Post Millennial Malaise 12: Casino Royale

In Which Bond Begins

There is an eternal truism in the world of filmmaking, Hollywood always learns the wrong lessons from success. When something strikes a chord with audiences studios frequently chase the superficial elements of what worked rather than analyzing the underlying structure of the thing. That’s how you get obnoxious trend chasers and tired cliches. Decades riddled with imitators that seem more like a xerox of achievement than actual success in and of itself. However, there are brief shining moments where producers, directors, and writers all look at something, consider what is connecting in the moment, and thoughtfully incorporate those elements into a project. A rarity that is truly a wonder to behold.

Which is why Casino Royale is so notable in the Bond franchise. It’s no secret that the life of 007 on the big screen is almost entirely reactive to current cultural trends, but it’s only once in a blue moon that said reactivity produces something that feels legitimately modern and of the moment rather than immediately outdated. It’s then a true miracle that Casino Royale isn’t a tedious riff on mid 00’s action cliches, and instead a true standout for the entire franchise. A film that both flirts with the conventions one would expect and then thoroughly upends them. A sterling example of how to modernize a forty year old series into something that has the juice to continue into a new millennium.

So what changed between Casino and Die Another Day? Well a lot, but the aesthetic preferences being expressed by audiences were showing a distinct shift away from the grandiosity and fanciful nature of 90’s action spectacular into something that one would consider more grounded. Not realistic in the true sense, but the movie version of realistic. The success of the first two Bourne films deftly demonstrated that one didn’t have to sacrifice action bonafides for a more textured take on spy craft. The sudden surge of new comic book movies, especially origin stories, showed that people wanted heroes who fought for their position and struggled like humans to get to the top. And the ever pesky ghost of Austin Powers hangs over the whole affair, forcing the studio to produce something that wouldn’t be indistinguishable from parody.

That’s a lot of elements to balance out, a factor complicated even more by the rapidly shifting political landscape that saw the role of the traditional spy morph into something more ephemeral and confused. To make all these disparate parts work would require a miracle, and amazingly the production pulled it off.

Here’s the thing with the Bond films. Outside a distinct handful of entries they don’t operate like any other blockbuster franchise in existence. Indeed by the time we got to different people portraying the character their came to exist a weird sort of self justifying tautology for each entry. The films themselves are less pieces of narrative than kind of passion plays, where an actor takes the steps of his predecessors and follows an archetypical path on the screen. So many of the films that feature 007 don’t feel like other big budget entries, but instead self reinforcing efforts to get certain spectacle in front of the viewers: guns, girls, and exotic locals. 

This means that a lot of the movies don’t feel like actual movies. Floating in a ether realm of specific expectations. This isn’t always a problem, it frequently lets the people working on the movie to go all out in certain regards. Lavish sets, over the top action, and convoluted plots that don’t need any more justification than “it’s James Bond.” So it’s important that Casino Royale feels like a real movie driven by clear character arcs and comprehensible plots. A rare entry that tries to import some thematic meaning into the world’s most famous spy.

It’s notable then that Martin Campbell returned to the director’s chair ten years after saving the franchise for the first time with GoldenEye. He has an eye for coherent action, efficient storytelling, and a good sense on how to make these characters compelling. It’s also notable that both of the films feature a very simple relationship dynamic to hang the action upon. In GoldenEye it was Bond’s betrayal by a former comrade, here it’s the construction of an actual romance between him and the girl. For all of the obvious aesthetic differences between the films, there’s a considered through line that makes them work.

Here we see a Bond (Daniel Craig) that’s a bit green. The grimy black and white cold open (I believe the only section of any film not to be shot in color) demonstrates the dirty reality of achieving 00 status. Murdering a guy in a bathroom and coldly shooting a guy. It’s a stark setup, but one that puts the main thematic heft of the film into clear perspective, there’s a chiseling process in transforming Bond from cocksure spy into dead-eyed super soldier. From there Bond has to track down the elusive Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) a classic baddy who is covertly funding terrorist operations all over the world. To get him Bond teams up with treasury representative Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to help best him at a game of high stakes poker. Things predictably go pear shaped and Bond has to try and escape from the clutches of Le Chiffre and discover who sold out the operation.

Within this framework is an interesting exploration of what makes a Bond movie a Bond movie. Casino Royale has all the signifiers. Beautiful locals, a big bad, beautiful ladies that Bond sleeps with, but the whole thing is texturally different. One aspect is that the action is not scaled down per se, but put on a ground level. Indeed the first big scene feels like something pulled straight from a Bourne film as Bond does his sickest parkour moves to chase somebody through a construction site. And while the conceptual work is down and dirty the execution isn’t. No real shaky cam here, just clear shots of action and distinct spacial awareness that allows for a thrilling sequence.

