Who is the best James Bond? Most fans tend to pick either Connery or Daniel Craig. Which 007 film is the best? Connery fans might pick Goldfinger or From Russia With Love, while Craig fans will go with Casino Royale or Skyfall. (Some aficionados may push for Lazenby’s lone offering, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.)
Without prejudice to the Connery/Craig debate, I consider Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, possibly the best Bond film, and certainly the most indispensable — the one that offers moral and psychological perspective on all the others, playing as a kind of commentary and critique of the whole franchise. It is also almost the only film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is another, to a degree) that treats Bond as an actual character, not just a glamorous, romantic action hero.
Casino Royale breaks sharply with the previous direction of the franchise — rut, really — which the series’ producers had been trying to do for years without success. Perhaps it was the Jason Bourne films, with their grim violence, chilly realism, and broken protagonist, that helped Bond find a new direction. When The Bourne Identity opened, some critics pronounced James Bond obsolete — and he was, as he had been for years, until Casino Royale. Gone are the camp humor and silly gadgets of earlier incarnations, the winking double-entendres and comic/fantasy sexiness. Gone are Moneypenny and “Q,” with their bantering relationships with our hero. (Desmond Llewellyn, who had played “Q” opposite every Bond actor starting with From Russia With Love, died shortly after the penultimate Pierce Brosnan entry, The World is Not Enough, in which he introduced his putative successor, John Cleese — a role Cleese reprised only in Brosnan’s final outing, Die Another Day.)
In Casino, if Bond has a winking line (“That’s because you know what I can do with my little finger”), it’s Bond himself who is winking at the other person, not Craig or the movie winking at the audience. Perhaps the most overt wink to the audience is Bond snapping “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked how he wants his martini prepared. Casino is more than a reboot: It’s also a kind of origin story, based on the first Ian Fleming novel. As such, it’s the story of how James Bond lost his soul, or whatever was left of it, at the very moment when he dared to hope for redemption. The Bourne films follow their hero on a trajectory of redemption; Casino plots the opposite trajectory for its antihero.
A striking black-and-white prologue in which Bond earns his “00” license to kill with his first two kills — one in flashback, brutal and harrowing, the other quick and efficient — establishes just how much of his soul Bond has lost already. (The second kill, as Bond and his own victim acknowledge, is “considerably” easier.) The post-credits opening set piece, a brilliantly choreographed and staged foot chase through a construction site and an embassy that did more than any other film to make “parkour” a household word, makes it clear that this is not your father’s 007. For one thing, Craig is working a lot harder than other actors had to; this Bond really has to break a sweat.
For another, not only doesn’t he get his man (at least not the way he was meant to), he screws up badly. He takes an enormous risk, and crashes and burns spectacularly. “How the hell could Bond be so stupid?” Judi Dench’s “M” demands in the midst of a crackling monologue. In fact, this Bond is a rookie, and makes rookie mistakes. He isn’t supremely in control, either of the situation or of himself. He’s a man who can get hurt and deal with it, but who can also get his ego bruised and have a harder time dealing with that. He is more prosaic and limited than the hero we expect: a “blunt instrument,” “M” calls him to his face. The misogyny and amorality glossed over in most of the films is frankly acknowledged here.
For the first time, Bond isn’t presented as a putative embodiment of every man’s ideal fantasy self and every woman’s ideal fantasy lover. He’s a guy you wouldn’t necessarily want to be, or be romanced by — though obviously his dangerous bluntness has a lot of appeal, including sex appeal. Consider the scene in which Bond begins seducing the villain’s wife because (as she’s entirely aware) he wants something from her — only to leave her unsatisfied on the floor with a bottle of champagne as a consolation prize after he gets what he needed another way. And then he meets his match, twice, in Eva Green’s enigmatic Vesper Lynd and Mads Mikkelsen’s unnerving Le Chiffre. At first Bond and Vesper hold each other at arm’s length, coolly testing each other’s defenses and weaknesses, but under the pressure and stress of their mission their defenses crack and they let one another in.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also gave James Bond a nearly-redemptive, ultimately tragic love story, but in that film Bond was only bereaved of his beloved (“The Avengers”’s Diana Rigg). Here he is betrayed, and the rage and pain and callousness of the novel’s last line, coldly delivered by Craig — “The bitch is dead” — define who James Bond is from now on. The very last shot, in which Craig finally utters the famous words “The name’s Bond…James Bond,” followed by the iconic trumpet fanfare of the 007 theme, plays like a declaration of war.
Alas, it was a declaration of war followed, in direct chronological continuity, by the anticlimactic Quantum of Solace. Even the acclaimed, rather brilliant Skyfall only partly realized the promise of Casino, weaving in elements of nostalgia for the earlier films (including a new Moneypenny and a new “Q”) and some campy humor, among other issues. As a result, Casino remains somewhat sui generis: a grand reboot for a franchise that didn’t quite pan out, an origin story for an antihero whose further adventures haven’t exactly happened the way they should have.
That’s okay. I’ll take it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.