Bourne Another Day: Casino Royale (2006) review – BlogalongaBond 21
There’s always been a certain irony to the concept of a serious Bond movie. But this plays with those ironies to actually deliver on its promise
(Martin Campbell, 2006)
Ever since Goldfinger defined the perfect blend of action thriller and camp comedy for James Bond, the franchise’s producers have spent the better part of four decades trying to replicate it. No easy feat – the failed experiments of various tonal alchemists are testament as to how hard it is to get that balance exactly right. All too often Bond has been stuck on a seesaw – if the films get too serious, an injection of irony makes them cheerier…but when it all gets too silly, it’s time to bring back the grit.
Casino Royale was effectively James Bond’s third relaunch in less than two decades and had the toughest gig of the three. Goldeneye simply had to deliver a greatest hits package of stunts and double entrendres to fulfil its “back to basics” remit. Casino Royale, in contrast, was in the ironic position of having to undo the increasingly witless shenanigans of the Brosnan era, by reverting to the hardcore take on Bond – last seen in Licence to Kill – whose perceived failure brought about the softening in the first place.
Back in the 80s, it was the Lethal Weapons and Die Hards of the world that Bond had to compete with; in 2006 it was upstarts Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne denting the credibility of the original JB. In both cases the conundrum was the same – how to get tough without losing the inherent Bondness of the films – but this one has made things more difficult by deciding to respect Casino Royale’s status as the first Bond novel and make this the ‘first’ Bond movie. Like Batman Begins, Bond has wiped the slate clean by rebooting to year zero.
Or has it? The narrative explicitly places this as Bond’s first mission since gaining his 00 status, but it’s hard to marry this as a pre-Connery origins story when the plot actually namechecks 9/11 – not to mention the fact that Judi Dench is playing the same character we saw in Die Another Day. Grist to the mill for those who reckon the name of Bond is simply a pseudonym for an endless chain of spies? That’s going to seriously wind up canon-minded purists, but Casino Royale’s slipperiness highlights that the Bond series has always existed in a kind of Moebius time, forever stretching back on itself to refresh film after film even as it depicts a linear chain of socio-political changes from the Sixties til now. Just as, say, the 70s films picked up on prevailing fashions of blaxploitation, kung fu and sci-fi, so here we have an extraordinary demonstration of parkour in the film’s most dazzling action sequence (and, more unexpectedly, a visit to Gunter von Hagens’ Bodyworks exhibition). It couldn’t be Noughtier if it tried.
And yet there’s still something satisfyingly retro about a film based on a novel first published in 1953. Take Bond’s repartee-streaked meet-cute with Vesper on a train, which recalls Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest (commonly acknowledged as the template for the Bond movies) and Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate (made in 1962, the year of Dr No). This is a film that slyly moves the goalposts back to where they used to be. A standard-issue Bond movie would make a big deal out of the technology that can trace where and when a cell phone call was made. Here, that’s easy; in fact, it’s pretty much how Bond finds out every major plot point. What’s important is that MI6 needs somebody to actually get the damn phones in the first place – and that’s where the character’s old-school virtues, relying on wits ‘n’ fists, come in so handy.
Working on this topsy-turvy foundation, the film hits upon the inspired solution of building the whole narrative back to front. Rather than risk alienating the core audience by starting with an edgier, more cerebral study of Bond, this places all of the traditional tropes (chases, jet setting) upfront in the first hour, to make it clear that this is business as usual. Only then does it strip back the excess to deliver on its promise of an authentically Fleming-esque Bond: lean, terse, contained and conspicuously driven by character rather than gadgets. The two halves are so different that they shouldn’t fit together, but the script wisely cannibalises only the parts of the 007 movies’ heritage that actually serve the story.
The ironies continue in the decision to hire Martin Campbell, the man who kicked off Brosnan’s reign, to bury it – but again, the decision makes a weird kind of sense. No doubt Quentin Tarantino’s rumoured version of Royale (with cheese) would have made an interesting film, but Bond has always been the preserve of craftsmen rather than auteurs. There’s an element of ‘safe hands’ in entrusting him with a second Bond relaunch, and this fulfils the gritty remit as successfully as Goldeneye kicked off Brosnan’s reign with a return to crowd-pleasing, slightly camp irony.
What Campbell knows best is how to steer a new actor firmly into the iconic lead role. Daniel Craig was a gamble in terms of profile, but an inspired choice to anybody familiar with his work – physical and intense but with an understated wry humour. That’s exactly how he plays Bond, a cross between the lithe masculinity of Connery and a very modern, sensitive metrosexual. The film makes a big point of him looking the part as a killer, but he commands equal attention in traditionally Bondian arenas such as the casino. And the actor is visibly itching to rebuild Bond from scratch. Check the moment where, after dispatching a machete-wielding killer, Bond goes through a clean-up ritual with the help of a stiff drink – this is a Bond who’s still learning, and that hint of vulnerability is more satisfying, dramatically, than any number of set-pieces.
Other certainties are exposed with the same acuity. Mads Mikkelsen, though he looks like the archetypal Bond villain, is refreshingly free of megalomaniac theatricality and actually delivers on what his predecessors (or descendants, depending on which way you look at it) would merely threaten in the oh-that’s-gotta-hurt torture scene. And Eva Green nails the cliché of the pretty vacant Bond girl to the mast with haughty intelligence and genuine elegance – and then subverts even that in an ambitious final act that gives us a credible reason for Bond’s future/past preference for “disposable pleasures” over “meaningful pursuits.”
Sure, the ending not as bold as it could be, because the prospect of a Bond movie without a climactic demolition was obviously too much to bear – and let’s not get started on why Vesper withholds the £5 million buy-in at the casino if she needs the cash that badly. Even so, the sense of a film choosing to end with emotional closure, but leave the narrative threads dangling, is electrifying. While Die Another Day was obsessed with putting on a raucous 20th birthday party, Casino Royale (aka Bond 21) sees the franchise coming of age by denying its past.