Viking Night: Casino Royale
By Bruce Hall
January 17, 2018
Perhaps the only thing harder than becoming James Bond is finding a way to gracefully exit the role when your time is through. Plus, there’s no telling when that day will come. Sean Connery was a fresh-faced lad under 30 when he took the role, probably grateful for a long=term paycheck. He left in a huff, frustrated with overzealous fans and the tribulations of being typecast in the prime of your acting career. His replacement came to the same conclusion after only one try.
The longest serving Bond, Roger Moore, walked away after inhabiting the role for too long, only to have the studio roughly insist he was fired.
Timothy Dalton was probably the most enthusiastic about playing the role, only to leave following two disappointing movies and one protracted legal battle over filming rights. And sadly, Pierce Brosnan managed to play a solid Bond in four largely bad movies, only to be shown the door when it was decided to take the series in a more serious direction. Ironically it was the very change in tone Brosnan himself had been lobbying for, which must be the Hollywood equivalent of being asked to clean the cubicle for your replacement.
When Daniel Craig was announced as the new, more serious Bond, I was overjoyed. I was familiar with his work with Matthew Vaughn in Layer Cake and in Spielberg's Munich. A fine actor by any standard, he seemed poised to finish the job Dalton started when he tried to add a little depth to the character two decades earlier. That he did, redefining the role in ways I’m not sure any of us were expecting, and breathing much needed life into a once again dormant franchise in danger of being eclipsed by its peers.
Casino Royale is positioned as a “reboot” of the Bond series, coming out around the time that became the fashionable term for this sort of thing. It seeks to chronicle how Bond became a “00” agent, and what his motivations were for doing so. What’s funny about that is when I think back to 2006, I recall there being immense controversy over Daniel Craig’s physical attributes, but far less about the things that really made Casino Royale such a remarkable risk.
Think about it - this is the beginning of Bond’s career, but we’re clearly looking at a man in his late 30s. What’s up with that? Judi Dench returns as M, Bond’s boss/surrogate mother. I recall no complaints about the obvious continuity issues because we all love Dame Judy, and because her presence was one of the few bright spots in the three previous Bond movies. I’d also like to point out that Casino Royale begins with Bond, a British agent, summarily executing a traitorous fellow agent on British soil.
Who cares about Daniel Craig’s dreamy ice-blue eyes or rippling washboard abs with all that to chew on? The franchise’s prestige was at a dangerous low in 2005, and there was no room for a misfire. Instead, what we got was a deeply flawed film that feels nearly perfect because it’s the first one to make James Bond seem genuinely human.
Anybody still wish they’d cast Colin Farrell?
Like most Bond adventures, the plot of Casino Royale is an impenetrable web of confusion and narrative contortion. One minute Bond is in an island paradise on one side of the globe, chasing a human pogo stick up the side of a crane and killing the man he was sent to capture. The next minute he’s in another island paradise, sexing up bored socialites and killing the man he was sent to capture. The chase scenes are thrilling, but as usual everything is set up specifically for Bond to succeed.
There’s always a well placed ladder, unattended police car or exploding barrel just out of frame so that Bond never really has to do any detective work so much as he needs to follow a trail of obvious clues.
See? Not everything has changed.
Luckily, Craig is an outstanding Bond and you can’t take your eyes off anything he does when he’s on screen. He’s pugilistically handsome, like Jeremy Renner. He plays the character like the angry, entitled trust fund kid he is. He’s great at doing stunts. He can hold his own on screen with Judi Dench. And he can sit across the table in a luxury train car with Eva Green and a bottle of wine and not start giggling like the stupidest person ever - which is what I would do in that situation.
Speaking of Eva Green, her role here is as Vesper Lynd, an MI6 accountant who accompanies Bond on a trip to Montenegro. You see, a mysterious terrorist organization is financing its operations not by selling heroin or harvesting child soldiers from a terrified local population. No, they have a creepy guy named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) short selling airline stock and...something...blah blah poker is really popular right now.
My point is, the second act of Casino Royale devolves into a series of events that appear exciting on the surface, but while you’re watching there’s always something nagging at the back of your brain. You assume it’s the tension of the story but in reality it’s the barely suppressed realization that the story you’re watching is made up of beats where characters do things based on information they can’t possibly know, or escape a deadly conundrum only because they’re the main character and therefore the odds are always tilted in their favor.
I call it Bond ex-Machina.
So I guess what I’m saying is that in retrospect, not as many of the James Bond narrative crutches have been discarded as you think. But what makes Casino Royale so refreshing is that it recaptures the worldly sense of intrigue and mystery that defined the earliest Bond films. Air travel was still a thing for the rich back in those days, so audiences were easily dazzled by the mere mention of visiting overseas, let alone snapping necks and exploding oil tankers when you get there.
These are surely different times. But there’s also something mysterious and exotic about Casino Royale, and that’s the one thing you must have in a story like this. No, most of the individual events that happen in this movie don't make a lot of sense, and in a lesser film it might have been fatal. But I would suggest you experience Casino Royale as a thematic painting, rather than as a point by point narrative.
You have to; otherwise the experience is going to come across like a salad with WAY too many toppings. It might be delicious, but we all know garbanzo beans and cranberries don’t go together, so it will never be RIGHT.
Sometimes it pays to take the 10,000 foot view.
This is a story about a man who makes a conscious decision to murder people for a living, and must then decide what kind of murderer he is going to be. He has a mother who believes in him, and wants to help him even though all he does is screw up. And because in this universe he is secretly God, all of these things happen in exotic global tourist destinations. James Bond always wins, and James Bond always learns absolutely nothing from the experience.
Of course it’s unfortunate that the only subsequent Bond film to successfully reproduce this is the equally flawed Skyfall, but that’s an argument for another day.
For the time being welcome back, 007. We’ve missed you, and we hope to have you around for years to come.
Or at least, I do.