Light Bondage: “Casino Royale”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Casino Royale (2006)

Brosnan was done, and Bond was in trouble. The 90s and the millennium represented a big push forward for action films. CG meant that people could do whatever they wanted, span the world from a soundstage. The spectacle of movies was never more broad or more artificial. At the same time, new action stars cropped up, ones exciting in their new, low-key approach. Bond was stuck in the middle, falling into stupidity when it went too big, but unable to shake its glossy past to achieve appropriately Bourne levels of verite violence.

I don’t need to go on too much about the solution they came to. Casino Royale is a full fledged reboot of Bond, stripping out all of his history and casting him as a man of the present. Without the threat of Cold War hanging over his distant past, this new Bond was more violent, more turbulent, and more inscrutable than ever. He was also blonde, which if you were on the internet in the mid-aughts was a really widespread, really stupid matter of controversy. People seemed to care at the time. But a fairly obvious fact has more or less killed that whole movement: Casino Royale is easily one of the best Bond movies.

I was actually concerned about how I would receive it coming after so many movies in a fairly short time. Like most, I found it an amazing breath of fresh air after the choking excess of the later Brosnan years. But would it compare to the classics, with it’s modern sensibilities and relative lack of spectacle? In a word: yes.

Bond, not yet a 00 agent, as signified by his ratty clothes and open collar. Also, drop dead gorgeous black and white. This movie steps up the ‘looking sexy’ game.

What’s amazing is that it took them this long to do it. Bond has never really been a constant character, but he’s always been constantly in the prime of his life. Maybe it’s changing conceptions of what we want heroism to be, but it seemed to never cross anyone’s mind that a Bond who actually was wrong (not just accused of it by stuffy superiors) and did make mistakes (ones that couldn’t be readily fixed in the course of the plot) would be interesting. They finally caught on, though, and what’s most striking about Casino Royale revisiting it is just how deeply, terribly flawed this version of Bond is.

Less a spy (technology has mostly replaced all the leg work) and more a hired gun, Daniel Craig’s icy Bond is a man who struggles with the concept of representing something bigger than himself–be that the government, or even just being a force for some nebulous sense of ‘good’. He kills, he tries not to let it get to him, he seems rather desperate to hide all of his emotions behind a wry sense of humor and a professed disinterest in anything but the job. This Bond is a genuinely damaged human being, a hero only because he’s on the side we usually root for, a monster not yet even in a well-fitting suit.

And what’s surprising is how not-actiony this more violent Bond is. Sure, there’s the big chase scene towards the beginning of the film, a great chase on a runway, and the collapsing building shootout at the end, but for the most part making Bond nearly a thug is counterbalanced by throwing him into a situation where he is distinctly uncomfortable. The chase for the international terrorist Le Chiffre involves subtlety and restraint, and Bond spends most of the movie back where he began in Dr. No so many years ago, trying to be a cop and shaking things up just by being there. Hell, the majority of the movie revolves around a card game. Talk about narrow focus.

Bond, causing chaos, actually gets beat to hell throughout much of this movie.

But I feel that’s why this Bond works. There’s no world saving, there’s no giant evil plot, there’s not a whole lot of stuff blowing up. Instead it’s the quiet moments: Bond’s lost child relationship with Judi Dench’s even more cynical M, the flirting and growing understanding between Bond and Vesper, the grin-and-bear-it way Bond responds to torture. I’ve been saying all along that what I enjoy about my Bond movies is context, when they bother giving me a reason for all the stuff that’s happening. Casino Royale is a movie rife with context, not just in plot but for maybe the first time in character. Everyone has a history, and they all matter. Just think, it only took is 21 movies, but we finally got a fully character-driven Bond.

A technical note, because I don’t have a section for it: Casino Royale is incredibly color corrected, which I normally rail against in movies, but it’s done in such an amazing way that I’m shocked I hadn’t noticed it the first few times I had watched the movie. Instead of going orange and teal, the movie is full of colors. Outdoor scenes are lit to the point of oversaturation, nighttime is cool and crisp. The luxurious interiors (and Vesper’s luxurious dresses) almost bleed color off the screen, juxtaposed against the beautiful black and white opening scene. Hell, there’s even a fight in a stairwell that’s almost entirely yellow. I don’t normally go off about digital color correction, except to point out how bad it is, but god damn does Casino Royalelook great. One of the best uses of the technology I’ve seen.

