Monday, November 2, 2015

James Bond Marathon: Casino Royale

"This may be too much for a blunt instrument to understand, but arrogance and self awareness seldom go hand-in-hand."

Chronology & Stats
James Bond #21
Star: Daniel Craig #1 (my favorite of his)
Director: Martin Campbell #2 (my favorite of his)
My Ranking #1

For me, this is the one. After my long journey through the Bond franchise, I can finally say with certainty that this is my favorite James Bond movie.

Casino Royale is the movie that makes James Bond into a character. Previously he had always been a cipher for a certain brand of masculinity, and that's valuable in its own way, but Casino Royale maintains that portrait of masculinity while adding depth and complexity to it. This is the first Bond where there's been any ambiguity in the character. He's no longer a superhero, he's finally a real human being, and all the inherent flaws of Bond as a cipher for masculinity (his sociopathy, his misogyny, etc.) play explicitly throughout the text as we see them weighing heavily on his soul.

He's strong, but he's not invincible. We see that he can't quite keep up with the gymnastics of the parkour opening and has to think or break his way through obstacles to keep up. We feel his pain when he's tortured, and see that the jokes he makes aren't because he doesn't care, but because he needs to distract himself. The fact that this is easily the most painful scene to watch in the entire Bond canon is no mistake: Bond is finally mortal.

He's suave, but he can still be ruffled. He still has the ability to command an entire scene just by walking through it with the right suit on, but he can also be broken in a way none of the other Bonds ever could. We see him fall apart after the long foot chase and shoot his target even though he wanted to interrogate him. We see him fooled by Le Chiffre at the card table and drugged to within an inch of his life. He recovers his composure, but here he's become more than a simple symbol of "cool".

Perhaps even more than all this, he's serious but not humorless. Casino Royale is often dismissed as part of the recent "dark and gritty" trend commonly associated with Christopher Nolan, but while it attains the best of this style (the higher stakes and more complex themes), it also avoids the worst of it (the absence of sex or romance). We get the dark of the close up on Caterina Murino's tortured face, but we also get the light of Craig calling Eva Green "Miss Stephanie Broadchest". He gets moral and emotional depth, but he's also still throwing out pithy quips. What's more than that, we see how these two halves are inextricably intertwined: Bond uses this comedy, as he does in the dungeon, as a way to remain at a distance from the grim, occasionally disturbing nature of his work.

At the heart of this interplay between silliness and sobriety, between fun and angst, is Eva Green's Vesper Lynd. She injects the film not only with a dose of sex, with her slinky dress and gorgeous features, but also with some real romance. Not since On Her Majesty's Secret Service have we seen Bond fall in love, and here it adds some much needed genuine emotional content. It's not only that she works from a tonal standpoint, brightening up the bleakness of the world, she also continues Bond's development as a character. She gives him a way out of his life, something that makes the struggle worthwhile, some desire to cut through the nihilism.

But she's much more than just a pawn to move the central character work forward. Vesper Lynd is also one of the most empowered Bond Girls in the entire series. She's at least Bond's match in intelligence, reading him just as much as he reads her in their first encounter. She saves Bond multiple times, once even bringing him back to life. She even participates in one of the fight scenes, and while she's obviously not as strong physically as Bond and she ends up traumatized by the encounter, she's never weak. This is more of the film's complex character work: she doesn't have the same strengths as Bond, but without her he would be lost. She stands on her own.


All this might make it sound like Casino Royale works purely on a character-driven level, but that's not the case in the slightest. This isn't just a great Bond movie, it's also a great action movie. The post-credits opening parkour chase is one of the most exciting scenes in any Bond movie, and it reaches that point without relying unnecessarily on big explosions or other cheap tricks (there's an explosion, but it's notably not used as a climax but rather as simply a way to further emphasize the stakes).

It's significant that the chase is mostly just two people running after each other: this makes the chase much more organic and natural to the surroundings. Bond gets into a construction vehicle to destroy a structure that lies in his way, but then he has to get out and keep running. This highlights another of the scene's strengths: visual storytelling. We see what kind of a person Bond is through the way he follows his target. He's not as agile, but he's stronger and smarter. He can smash through walls or utilize the environment around him.

