Even 45 years after he first appeared on motion pictures screens, James Bond remains an elusive entertainment icon. Scholars and critics have spent inordinate amounts of page space contemplating why this stalwart symbol of the Cold War, with his debonair demeanor, laser like libido and government issue licensed to kill, is still considered a viable hero. While producers have made sure that the face of the franchise has changed with the changing times (perhaps one of the most unique marketing ploys in motion picture history), the character’s resolve has remained steadfast and undeterred. Bond is wish fulfillment made flesh, danger and intrigue experienced vicariously through the magic of film.
Perhaps this is why the recent “reboot” of the series, Casino Royale, was met with so much initial resistance. People like their traditions untainted, maintained in the same stoic form that they had decades before. Film fans are even worse. Working within the confines of the so-called ‘artform’, they mistake the constants within a series for the inherent creative element and balk at any suggestion of manipulating or removing same. A perfect example was the casting of Daniel Craig as 007. While his look was definitely a radical departure from the “dark and mysterious” manner of the character (though not as seismic as the Sean Connery/Roger Moore shift), the obsessed feared that Craig was destined to fail in two key areas – moving the series into the 21st Century while preserving all the mandates from the past.
Their fears were unqualified, and Casino Royale is the reason why. A sensational action film in the purest sense of the genre, the 2006 version of the famed British spy has been overhauled and deconstructed, returning to author Ian Fleming’s original concept for the M16 agent. Purists praised the refusal to bow to popular PC pronouncements, bringing the he-man back to his casual sex stratagem. Others enjoyed the renewed brutality, instilling this fierce fireplug of a Bond with less of the black tie elegance previous incarnations lived by. In Craig, the character has rediscovered his roots, illustrating the cutthroat realities of a life in secret service of God, Queen, and Country. Not only is Casino Royale the best 007 feature in quite a long time, but it betters many of the stylized attempts of recent that have tried to reconfigure the tired action genre.
In the hands of Martin Campbell, the man responsible for the last major Bond revamp (1995’s GoldenEye, when fan favorite Pierce Brosnan made his remarkable debut), Royale overcomes a couple of narrative deficits to make the mythical man its own. The plot, involving terrorists, a money-laundering maniac who literally weeps blood, and a decisive game of…poker (it was baccarat in the book) can be quite knotty at times. Indeed, our hero moves around from country to country so quickly in the first hour of the film that we wonder if his recent change to “00” status came with frequent flyer miles. Similarly, the card game that makes up the last act catalyst to the narrative is an interesting, if anticlimactic suspense spectacle. You know you’re filmmaker understands this fact when he stops the contest cold more than once to introduce another adrenalin rush of action.
In previous installments of the series, these stunt-loaded set pieces were the most memorable element of the entire film. In fact, more fans remember the various chase scenes (down snow-covered mountains, within shark-infested seas) than they do the assorted intricacies in the plotting. Here, Campbell perfectly melds spectacle with the storyline, delivering one stellar eye-popping thrill after another. The opening foot chase, with its bows to “free running” (or parkour, as its often called) and vertigo-inspiring heights is terrific, as is an attempt to stop a bomber in the Miami airport. The finale, featuring a Venetian building slowly sinking into the canals, is a tad too League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to stand-out, but Campbell handles the histrionics in ways that still continually astound the viewer.
Even in the quieter moments – and there are several – the director understands the pressure he is under. His is the job of delivering Bond to the post-9/11 world, to create an image that will hold up under both political and personal scrutiny. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by thwarting expectation. While there are two very sexy ladies for 007 to play off of (and with), both Eva Green (as a British Treasury agent) and Caterina Murino (as Solange, the wife of a Bahamian bad man) are eye candy in name only. Indeed, it is Bond himself who is the sex appeal. Seen shirtless, water cascading off his immaculately toned torso, or tied-up, nude, for a sinister torture session, it’s our hero who is objectified. As a result, it deflates many of the criticisms surrounding the character. It’s hard to complain about his womanizing when it’s 007, not the gal, whose supplying most of the onscreen gratuity.
Still, such a position requires careful and considered casting, and this is Casino Royale‘s greatest artistic triumph. There is not a single moment where Daniel Craig doesn’t own the screen. Anyone who saw him in the criminally underrated Infamous (where he played Perry to Toby Jones’ effete Truman Capote) or Steven Spielberg’s amazing Munich recognized that this was an actor to watch. But James Bond is more than a role – he’s a religion, the kind of cinematic symbol that instills a special sense of satisfaction in his devotees. Under-perform, as one Timothy Dalton did, or fail to meet the constituencies rabid requirements (Roger Moore from about 1977 on) and you end up losing that last bit of motion picture leeway – the benefit of the doubt. Craig had more than just the role to reject him. Blond, far more “common” in his appearance, his was to be a journeyman Bond, a by the bootstraps sort of bloke who suddenly finds himself in Her Majesty’s secret service.
And it’s just the sort of shock to the system the series needed. For decades now, critics have clamored that, if Bond wished to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world, he needed to get away from his tailored suits and shaken martini mandates. Many have even argued that the only way to do this was to allow big name directors – filmmakers with their own unique styles like Quentin Tarantino, John Woo or even Michael Bay – to take over and frame the franchise. In their minds, an actor couldn’t create the kind of change necessary to make such an old world artifact relevant again. But in Craig, and indeed, in Casino Royale itself, we realize the flaw in such an argument. True, the movie is about 20 minutes too long, and playing poker for such incredibly high stakes seems so plebian. But thanks to Craig’s onscreen magnetism, and Campbell’s care behind the camera, the movie manages to maintain its impressive power.
It’s the same with the recent DVD release. For a film with such a broad, overreaching scope, Royale loses very little on the small screen. Perhaps its because Campbell’s approach is more inside out than visa versa. His action sequences always provide enough spatial and pragmatic logic to avoid confusing or simply losing us. Similarly, there are very few of the stuntman hiding long shots that work against our involvement in the cinematic melee. There will be those who bellyache over the paltry selection of extras (you’d figure a film as important to the franchise as this would warrant something more than a standard behind the scene doc and an EPK style look back at the Bond girls) and wonder about the lack of overall context, but they would be missing the much bigger picture. In an era where action is defined by size, style and CGI, to bring back a character whose name alone inspires visions of old school stodginess, is a massive entertainment risk. But that is perhaps why James Bond remains so enigmatic. Somehow, he succeeds, and Casino Royale is proof positive of such stellar staying power.