By the end of the movie ,Bond is decidedly back and awesome. Too bad the next movie is kind of bad!

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
I’m not going to rag on Chris Cornell out of hand, because I’m honestly not that familiar with his work, but “You Know My Name” is the kind of song that I would barely remember if it came on the radio. I think it works in the context of the film, and it’s stripped down to an instrumental theme that almost fully replaces the Bond theme in the movie, which works better than it has any right to. Maybe it’s just my aversion to rock songs, especially as movie themes (it reminds me a lot, probably unfairly, of Chad Kroeger’s awful “Hero” from the Spider-Man soundtrack).

That said, its accompanied by my favorite Bond title sequence. Going for full CG abstraction, the intro is an amazing piece of animation, full of the usual Bond themes of women and guns, but also smartly incorporating card motifs into a rich, colorful intro. It’s the kind of thing that even standalone is dazzling, but as opening titles it’s some of the best in movies.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
There really aren’t a ton of gadgets in this movie, a consequence of grounding Bond in a more realistic, restrained setting. He does have a pretty cool car, though, an Aston Martin DBS that holds a whole array of goodies in its glove comparment, including a defibrilator that Bond uses to restart his heart after being poisoned. It’s very mid-tech, nothing you couldn’t reasonably expect to see today, but it’s presented well. That is, until the car gets destroyed in one of the best car crashes in cinema, a very real seven spin roll that holds the Guinness world record for being appropriately amazing.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
This whole section has been leading up to this point, where I can easily say that Eva Green playing Vesper Lynd is the best Bond girl in the entire series. It’s almost a no-brainer, really. But what’s equally true, and honestly better, is that Lynd is a genuinely great female role in a genre that seems almost universally bereft of them.

Eva Green is the reason this movie works. She’s the heart and soul.

Lynd is a treasury agent assigned to bankroll Bond’s entry into La Chiffre’s high stakes poker game. From the instant Bond sees her, he’s interested, but the two are at nearly instant loggerheads when she turns out to be just as sharp-witted and silver-tongued as Bond. Their sparring upon their initial meeting is my favorite scene in the film, the kind of scene that feels instantly timeless, with a rapid repartee that speaks to the kinds of contentious relationships that were rife in Old Hollywood, when spitfire women weren’t the mystical unicorns of cinema.

The romance that springs up between them feels genuine and nuanced. Green and Craig have a hell of a lot of chemistry, and the movie doesn’t blink at showing how affected she is by the kind of violence that gravitates towards him. She’s a decent person thrust into a really awful situation, and he seems far more concerned at times with her emotional well-being than he does the outcome of the mission. It’s the kind of detail-oriented arc of two characters that really works on screen, a romance that actually involves two people and a lot of interesting scenes of just the two of them interacting.

Watching Bond struggle to explain his way of life to someone, and to still feel his conscience, helps ground a character who has spent decades as a cartoon.

I know it probably won’t be the case forever, especially since Lynd gets sadly fridged by the end of the movie, but I really wish this would be the new template for Bond girls. For all the lip service paid to changing expectations of women’s roles expressed as early as GoldenEye, it’s not as if the movies have gone out of their way to put their money where their mouths are. And after Casino Royale, Bond went right back to messing this up (among many other things, discussed next time). So maybe being hopeful is asking too much.

Best Bondickery:
Craig’s Bond is kind of a dick all the time, but he’s never really abhorrent, so it’s kind of a tricky proposition to tease out one particular scene from the many possible choices as the thing that crosses some sort of arbitrary line between cool and douchey. But, because the scene never fails to make me shake me laugh, I choose the scene when Bond first reaches Casino Royale. Stopping to tie his shoe so he can scope out the cameras, he is mistaken for a valet and handed the keys to an SUV.

Bond, obligingly, takes the keys and parks the SUV, only to back up at the last minute and smash it into the other parked cars. In the ensuing chaos, he slips into the hotel, but honestly nobody seems to be paying attention anyway so the whole thing feels like an unnecessary gag, with no payoff other than the guy whose vehicle he wrecked giving Bond the stink eye later in the film. Unnecessary property damage is kind of par for the course for Bond at this point, admittedly, but that one stands out as being fully and weirdly superfluous.

JAMES BOND will return in QUANTUM OF SOLACE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Light Bondage: “Casino Royale”

  1. MrMazz says:

    Been waiting for this to get done since you started the series. My favorite bond film period, though I haven’t seen all of them.

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