Casino Royale (2006)


Directed by: Martin Campbell

Written by: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis, Ian Fleming

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench

I did something out of character last night. I saw a James Bond film in the cinema.

This is either as odd as it sounds, or completely understandable, because, although James Bond is one of the world’s most identifiable characters (and I have seen every one of his 20-odd filmed adventures I think), I have been unfortunate enough to grow up during Bond’s fallow period. Indeed, a recurring debate when I was at University was over who was the ‘better’, Bond or Indiana Jones. Being a child of the 80s, I went for the latter every time.

You see, it’s generally agreed that the classic Bond period was the sixties and the best actor to steward the role was Sean Connery. He made six official Bond films, book-ending the single appearance by George Lazenby (in what is actually a pretty good adventure, with arguably the series’ best musical themes), before departing the role at the start of the seventies.

1973’s Live And Let Die saw Roger Moore take over, even though he was older than Connery, and this is where the franchise kind of lost me even as I found it. My earliest memories of Bond are of the 80s films; tongue in cheek escapades featuring a faintly incompetent British spy, packed with ludicrous gadgets and awful puns, and generally just laughable in general. Look back at, say, A View To A Kill now; the last Moore film. It featured the never knowingly under-acting Christopher Walken and Grace Jones and had its theme song performed by Duran Duran of all bands (although John Barry's score is incongruously beautiful). Some people would say that Austin Powers doesn’t actually seem like much of a spoof having seen these latter efforts.

Perhaps as a reaction to this, the next instalment, The Living Daylights, was noticeably darker. New custodian Timothy Dalton dispensed with the levity Roger Moore had brought to the role, and his second outing, Licence To Kill saw its guidance rating jump worldwide as a disenfranchised Bond went rogue. Dalton’s tenure wasn’t particularly successful, although his pair of films managed to bring the series back to earth (consider Moonraker if you will.) Even so, the longest period of time between Bond films passed before the next actor took up the role, Pierce Brosnan.

Continuing with the theme of non-Englishmen playing the archetypal Englishman, Irishman Brosnan had been considered for the role ten years previously, but contractual obligations ruled him out. Suave, darkly good looking and able to affect a glass cutting upper class accent, many thought Brosnan was ideal for the role, and indeed he went on to star in four outings that did well at the box office.

Unfortunately thought, the old problem of Bond lapsing into cartoonish ridiculousness raised its ugly head yet again in his latest adventure, Die Another Day. Despite an admired opening act where Bond is captured, held prisoner and tortured by the North Korean military over a period of 18 months, several elements combined to give the detractors ample target practise. The ‘invisible’ stealth car didn’t help. Nor did John Cleese’s hammy performance as R, replacing the dear departed Desmond Llewellyn. Thirdly, Madonna’s divisive dance influenced (and pretty awful) theme tune and mugging during her brief cameo as a fencing instructor might have put a few people off. Bond seemed to be becoming a spoof of itself yet again, and despite record box office receipts, the producers decided to take action. They reached for Ctrl, Alt and Delete.

Bond’s continuity is a little confusing at times. It’s intimated that every successive actor is playing the same man, and though some (including Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori) suggest that ‘James Bond’ is simply a codename, just like ‘007’, we’re supposed to suspend disbelief, and accept the changing faces and times. And it doesn’t really matter that much who’s playing Bond, as long as certain aspects of the character and stories remain intact.

However, though Bond has remained essentially the same person over forty years and twenty films, the producers have taken the bold step of ‘rebooting’ the franchise, in the same way that Batman and Superman have, at the point where the fiction has outstripped the science. M is still played by Judi Dench, as she was last time, but almost every other element has been stripped back to its base coat, allowing us to follow new Bond Daniel Craig in his first mission as a double 0 agent.

I probably don’t need to brief you on the furore surrounding the choice of Craig. Ridiculed by some for his allegedly not being able to drive a car with manual transmission (he can), or his wearing a lifejacket at his introductory press conference, or admitting he doesn’t like guns, or God forbid for being blond haired, I admit I wasn’t too keen on him myself.  Craig has admitted himself that he was affected by the backlash, and as a result everyone involved in the production seems to have redoubled their efforts with this new re-imagining. Although it should also be noted that Connery himself wasn’t exactly a unanimous choice; Bond creator Ian Fleming despised him at first.

A controversial choice, Craig is also a fairly inspired one. He’s the youngest actor to take the role since the sixties duo of Connery and Lazenby (Moore, Dalton and Brosnan were all in their forties), and as a result he’s able to throw himself into the action far more convincingly. With Bond’s military career now more closely defined - he served in the Special Boat Services division of the Royal Marines - Craig’s muscle-bound physique is much more fitting for a man who spends most of his work day bare knuckle fighting.

Casino Royale is the story of Bond’s first mission since gaining double 0 status. The monochrome cold opening shows us just how he acquired his licence to kill, segueing into the notably dancing girl-less title sequence, inspired by card suites, and in one of the earliest sequences in the film proper, we see Bond using a bulldozer to hunt down a fugitive terrorist. This is an ideal metaphor for our new James Bond, rough around the edges and on a steep learning curve as far as international espionage is concerned. While in pursuit of his quarry (played by real-life free-runner Sébastien Foucan), Bond is unable to match his graceful velocities, but what he does possess is strength and brute force. He is a bulldozer, willing and able to run through walls should the situation require it.

This regression of Bond to wrecking tool (M delineates him as a ‘blunt instrument’) might be surprising to those of us familiar only with the glossy film versions of Bond, but the subject matter, Ian Fleming’s novels are much darker affairs. The book that provides the film’s source does indeed supply a scene where Bond is tortured, and it’s worth noting that the novel of Doctor No, the one Bond book I’ve actually read, is surprisingly more graphic and frank than its film counterpart.

So what of Casino Royale as a film? Well, it’s been the first Bond film released during my lifetime that I’ve felt the urge to see at the cinema. Do you need to know any more? Er, you do? Well, ok then. The script is excellent. Taking its lead from the novel, and with input from the Oscar-winning Paul Haggis, it moves us from one improbable location to another (well, some things have to stay the same) with every word carefully considered and fighting its weight, and it’s notable for the presence of some genuinely amusing lines. Yes, gone are the awful puns. Some people might think this is a bad thing, but I personally think it’s done wonders for the franchise. If you’re looking for the other staples of Bond films, you won’t find many of them here. The film makers have consciously done away with a lot of them, though some of the old trademarks do emerge as Bond starts to find his feet. In one memorable exchange, a vexed Bond orders a dry Vodka Martini. When the barman enquires ‘shaken or stirred’, Bond’s response is a steely ‘Do I look like a man who gives a damn?’ As far as re-imagining a character goes, that’s really rather brave, and clever. Much like Bond himself.

Drawbacks? The Casino scene does linger a little, and the film seems to run out of the energy it had displayed in the first half. David Arnold’s music is still too slavishly devoted to John Barry and Bondian ideals to be truly individual, but he deals with the absence of the famous theme quite admirably, cleverly interpolating a snatch of it with his and Chris Cornell’s own ‘You Know My Name’.

We do follow a character arc with Bond over this story; we see him move from being a green-around-the-gills new recruit to being a twice shy spy. He still has sex with beautiful ladies, he still drives flashy cars, he still seems to destroy a quarter of the world in order to save the remaining three quarters. This is Bond for the 21st century, though it achieves this by remaining true to a fifty year old novel. Where have they been going wrong for the last twenty years?


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