Daniel Craig’s 20 best film performances – ranked!

With Craig about to return as Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion, we take a look through the blond Bond’s action-packed filmography

20. The Organ Grinder’s Monkey (2011)

Daniel Craig is no stranger to the freaky cameo (see the stormtrooper bit in The Force Awakens) but this very much NSFW short film from the Chapman brothers is surely the freakiest. Craig gets about 40 seconds of screen time as the voice of artist Rhys Ifans’s post-masturbatory fantasy: a chimp with a brain implant who yammers Ifans’s despair at his artistic impotence. A high-impact performance, in every way.

19. Sylvia (2003)

This looked great on paper: Craig as earthy, passionate poet Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow’s uptight Plath, a writer struggling with her art. Craig dives into the role with impressive commitment (including a sort of rehearsal for his career-defining ocean-swim-trunks moment) but something doesn’t quite work; maybe the film is just a bit too careful to burnish the Plath legend.

With Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia.
With Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia. Photograph: BBC/Allstar

18. Happy and Glorious (2012)

Not strictly speaking a film, or even a performance, but Craig’s comedy skit with the Queen was the climax to the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, suggesting that HM parachuted into the stadium from a helicopter. Craig isn’t required to do much more than stride around purposefully in his 007 tux, but the little cough he gives to attract the Queen’s attention is an acting masterclass in itself.

17. Enduring Love (2004)

Craig’s honeyed, soft-spoken tones and donnish frown has allowed him to develop a nice sideline in academics and intellectual types. Here he is essentially a more buff version of Ian McEwan in the Roger Michell-directed adaptation of McEwan’s stalker-thriller. The film itself never quite lives up to the barnstorming opening in which Craig joins efforts to stop an out-of-control balloon, but his controlled performance suits his character.

16. No Time to Die (2021)

This was Craig’s fifth and final clamber up the James Bond tree, and if we are being honest the strain was starting to show, a bit. The makers attempted to inject a wintry, valedictory tone into proceedings – understandably, perhaps, given where they wanted to go with the narrative – but the Bond films are never especially good at introspection and regret. Craig keeps his end up but mentally speaking, he had already left the building.

With Paul Newman in Road to Perdition.
With Paul Newman in Road to Perdition. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

15. Road to Perdition (2002)

One of Craig’s earliest forays into Hollywood, playing a small but key role in Sam Mendes’s retro gangster thriller, adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. It’s very much the bad guy part: Craig is Connor, the twitchy, murderous son of Paul Newman’s gang boss John Rooney. Sample dialogue: he’s asked at a wake why he’s always smiling; Connor replies, grinning maliciously: “Because it’s all so fucking hilarious.”

14. The Trench (1999)

Craig often seems happier (and more effective) as part of an ensemble – at least until Bond meant he had to carry a movie on his own. He played a hardbitten first world war platoon sergeant in the author William Boyd’s directorial debut; the troopers waiting to go over the top at the Somme included fresh-faced Danny Dyer, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw. The role brought out Craig’s natural air of command, invaluable later as 007, as he repeatedly clashes with Julian Rhind-Tutt’s nervy officer.

13. Copenhagen (2002)

In the days when BBC Four made long-form drama, Craig was charged with upholding one of their bravest (or most foolhardy, considering the ratings) attempts to elevate the tone of the culture. Adapted from Michael Frayn’s play about the wartime meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, Craig played the former (of “uncertainty principle” renown), who might or might not develop atomic weapons for the Nazis. An impressively high-minded film, and probably Craig’s most uncompromising of his gallery of academics.

With Jamie Bell in Defiance.
With Jamie Bell in Defiance. Photograph: Momentum Pictures/Allstar

12. Defiance (2008)

Craig used his newly acquired 007 clout to acquire gigs in big though not always particularly earth-shattering films; but this war film, from an amazing true-life story of a family of Jewish Belarusians fighting the Nazis from a forest hideout, is pretty decent, if a bit old-fashioned. Craig plays older brother Tuvia Bielski, wearing that air of natural command again, the leader of a camp where hundreds of Jews take refuge.

11. Spectre (2015)

Riding high on the success of Skyfall, Craig takes 007 into office politics territory as Bond scraps with his newly installed chief (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his rival (Andrew Scott). The traditional Bond action open, with a helicopter careering over a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, is one of the best, and Craig complements this by astutely handling the gags and one-liners that pepper the script. Bond performances tend to be constructed rather than acted, but Craig builds his effectively here.

With Toby Jones (as Truman Capote) in Infamous.
With Toby Jones (as Truman Capote) in Infamous. Photograph: Warner Independent/Allstar

10. Infamous (2006)

Craig was handed a plum Hollywood role here: Perry Smith, one of the convicted killers in the In Cold Blood murders, as memorialised by Truman Capote, in the second film about the case in successive years. The exact nature of Smith and Capote’s relationship is disputed, but this film suggests sexual contact and a near-rape incident in the prison. The dynamic between the pair is not a million miles away from Francis Bacon and George Dyer in Love Is the Devil, but here the stakes are far higher.

