. He is hard, with the looks of a boxer, but also sensual, even effeminate. Picking Hardy would be like going back to 1962 and casting Marlon Brando, rather than Connery, in Dr No. Like Brando, he takes risks, and it's hard to know which Hardy will turn up: he made mincemeat of diCaprio in the overcooked The Revenant, but surrendered centre stage in Mad Max: Fury Road to the ferocious Charlize Theron. (Not that he didn't put up a fight.) There's no telling what he would do with Bond, but it would surely be different. Would Hardy's Bond be gay? Working class? Welsh? All three? Are the Bond producers brave enough for him?
Other actors have their backers. I'm not as persuaded as some by Damian Lewis, enjoyable as he was in Homeland. Lewis is 45, a decade older than Hiddleston. I last saw him on the telly as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, jousting with Mark Rylance, and being knocked off his horse. One feels the chance, like Henry's lance, has slipped from Lewis's grasp.
James Norton, from TV's Happy Valley, is handsome and dashing and only 32. He was appropriately furrow-browed as Andrei in the recent BBC War & Peace, but I can't see him as a threat, yet, to Elba, Hiddleston or Hardy. There's another small screen heartthrob, Aidan Turner, star of TV's Poldark, who gets name-checked in pieces like this one. He's Irish, like Pierce Brosnan, and good looking, like Brosnan, and a TV heartthrob, like Brosnan. Basically, he's the Brosnan option. But if it's all on sexual charisma, then how about Jamie Dornan, of The Fall and — possibly inadvisably — Fifty Shades of Grey? Women go to pieces in his presence, and yet I haven't seen his name mentioned at all.
Hunky Henry Cavill — Superman — is as expressive as a dumb-bell as the Man of Steel, and he was unable to save Guy Ritchie's inert The Man from Uncle rehash, yet he gets mentioned all the time. Jason Statham is the best B-movie action star since the glory days of Seagal and van Damme, and an effin' and blindin' Bond would certainly be a novelty, but I wouldn't put money on him. Michael Fassbender does an uncanny sociopath (check out his Steve Jobs), and he's handsome enough, but there's cool and there's chilly, and Fassbender is closer to the latter. His X Men co-star James McAvoy seems far too well adjusted for Bond. And I say that having sat through Filth.
Curious that few have put forward Benedict Cumberbatch or Eddie Redmayne; they seem to be nominated for everything else. Cumberbatch I discount on the premise that surely one can't be Sherlock Holmes (i)and(i) James Bond, while Redmayne is far too pretty. Bond is, in his way, the everyman, or the fantasy of every man, he can't be (i)too(i) exotic a figure. On stage and screen, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a force to be reckoned with, but what chance has he against the popular firepower of Hiddleston, Elba or Hardy?
Maybe we should skip a generation and take account of the qualities of Jack O'Connell, so impressive in the prison drama Starred Up? Or John Boyega, brilliant in Star Wars? Or Taron Egerton? But all being well they will have their chances in another ten years.
It is, after all, largely a matter of timing. If I were writing this article a decade ago, and Craig hadn't already taken the job, we'd be talking about Ewan McGregor and Jude Law — the latter very droll as an unctuous English spook in last year's Hollywood comedy, Spy. For years, Clive Owen had to do what Elba and Hiddleston are doing now, batting away questions in every interview about whether or not he'd been approached. And remember Dougray Scott? At one stage Hugh Grant's name was raised, and who knows — he might have made an entertaining Bond, more in the Moore mould, obviously, than the Connery. The moment has passed for him, as it has for Colin Firth, and for Ralph Fiennes — superb, anyway, as the new M — and for any other British actor of that vintage you care to mention. (Gerard Butler? Please God not Gerard Butler.) Not that every British leading man daydreams about having his own Moneypenny. I can't say for sure but Christian Bale has never seemed the type, though I don't doubt he could have brought his fierce commitment and dead-eyed, reptilian appeal to the role, if required.
Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Daniel Day-Lewis — the post-punk generation — would have laughed you out of the room at the mere suggestion. Oldman was a wonderful George Smiley. Day-Lewis might just be the greatest screen actor who ever lived, and is about as likely to play James Bond as I am. (You haven't seen me in my tux or my trunks — nor should you ever have to.)
Enough with this endless speculation. For this interested observer, as for the bookies last time I checked, it's between Elba and Hiddleston, with Tom Hardy close behind. My money's on this month's Esquire cover star, rather than last month's, or last May's, and that's only if last October's can't do it again.
But of course, the really daring thing for the Bond producers to do — the obvious thing, if you think about it, in our era of gender fluidity and fourth-wave feminism — would be to accept that Craig's Bond is unimprovable, and cast a woman in the role: a Jane Bond, a Jamie Bond. (It's difficult, I find, not to be tickled by this prospect, if only for the prospect of watching the spluttering reactions to the news of the Daily Mail and the more reactionary rump of Bond fans.)
Ideally, of course, she'd be a Brit, and as ever we have an abundance of world-beating actresses. There's nothing that Kate Winslet can't do, but whether she'd want to sign up to a blockbuster spy franchise is debatable. Rachel Weisz is as classy as any actress alive, but one suspects that one secret agent in a marriage might be more than enough. Sienna Miller? Keira Knightley? Emma Watson? Carey Mulligan? Gemma Arterton? Rosamund Pike? (Or does having been a Bond girl instantly rule a person out of being Bond?) All fine actors, but I think I have someone more suitable.
Did you see Sicario, the American action thriller of last year, with our own Emily Blunt as a straight-shooting FBI agent embroiled in a dirty drugs war on the US/Mexico border? Bloody hell, she was good. Brave but vulnerable, conflicted but steely, entirely believable. I can think of no occasion on which her presence alone wouldn't make any film better by a factor of 40 per cent.
(Why Blunt, specifically, and director Denis Villeneuve's film, in general, weren't all over the Oscars like coked up cartel honchos at a barrio block party tells you everything you need to know about the boring predictability of that ceremony. For what it's worth, I'd nominate Villeneuve to replace Sam Mendes as director of the next Bond movie.)
So, that's it. We've found our man — and she's a woman. Esquire's choice for the next 007 is Emily Blunt. She's 33. She's beautiful. She's smart. She's talented. She's British. She's clearly physically and mentally up to the challenge. She has an international profile already. Man, she'd be a kick-ass 007.
It's either her, or Tom Hiddleston. Or Idris Elba. Or Tom Hardy.
Unless, of course, it's Daniel Craig.