In addition to all this excellent structural work, the action scenes also just look great. Phil Meheux, who was previously the cinematographer on GoldenEye, shoots the film with a great mix of the frantic impressionism of Paul Greengrass (which had become popular at the time thanks to the rise of the Bourne sequels) and the more choreographed clarity which had begun with Robert Elswit in Tomorrow Never Dies and reaches its apex with Roger Deakins in Skyfall. The action is exciting, but it never loses track of what's going on.

Casino Royale doesn't limit itself generically to being just an action movie, however. Once the central card game commences, the tone shifts from one of explosive excitement to a quieter suspense. The poker game is still as thrilling and entrancing as the chase scenes or shootouts in its own slightly different way. The tension ratchets up as Bond loses money and misjudges Le Chiffre's tell and even drinks poison (which, in classic Hitchcockian fashion, we see go into his glass before he drinks it). All together, this successfully makes something which isn't inherently stimulating or visual (poker) into something cinematic.

It would be easy to overlook Le Chiffre, Bond's opponent in the game of cards, as a signature Bond villain, but while he's not necessarily the most threatening, he's just as important in other ways. With his tears of blood, he's just as sinister as Bond's other nemeses, even if he protests to the contrary. But more to the point, he's a pawn, a representative of a shadow organization—which remains nameless throughout the film; but we all know very well who it is. Le Chiffre might not be as iconic as Blofeld, but that's precisely the point: he's not Blofeld, he's more like Largo from Thunderball, a minion who's menacing in his own right but who functions primarily as a signifier of an even greater evil. If this is the pawn, I'd hate to face the king.

Le Ciffre also provides a thematic counterpoint to 007's excessive wealth and the series's generally regrettable lack of class consciousness. Le Chiffre identifies as a True Believer in capitalism: when asked if he believes in God, he replies that he believes "in a fair rate of exchange." Both Bond and Le Chiffre are rich (or at least part of rich organizations), but rather than simply embracing or rejecting this high class status, their juxtaposition demonstrates the more nuanced position that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being a capitalist, what matters is how you do it. Vesper makes this tension explicit by calling attention to the fact that, if Bond loses, MI6 will have indirectly funded terrorism. MI6 and this evil shadow organization are two sides of a very valuable coin.

While Casino Royale doesn't explicitly name Spectre, it does set up a lot of other Bond symbols. It's essentially a reboot of the series, with Bond earning his Double-Oh status at the beginning of the film and starting from scratch. And yet, the fact that it is essentially an origin story—a storytelling format which today has become even more tired than the dark and gritty style in which they're being told—never once holds the film back. It somehow achieves the rare feat of providing answers to unasked questions (Where did the name Moneypenny come from?) and miraculously adding weight to what came before rather than detracting from it (007's past flirtation with Moneypenny takes on deeper significance).

Casino Royale certainly doesn't have the same presence in popular culture as something like Goldfinger, but to be fair it also hasn't been around for over fifty years yet. I believe that when we look back from 2060, with an equivalent amount of distance (and probably an unfortunate number of sequels), we will look at it as a crucial turning point in the overall narrative of James Bond. To me it's not only the best Bond movie on its own terms, but it constructs 007 as such a rich character that it retroactively makes all of the other Bond movies that much better. I still love the classic Bonds, and the great thing about cinema is that there's room for each on our shelves, but when I decide what I want to watch, I reach for Casino Royale.

James Bond ranked

Also, I've already written too much about this, but I can't let it go without mentioning the pre-credits sequence. I don't think it quite counts as a cold open, but it might be one of my favorite bits of Bond ever. It's shot like this weird arthouse version of Bond in black and white with wacky camera angles pulled straight out of The Third Man, and it pulls off the prequel/reboot thing of explaining the opening barrel shot without being cutesy or parodic, and the bathroom fight is itself a great scene, and for some reason I can't get "I know where you keep your gun" out of my head. James Bond perfection.

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