The James Bond films carry certain expectations: guns, cars, gadgets,martinis shaken not stirred, girls, sex and cringe-worthy double entendres are chief among them. Casino Royale is astonishing in its defiance towards some of those conventions. But this film isn’t the balm to soothe the wounds of a decade’s worth of poor filmmaking.
The 21st Bond film in the 44-year-old film franchise, released Nov. 17, ushers in a new Bond (Daniel Craig) and a (apparent) new direction for the series. Bond is a more three-dimensional character, and he’s made relevant for the times, a quality desperately lacking in the last four films.
Bond has just earned his double-O status as the ultra-stylish credit sequence begins. He’s on his first real mission in this film, trying to foil an international group of terrorists. After an overlong, almost utterly meaningless first hour, Bond is put on the trail of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikklesen), the terrorist group’s moneyman. Le Chiffre has just lost a lot of bad people’s money in the stock market, and to get it back he enters a high-stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale. M (Judi Dench) gets Bond in the game -- apparently Bond is MI6’s ace cards man -- in order to prevent Le Chiffre from winning back what he lost, then bring him in for interrogation.
Casino Royale, the first Bond book written by Ian Fleming, is the last Fleming Bond text to be adapted, straight, cinematically. In 1967, a madcap spy spoof adaptation of Casino Royale starring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and Orson Welles, among others, was made to send up the Bond series. This more recent adaptation is far more faithful to the source material. When the film finally settles into the meat of the story -- the card game -- Fleming’s literary Bond, keen characterizations and adroit plot development subjugate the cinematic Bond’s penchant for shoot-‘em-up nonsense.
But that’s only one change among many producers have brought to the franchise. There are no outlandish gadgets (because Q isn’t in the book, so he’s not in the movie), and the double entendres are almost totally forgotten (thank God). There fast cars (Bond gets two Aston Martins, a vintage 1964 and a modern 2006) and “Bond Girls,” but the sex is kept to a minimum. This isn’t as bad as it might sound. Bond has heretofore been a mimbo; now, he earns his sexual escapade and it doesn’t render him tawdry and misogynistic.
Another change comes in the violence. Rather than video game distant, we’re given up-close brutality. Bond engages in numerous hand-to-hand combats, with one encounter leaving him extremely bloody and another giving him numerous facial lacerations. This up-close-and-personal approach is taken to its maximum effect when Bond attaches a bomb to a terrorist and allows the terrorist to blow himself up; previously, Bond would have shot at the terrorist from a tank or some other heavy military machine to do the same job.
The most important improvement Casino Royale brings to the table is that Bond is a character for the times, not a relic caricature of a character that should have ended with the Cold War. Bond languished as the Cold Warrior with no real purpose nor enemies to combat (media moguls and oil barons are suitable for Batman or Superman, but not James Bond) over the past four films. Here, though, he’s charged with fighting terrorism, a suitable if not entirely worthy replacement for communism. And to go with this new mission Bond is given a sense of reality. He’s a stone-cold killer, but he feels and grows and evolves as the film progresses. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is key to this process, providing Bond with a serious romantic interest that makes him reconsider his position as a spy rather than a floozy that makes him reconsider his position under her. Vesper isn’t treated as a sexual object, but rather as Bond’s check on reality and sanity.
Daniel Craig is as much a reason for this improvement to Bond as anyone. Besides being as close to Fleming’s Bond as has been seen on screen, Craig carries himself, as Bond, with dignity and purpose. Craig’s less-than-matinee idol looks reposition Bond away from what has defined the character for decades (oozing sexuality) and towards something new entirely (oozing masculinity). Unfortunately, Casino Royale is still plagued with some of the problems of previous films. The pre-credit sequence is presented in black-and-white, despite being shot in color, for no apparent reason other than to have a black-and-white opening. It’s used as a novelty rather than a narrative device, rendering it hokey and disingenuous.
Worse, though, are the action set pieces. Not only are they too long, they grind the film to a screeching halt. The opening chase sequence, post-credits, is utterly nonsensical. Bond chases a man around Madagascar as the man jumps and bounces from building to building, flea-like, in a mad attempt to escape the pursuing Bond. (Apparently, director Martin Campbell saw and really liked District B13, a French film about nothing more than jumping and bouncing off of and between buildings.) When the sequence ends, you’re left wondering why Bond went through so much trouble. Similarly, the climactic battle in a sinking Venetian building is remarkably bland. Besides prolonging the conclusion of the film by a good 20 minutes, it robs the story of the emotional punch Fleming delivered in his book. There’s something to be said for artistic license, but Campbell’s kills in this film don’t earn him his the way Bond’s kills earn him his license to kill.
As a Bond film, judged on the merits of previous Bond films, Casino Royale is a huge step in the right direction. Bond is remade into relevance and some modicum of realism, while much of what made the Brosnan Bond films so problematic has been excised. However, this still isn’t the perfect Bond film. It crumbles too easily under the traps of the past, even after devoting a lot of time and energy to building the series back up. There is still a lot of work to be done to correct the franchise. Hopefully this is truly the beginning of a new direction for James Bond.