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Non-Review Review: Casino Royale

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Casino Royale was breath of fresh air for the Bond franchise. The twenty-first film in the series, it represented something akin to a “back to basics” philosophy, pulling back from the camp excesses of Die Another Day to offer us a version of Bond which was a thriller rather than an action comedy. It’s a familiar pattern for low-key entries to follow over-the-top instalments (after all, the producers followed Moonraker with For Your Eyes Only), but arguably not to the same extent. While other movies made the pretense of operating within the same continuity (with numerous references, for example, to Bond’s marriage from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Casino Royale was an attempt to completely start from scratch, with a new actor playing a James Bond who was new to his 00-agent status.

What’s on the cards for Bond?

Truth be told, I’m not so convinced that a complete reboot was necessary – after all, the movies had recovered from the camp of the Roger Moore era without a similar radical overhaul. In fact, I have to admit that the move isn’t quite so daring as it might first appear. Certainly, Quentin Tarantino’s proposal that he direct an adaptation of Casino Royale with Pierce Brosnan sounds like a far more adventurous proposal (even if, despite Tarantino’s own ramblings, it was never actually discussed).

Returning to director Martin Campbell puts Bond back in safe hands. Campbell famously directed GoldenEye, which might be my personal favourite Bond. He’d handled a fresh start for the character before, and brought a more nuanced and introspective quality to the films. Over the course of the three films which followed his first Bond outing, successful directors had squandered that personal element that Campbell had given the character – returning to the style-over-substance formula which had turned the character into a joke in the Moore era.

It’s a jungle out there?

So it’s no surprise that Casino Royale is at its best when its focusing on Bond himself. Granted, Craig’s Bond has a stronger starting position than any of his predecessors – from the moment he shows up on screen, we know he’s new to this (that rough and tumble chase through a construction site confirms it) and has a lot to learn before he’s the character we know he must become. This Bond is a “blunt instrument” who is made a secret agent and “he celebrates by blowing up an embassy.” His character arc is already defined – the audience knows where he is now and where he must be, so we can calculate his trajectory. it makes him seem more like a character than a plot device, which some of his earlier iterations became at times.

GoldenEye was a story about Bond adapting to a world that didn’t need him anymore – both in the fall of Communism and changes to the action movie genre. This time, Bond must adapt from a generic action movie hero into the cool and collected icon we know he must be. Despite the fact the movie mostly does away with all the gadgets and gizmos and gimmicky henchmen and crazy lairs, the movie is undoubtedly proud of its rich heritage. It gets great joy out of dropping a few notes of the Bond theme, and putting its hero in a ridiculously expensive tuxedo.

Silenced but deadly?

Many would accuse the producers of unashamedly attempting to emulate the successful Bourne films. There’s a lot of kinetic action – Bond is a lot more brutal than usual and the stunts and fight scenes are shot with rapid cuts. It’s a reasonable criticism, but one that I think is more reasonably directed at the movie’s sequel, Quantum of Solace. Here there’s a sense that there are some attributes of Bond that simply should not be lost, as much as you might have to make some cosmetic changes to stay in tune with the times.

The movie is notable for the changed world that it inhabits. Brosnan’s Bond was lost at sea in the era after the fall of the Soviet Union, unable to figure out what he was doing with himself. However, Casino Royale was the first Bond film produced after the 9/11 attacks, and it shows. The early part of the film follows Bond as he foils a terrorist attack on an American plane, and M actually voices one of those conspiracy theories that emerged after the attack about various people profiting from the stock market. Though the movie acknowledges some fears about Bond being outdated (“the accountants seem to be running MI6 these days,” Bond’s contact, Mathis, observes – reflecting Bond’s initial doubts about the female M in GoldenEye), there’s no denying that this is a world where we need heroes like Bond. In a way, Casino Royale has a much easier job repurposing Bond than GoldenEye did. Against the current political backdrop, he doesn’t face the same existentialist doubts as he did after the end of the Cold War.

Certainly not watered down Bond…

The movie also embraces the duality of Bond, which some of the weaker instalments have had difficulty with. Bond asks M if she expects him to be “half monk, half hitman” – and that’s a perfect description. Despite his smug sophistication, Bond has always been a glorified assassin, one of those “former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.” Craig’s performance calls to mind Brosnan and Connery – he is charming, but also cold and aloof. If you were in his way, he’d kill you without any remorse.

I am not so sure about the movie’s other revisions to the character. During the scene with Vesper, she remarks that “my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it” – it seems quite at odds with the sense of upper-class entitlement of Connery and Moore. Bond was a gentleman of class and distinction, and perhaps it says something about modern audiences that coming from an upper class family is somehow more shameful than being a government assassin. Apparently it’s important that we don’t consider Bond to be a character who was born into money – “you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity: hence that chip on your shoulder.” I used to quite like that Bond was unashamedly well-educated and sophisticated, and it seems strange for the movie to explicitly revise that part of his character – did the writers worry that the audience would reject him if he came from money?

