Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale movie poster


Para­dox­i­cally for one of the fresh­est James Bond films ever made, Mar­tin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actu­ally the third adap­ta­tion of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely for­got­ten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awk­wardly Amer­i­can­ized, the same premise was par­o­died in a 1967 farce bear­ing the same name, a expen­sive all-star dis­as­ter fea­tur­ing good sports David Niven, Peter Sell­ers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Mean­while, the par­al­lel and ongo­ing flood of proper Bond films aban­doned the tainted Casino Royale, leav­ing it never sat­is­fac­to­rily pre­sented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruth­less ser­vant come from?

By 2006, the James Bond fran­chise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just count­ing the canon­i­cal install­ments), tes­ta­ment enough that it has been no stranger to inno­va­tion. The most recent over­haul was Gold­en­eye (1995), which intro­duced Pierce Bros­nan along­side an incre­men­tally more pro­gres­sive atti­tude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dan­ger­ously sexy, but as adept with salty dia­logue, grap­pling hooks, and AK-47s as the title char­ac­ter him­self. Bond could no longer cheer­fully ignore his stuffy bureau­cratic boss M when played by the impe­ri­ous Judy Dench, and Miss Mon­eypenny (Saman­tha Bond) was no longer a frump long­ing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rock­ing the sexy sec­re­tary look. Sig­nif­i­cantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond him­self. The many women in his life may have gained greater lee­way to sass and kick ass, but he him­self was still the same old sex­ist dinosaur. In ret­ro­spect, the Bros­nan films now look like just more of the same.

Daniel Craig in Casino RoyaleSay hello to my lit­tle friend

Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the fran­chise was very nearly ren­dered obso­lete by two very dif­fer­ent spy trilo­gies: Austin Pow­ers (whose satire was wholly redun­dant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Start­ing in 2002, the lat­ter did Bond one bet­ter, per­ma­nently super­charg­ing the secret-agent genre with vis­ceral urgency, per­sis­tent action, mod­er­ately real­is­tic psy­chol­ogy, and most cru­cially, grant­ing the main char­ac­ter a capac­ity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of con­science, wracked by crip­pling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capa­ble of spec­tac­u­lar feats of killing, but resented the cir­cum­stances that forced him to use those skills in order to sur­vive, or more impor­tantly, to pro­tect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manip­u­late women for intel­li­gence and sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion as Bond rou­tinely would, but rather formed an emo­tional attach­ment with one in par­tic­u­lar that would moti­vate his actions for an entire trilogy.

Once the def­i­n­i­tion of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defen­sive. The time was right in 2006 for its most rad­i­cal reboot yet. The pro­duc­ers retired Bros­nan (The Man With the Golden Para­chute?) and under­went an exten­sive retool­ing of not just the series’ visual style but its core char­ac­ters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?

The tra­di­tional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale dis­cards candy-coated Tech­ni­color for a grainy, styl­ized black-and-white noir style. Start­ing chrono­log­i­cally at the begin­ning, we see Bond exe­cute his first two kills, ful­fill­ing his final qual­i­fi­ca­tion for “double-oh” MI-6 sta­tus. Long­time Bond fans were also mol­li­fied by another grand tra­di­tion that imme­di­ate fol­lowed: a motion graph­ics title sequence fea­tur­ing a bevy of semi-nude female sil­hou­ettes. This par­tic­u­lar ani­ma­tion, with its stark red and black vec­tor graph­ics, may have pro­vided inspi­ra­tion for the open­ing titles of the 2007 tele­vi­sion series Mad Men. Unfor­tu­nately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tune­less song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.

Eva Green in Casino RoyaleYou noticed…

Fur­ther com­fort­ing con­ti­nu­ity with the pre­vi­ous instal­la­tions comes via ridicu­lous amounts of high-end prod­uct place­ment (cars, watches, sun­glasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of loca­tions (Uganda, Mada­gas­car, Bahamas, Miami, Mon­tene­gro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pud­ding in terms of its vil­lain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asth­matic, with irri­tated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to sig­nify evil in the old days that the bad­die merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.

But that’s where the con­ces­sions to Bond tra­di­tion end. To dis­cuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond him­self. No mat­ter how much testos­terone fan-favorite Sean Con­nery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fuss­ing over van­i­ties and crea­ture com­forts like a well-prepared mar­tini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gor­geous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implau­si­ble at best. The suave Bros­nan was born to play the clas­sic ver­sion of Bond, but he wasn’t get­ting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Tim­o­thy Dal­ton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t com­ment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Con­nery remains fandom’s favorite, for good rea­son), but he is clearly the most brutish and mas­cu­line. Younger, furi­ous, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilar­i­ously clever inver­sion of tra­di­tion, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female com­pan­ions, espe­cially in an instantly iconic shot of him strid­ing out of the ocean just barely wear­ing a scanty swim­suit. This Bond is almost absurdly phys­i­cally fit, a park­our expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walk­ing away from fisticuffs and fire­balls with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.

Caterina Murino in Casino RoyaleWait… there was another Bond girl besides Eva Green?

21st Cen­tury Bond Girls are smarter and more proac­tive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gor­geous and at least half the age of the cur­rent lead actor. In this Dork Reporter’s esti­ma­tion, Eva Green as Ves­per Lynd ought to go down in his­tory as one of the great­est yet. She may not be as phys­i­cally adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beau­ti­ful. Best of all, she’s enjoy­ably con­ceived by writ­ers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Hag­gis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impres­sion on me, that when rewatch­ing the film on DVD, I real­ized I had for­got­ten all about the other Bond Girl, Cate­rina Murino as Solange Dim­itrios. Her char­ac­ter pro­vides for a quick throw­back to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for infor­ma­tion and then cru­elly aban­dons her to cer­tain death.

The thrilling film down­shifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for any­one who doesn’t under­stand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a mis­cal­i­bra­tion how­ever, dur­ing one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an obliv­i­ous Bond.

Dench is the only return­ing player from the Bros­nan era, but her char­ac­ter is now part ruth­less boss and part tough-love mother fig­ure. The one con­ven­tion of the clas­sic, sil­lier Bond sto­ries that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewe­lyn) and his won­der­ful inven­tions. The high­light of every Con­nery, Moore, or Bros­nan film for me was always the cus­tom­ary stroll through Q’s lab as his lat­est pro­to­types mal­func­tion in amus­ingly lethal man­ners. I would cheer­fully recite along with Q’s scold­ing catch­phrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”

When­ever I see any Bond film, I’m always sur­prised at how enthu­si­as­ti­cally he lives up to his “license to kill” rep­u­ta­tion. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more vio­lent than most. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates it is the time spent dwelling on the after­math, includ­ing Bond hav­ing to hide bod­ies instead of sim­ply strolling away from the car­nage with­out reper­cus­sions. There’s also a fleet­ing dash of crude moral­ity rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awk­wardly com­fort Ves­per, trau­ma­tized by her cul­pa­bil­ity in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond vil­lains would merely threaten bod­ily harm with laser beams and taran­tu­las, Bond must now must face ugly, raw tor­ture (which is A-OK with the hyp­o­crit­i­cal MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, appar­ently — but that’s a rant for another time).

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

2 thoughts on “Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

  1. Per­haps you didn’t notice, but Chris Cornell’s “lame, tune­less” song has so much of a tune that its theme is con­tin­ued and devel­oped right through David Arnold’s orches­tral score. Arnold’s gone on record as say­ing that he prefers a song with enough melody to use & incor­po­rate this way and I think it works very well — much more than just a throw­away pop song (like the Jack White/Alicia Keys effort on the next movie).
    Agree with you about the poker sequences, though — I was clueless.

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