The 007 franchise has always been an exercise in hitting certain notes
, and allowing a certain audience (young lads and too a lesser extent young lasses) to bask in the cool reductive world those notes conjure. You knew the formula and you allowed it to entwine your consciousness. Call it Bondage.
Casino Royale breaks the mold on several levels. To begin with it adapts an entirely new premise: James Bond is not a single man, but rather a pair of shoes - an empty name - that must be filled. In the old films we were asked to believe that Roger Moore was Sean Connery was Pierce Brosnan, and so forth. The way I see it, we are being asked to believe that those 007's, those Bonds, were actually different people, (M & Q too), doing her Majesty's bidding over time. (How lucky we were then to get five Bonds in a row who were all so similar in manner and habit!) There are people who disagree with this interpretation. Some say no, this is just a young Bond on his first mission, but I can't abide that spin. Fresh Bond or no Bond, that's my motto.
So, one Bond disappears, another pops up - like a shark's tooth. When a bartender asks Casino Royale's Bond, the ultra-pumped and short-on-words Daniel Craig, whether he wants his martini stirred or shaken, he replies, "Who cares." Get ready 007 fans, there's a definite existential chill in the air here in the 21st C. (Speaking of which, why didn't the producers wait a month to release this film? There is such a clear 007/2007 marketing ploy in the making, I can't believe they passed it up... Could the franchise possibly be refocusing on its content rather than its hype?)
The new Bond says something about the times, thought I'm not exactly sure what it is or if I agree with it. Softcore sex and winking wit have been traded in for hardcore action and ball-busting violence. Fantasy has been traded in for some kind of supposed realism (or as Sarah calls it the “extra-real"). These sound like bad choices and in some ways they are, but I have to give a tip of my hat to the producers for throwing out the old scripts and going for broke here. A film about gambling should take some risks.
No opening chase before the titles, no naked silhouetted girls in the titles, no James Bond Theme (until the end credits), no one-liners, no Q, no Moneypenny, no gadgets. Instead, we get lots of dealings with women and cards. Bond is pegged as an orphan by the almost impossible to understand Eva Green (what accent is that?). Thustly, M is very clearly the mother Bond never had. Craig and Judy Dench share some very warm and tender scenes together. There is also a love story that goes much farther than you would ever expect a Bond film to go, and for some, this will bring a certain psychological depth to the proceedings. (Others will opt for, "WTF?") The card game is a bore. Having just come back from Las Vegas, I can honestly say that little of the drama and way too much posturing of gambling is on display here.
Part of the pleasure of Bond was always the lack of the character's believability. Let's face it, Roger Moore could hardly open a jar of peanut butter, let alone climb, and then jump from one construction crane to another. With Daniel Craig, the makers have posed a fundamental question (after all these years): Why is James Bond James Bond? What makes this man so special? Ostensibly, Casino Royale is the fulfillment of that thesis. When Daniel Craig's Bond kills a man with his bare hands, we are right there in the room with him. No sexy soundtrack is going to play him out of that scene (Though I will say he still cleans up pretty well with hardly a blond hair out of place after a scrape).
I like Daniel Craig and his frumpy camel face. One might hope for some natural brilliance to shine through to imbue Bond with flashes of inner luminosity, but we'll take his irrepressibly wired “let's go" demeanor as a consolation. After all, we already know that Bond can be funny and sophisticated... I'll go out on a limb and say it's refreshing to see someone a bit more, well... suburban in the role. Here's what's important: Craig's brooding Bond feels firmly in and of his world, not skeetering across the surface of it like so many waterbuggy Bonds past. Craig is thick and seemingly indestructible and apparently not without a heart (it almost stops ticking in the film). We are aware of him but, for once, he is not aware of us. I remember when I was at the Cannes Film Festival, the place was crawling with guys like this - impeccably dressed, soulless, muscle men who spent several thousand dollars on dinner dates without ever taking a bite or a sip. They exude a thuggish and nonchalant embracing of all the best that the modern world has to offer while retaining a boyish hurt in their eyes. These are the alpha males of Europe. Their life isn't much fun, but it photographs very nicely.
Casino Royale is a humorless, un-pretty, and seemingly endless bowl of spaghetti. The plot is a tangled mess, the characters are of unknown and unknowable provenance, loose ends are tied up with awkwardly inserted lines... The director's pov seems to be that any flaw can be fixed by adding more action sauce to the noodles. Come to think of it, maybe it's not so different a Bond flick after all... And yet, I think there is definitely new life here. Hope for growth and development amid the cliches. New turf for a more entrenched and engaged Bond to explore, nary a wink to the audience in sight.
We may have lost the twangy guitar notes, the formula, the adolescent elation, and that is to be mourned. But if Bond is to exist at all, let alone remain vital, letting go of his retro baggage is one suitably dangerous risk to have taken.
(photograph of a spiral staircase by Michel Bobillier