Another thing that changes the context is that Bond is allowed much more leeway to fail than usual. He constantly mucks up his assignment and makes things way worse before resolving them. The aforementioned foot chase ends with 007 shooting up an embassy landing him in hot water with M (Judi Dench). His first round at the poker table ends in humiliating defeat as he falls for an easy trap laid out by Le Chiffre as he fakes a tell to trick Bond into betting on a bad hand. Bond even manages to get poisoned because he’s not paying attention to who’s handling his drink. He’s not yet the calm, cool, and collected badass that makes the shot at every try.

This thematic course leads to probably the most notable scene in the film. Double crossed, Bond is captured by Le Chiffre, who binds our hero to chair and then subsequently whips his testicles with a rope. On one hand the symbolism is obvious. This is the most degraded Bond has ever been on screen. Naked, bloody, and squealing in pain. But it’s also a smart re-contextualization of classic franchise trope. It’s the laser from Goldfinger but made real. Why would a bad guy need to torment a hero with complicated mechanism designed to escape when one could simply whip his balls.

This scene also demonstrates how Campbell and company view how Bond works in a modern context. For all his pop culture legacy Bond is still a person. Le Chiffre notes how well maintained Bond’s body is, but no matter how sculpted his physique 007 is still a man. Despite the mythic pop culture status of the figure he is, after all, human. An individual who drinks too much, gets too touchy with women, and likes to travel the world. He can hurt and love as much as anybody else, but the process of being a state sanctioned killing machine might slowly grind that out of him.

Which leads to the last element that really distinguishes Casino Royale. The actual, believable, and erotic romance between Bond and Lynd. For so long the Bond Girl has merely been a piece of eye candy and not really a character worth exploring. So it’s startling to see Lynd and 007 have an actual flirtatious romance that believably turns to love. It helps that both actors are incredibly hot and charismatic, but it also helps by returning to the idea that Bond is indeed human. A man who will turn to emotional response when the feeling is powerful enough. It actually stings when it’s revealed that Lynd betrayed Bond and dies with regret. There seemed like a possibility that love could blossom.

It’s this connection that allows the promise made by the cold open to be fulfilled. Bond has been beaten both physically and emotionally, and that’s kind of the point. M even notes that the experience has made Bond sharper and a stronger agent. That he may have been a man in the beginning, but he’s slowly transforming into a machine. It’s a rather cynical take that turns the final line reading of the film into something more morose. Bond, whatever that moniker means, is a harbinger of death and loss in a world that doesn’t make sense. Even when he can be beaten and bruised the killing will only get easier.

Though that cold heart lurks at the center of Casino Royale, it can’t really hide that the film is still a zippy and sterling piece of blockbuster movie making. Constantly entertaining or engaging. Frequently thrilling and shocking. Full of the promise that Bond can and will make sense in a new century that frequently appears nonsensical. With all those things considered it’s easy to argue that Casino Royale is the best reboot the franchise ever got, and might even be the best film of them all. 

Odds and Ends

  • As always the casting of Bond was contentious, and when Craig was announced people predictably flipped out. But even more than recent controversies (at least ones that aren’t race related) it is totally bizarre in hindsight. Craig had already established himself as cool British star with work like Layer Cake. The accusations of his bland persona are also puzzling given the fact that his craggy facial features make him one of the more distinct countenances to play the character. 
  • Given that this movie was a big success, and Craig and Mikkelsen have fully transformed into internet boyfriends, I find it amusing that people don’t talk more about the fact that Craig has his balls whipped by Mikkelsen. Just bringing it up like once a week or something. 
  • Even though Chris Cornell seems like a weirdly backwards looking choice for a theme tune in 2006 it works shockingly well here. The credits sequence is also pretty darn spiffy as well, leaning harder into the graphic element than anything since probably the 70’s.
  • Also popping in the movie is Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leighter. He doesn’t do a lot here, but it’s fun to see a well respected character actor appear into this role.
  • It’s notable that Casino Royale is the material used to reboot the franchise. Obviously it’s Fleming’s first book in the series. Pointedly it’s also been previously adapted into a tortured comedy in the 60’s. Feels like a statement of purpose to reassert the character and narrative in film form this time. 
  • Campbell is a weird fixture in the blockbuster world, he has three gems to his name (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, and this) while also producing some all time stinkers (Green Lantern) without really any discernment. 

Next week I turn to you to decided what we watch. So comment below with some suggestions and we will work out the schedule together.