Need a lift?

The movie has its flaws. For one, there’s the fact that the film is pretty much three films in one. There’s the opening terrorist attack at the airport, the sequence at the eponymous casino and a (very) extended epilogue. For me, it was the quiet second third which worked best – the plot for Bond to turn an enemy by bankrupting him at cards is a very smart and sophisticated thriller plot, and one which doesn’t require crazy stunts or explosions to execute. The first section of the film feels almost generic – there are some interesting action sequences, but it feels like the movie is just treading water. The last third pretty much coasts off the middle section of the film, and slightly overstays its welcome.

It’s the gambling sequences which work remarkably well. The movie switches the game from Baccarat in Fleming’s original novel to Texas Hold ‘Em – being honest, it’s a smart move. Poker is easier to follow and understand (although the movie insists on spelling everything out – “Bond will have to go all in to call his bluff,” Mathis explains at one point, for the audience’s benefit). It also makes for a more psychologically taut thriller.

When the chips are down…

It also works simply because it’s the one element of the plot where you really couldn’t replace Bond with Bourne or any other secret agent and expect it to work. Bourne could save an airline and recover stolen funds, but I don’t believe Bourne could look so good in a tuxedo playing cards. There’s something quintessentially British about that, which is so very Bond. It’s a sequence like that which is missing from the direct sequel, where you could pretty much just edit Bond out and replace him with anyone and it would work just as well.

However, there are several plot elements which do feel essentially Bond. We see, established here, a nefarious evil organisation which we know implicitly will span across several movies (and they feel insidious and nebulous in a way that is lost in the sequel). The villain has  physical deformity (in this film, he weeps blood – “nothing sinister,” he assures a guest). “You know,” he confides to Bond, referencing the ridiculous deathtraps that come as standard for a Bond villain, “I never understood all these elaborate tortures.” The movie is fundamentally aware of its identity as a Bond film.

They should call it “Airport Insecurity”…

I have to admit, I like Vesper. She’s perhaps the most memorable Bond girl in years – if only because she’s the best characterised. She’s an intellectual equal to Bond – able to skilfully analyse his major character flaws a few minutes after meeting him. “You think of women as disposable pleasures,” she observes, accurately, “rather than meaningful pursuits.” When she’s finished cutting him to pieces, she asks how his lamb is. “Skewered,” he responds, “One sympathises.”

However, the movie doesn’t seem to treat her any better than any other Bond girl. Although she’s smart, she’s weak – emotionally and physically. After Bond brutally dispatches two goons in a stairwell, he is ready to play cards once again. She has to sit in a shower to clean herself. During the fight, she does little except flee, eventually managing to hold down the villain’s hand (rather than assisting Bond in subduing him). Despite her sophistication and class, she needs Bond to protect her – she’s unable to protect herself in any way.

A smash hit…

As with GoldenEye, Campbell has assembled a fantastic cast to bring the script to life. I do love Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, Bond’s “brother from Langley.” If the series can afford him, I’d advise they hang on to him. Eva Green makes a great Bond girl. Mads Mikkelson is a fantastically understated Bond villain who still feels like a Bond villain despite the fact that he doesn’t own an underwater lair or a weapon of mass destruction. I especially like Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, Bond’s contact. He’s a great understated Italian actor, and Mathis gets a nice bit of foreshadowing in with the line, “Just because one is dead doesn’t mean one cannot be useful.”

Casino Royale is a high-quality Bond film, one which feels like a return to early Connery. Given it had been nearly half a century, that’s quite a compliment.

We have complete reviews of all of the Daniel Craig films available, if you are interested:

The following bloggers have reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

7 Responses

  1. If there is one thing I enjoy about your reviews, it’s that they are always extremely fair. There is very little I could disagree with in your review, even though I don’t like the movie quite as much as you.

    For me, Casino Royale is more memorable than it is a movie I really enjoy. Like you said, Vesper, the poker scene, Le Chiffre, and other elements are just as iconic as anything in James Bond.

    But the movie’s achilles heal is definitely its epilogue. After Le Chiffre dies, I stopped caring.

    • Thanks Justin, that’s a huge compliment and I’m glad I seem fair – I worry that I tend to rant and rave a bit. I do think Casino Royale is a great film with a bit of padding either side. Ironically for a Bond film, I’d actually gladly lose most of this film’s action sequences.

  2. Just dropping by to thank you for being part of the James Bond January thing, and thus inspiring me to write today’s post. Would love to hear your picks 😀

  3. I admit, the movie for me was quite boring at the start but when the plot came in, it was incredible!

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