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).

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