9. Some Voices (2000)

Craig first caught the eye on TV in Our Friends in the North, but he made his bones as a leading man in this little-seen drama from the very patchy Britflick era of the late 90s and early 00s. Furnished with a somewhat unlikely bottle-blond haircut, Craig gives it his all as recently deinstitutionalised psychiatric patient Ray, on medication for schizophrenia, who strikes up a relationship with feisty Glaswegian Kelly Macdonald. While it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, and ends as badly as you’d expect after Ray refuses to take his meds, it’s a very watchable film, ballasted by Craig and Macdonald’s undeniable on-screen chemistry.

8. The Mother (2003)

Craig began to accrue some serious movie-star momentum with this Hanif Kureishi-scripted drama, as a carpenter who starts an affair with his girlfriend’s widowed mother. Though the focus is very much on Anne Reid’s sixtysomething May, Craig’s role as a T-shirted hunk who is, erm, extremely good with his hands showcased both his basic physical charisma and his capacity for gentleness and empathy. It’s a bit undermined by the histrionic final scenes, but Craig was on his way.

7. Layer Cake (2004)

In the 00s, British cinema was obsessed with remaking GoodFellas, and this is one of the best attempts: Craig parachutes in as a super-suave cocaine supplier sucked into various gang wars between major crime lords. Orchestrated with considerable flash by Matthew Vaughn (then making his directorial debut, after producing Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), you have no trouble in believing the sharp-suited Craig could shoot people in the head from point-blank range. Craig’s unnamed dealer is perhaps not as wired as Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, but this (in retrospect) is another step on the road to Bond.

With George Harris in Layer Cake.
With George Harris in Layer Cake. Photograph: Daniel Smith/AP

6. Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

Craig had an early success in John Maybury’s biopic of the celebrated painter as the East End villain George Dyer, whom Bacon (played memorably by Derek Jacobi) entices into his bed after he tries to rob Bacon’s studio. Maybury went all out to conjure up Bacon-style pictorial effects – faces distorted by glass, cubes and grids introduced into the production design – as the inarticulate Dyer heads for his tragic end in a toilet in a Paris hotel. Compared with what came later, Craig is a little callow and uncertain, but it all helped the character.

5. Casino Royale (2006)

Craig blasted away Bond’s cobwebs within his first moments, bringing a much heralded “darkness” to the role. (In practice, this meant him battering an enemy contact to death in a toilet in a black-and-white flashback.) In truth, the Bond producers having not long before got the rights back to Fleming’s first novel, this is a slightly backward-looking entry, with card games, seductions and sadistic torture scenes all present and correct. It’s hard to credit now the waves of negative pre-publicity – NoBlondeBond and all that – but Craig carried it off with aplomb.

4. Knives Out (2019)

As the end of his time as 007 got ever nearer, Craig could afford to stretch his legs a little, and opted to head a stellar ensemble cast for Rian Johnson’s Massachusetts-set answer to Agatha Christie. As private detective Benoit Blanc, this wasn’t the first time that Craig would grapple with a preposterous accent, and he manages to be pretty funny among all the narrative ins and outs.

3. Logan Lucky (2017)

Craig might have been amusing in Knives Out, but he was actively hilarious in Steven Soderbergh’s racetrack heist, equipped with an even more preposterous accent. Bust out of the slammer by brothers Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, Craig plays an explosives expert adorned with a blond buzzcut who goes by the princely moniker of Joe Bang. It’s by no means the biggest role in the film but Craig makes every second count. Just brilliant.

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher’s high-powered remake of the Swedish hacker-noir thriller (derived ultimately from Stieg Larsson’s novel) saw Craig take one of his increasingly adventurous forays, as journalist-investigator Mikael Blomkvist looking into the mysterious disappearance of wealthy tycoon Henrik Vanger’s grandniece Harriet. In a setup not that dissimilar to Knives Out, all the main suspects are corralled around a grand mansion; but otherwise Dragon Tattoo is a deadly serious, horribly watchable film, with several splinters of ice at its heart. Craig makes a pretty plausible reporter, too.

1. Skyfall (2012)

Although it’s often hard to locate actual human feeling among the cacophony of a Bond movie – the blaring soundtrack chords, overpowering light pollution, the thunderous detonations – it all came together in Craig’s third go at the 007 role. Framed around his re-entry into espionage after being presumed dead, Skyfall’s great coup is its last half hour, when Bond kidnaps M and heads north to his childhood home in the Highlands, thereby to lay a trap for Javier Bardem’s implacable villain. But Skyfall – the house – is the locus for a sudden lifting of the veil as the misery of Bond’s formative years is briefly, and cruelly, exposed. Craig gets the bitterness just right, all the while squaring his shoulders alongside Albert Finney and Judi Dench to see off the threat. And Craig shows real tenderness in M’s final death scene in a tiny stone church, Bond mourning the mother he never really had.

• This article was amended on 24 November 2022. The Trench was not an adaptation of a novel by William Boyd. Rather he wrote the screenplay, as well as directing.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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