A Bond Newbie’s Thoughts on 007: Casino Royale

Short Take: Overall, I’m impressed with my first real venture into the Bond world. While Casino Royale’s storytelling often seemed as disjointed as a hyperactive cat chasing an unraveling ball of yarn, I did always feel engaged.

Spies kill. Just like soldiers and assassins, spies are bred to dispose of their enemies by any means necessary. The movies, namely the Bond movies, have painted a regal portrait of spies that puts them in trying situations they often can wriggle out of with death-defying, oddly non-violent (at least not mortally violent) ease. The perplexing black and white opening of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale immediately sets the tone for a very different kind of spy picture. Sure, Bond is handsome, but he’s also dirty, gritty, and downright gruesome at times. There’s a realism to this Bond that feels opposite the white collar marketing I’ve grown used to. From what I can gather, this is no Pierce Brosnan. The opening also serves the picture in an unexpected way. The random plot point and it’s arbitrary style choice never fully connect to the story we are about to see. Supported by some well-drawn sequences, Casino Royale succeeds as a loosely wound thriller, even if it’s barely held together by elliptical scene jumps.

After the opening scene, the story takes off with Bond interrupting an African gambling game and  chasing a man with a bag full of loot through every nook and cranny of the village. Turns out, as the plot will very slowly unravel, this money is linked to a terrorist attack at the Miami airport. The terrorist has bet against the market and anticipates that his bombing will inflate his profits. Not accounting for Bond, the attack goes awry in a firework show of narrow escapes. MI6 then traces the terrorist to a high stakes poker game, where the villain hopes to win back the money he’s lost in the failed explosion. Bond gets recruited as the player to take him down at the game, only now he’ll have the help of a beautiful accountant named Vesper Lynd. Sound like a boatload of plot? That’s the short version, and leaps in logic abound.

Central to Casino Royale, Daniel Craig spends more of the film buried in blood and sweat than looking handsome with a martini. Of course, tuxedos and drinks make their cameos, but each play second fiddle to the ruggedness Craig brings to the table. My preconceived notions of Bond were that he was something of a super-spy. Similar to Jason Bourne, I presumed Bond linked to an intelligence agency but somehow operating above it. Craig’s Bond remains grounded, frequently scolded by his superiors, and defiantly carrying on, like the bratty, talented kid whose gifts can’t be denied even if he’s quite a pain in the ass. The nature of a pedestrian Bond gave the film a refreshing realism, thus adding even greater stakes to sequences that might have otherwise just contained spectacular stunts.

What Casino gained from it’s leading man, it seriously lacked in its weak leading ladies. I’m not sure why I assumed otherwise, but I couldn’t fully get past how blatantly a misogynist film Casino Royale joyfully was. Even more frustrating, the film continuously pretends to be self aware of its woman-hating, only to undercut itself and be just what it seems to be winking at. For instance, when Bond seduces the rich man’s wife it turns out she’s on to his game. There’s a sexual honesty to the promiscuity. Then when she dies because of him, he doesn’t seem at all affected. She serviced him for pleasure and died because of it. All Bond can do is shrug; they will be another.

The Bond girl in Casino Royale was as lame as I could imagine. A whiny accountant? I thought Bond girl’s were a play on the damsel in distress that turns into the black widow, not the complainer that pushes Bond away until he supports her crying in the shower. The end twist keeps us on our toes about her motivation but, ultimately, she’s precisely the usable girl that she first seems. Not for a second do I buy Bond’s feelings for Vesper. In fact, this romance caused me to suspend disbelief even more than when Bond jumps on rooftops. Bond emerges as a deeply misogynistic figure. There’s a difference between misogynistic and womanizing. There’s a game to the boy wants girl, girl wants boy, sexual shuffle effectively pronounced by noir films. But seeing women only for their utility is disheartening. Casino Royale, in this regard, was disheartening.

Other than a dissatisfying conclusion, Casino Royale succeeds on the foundation of its exquisite action set pieces. Great action filmmakers are better are creating sequences than building a rewarding whole. Casino Royale absolutely excels on this level. While I never fully understood what I considered an overly complicated plot delivery, I was always on the edge of my seat during some extremely well-built scenes. The opening chase, the usage of the rich man’s wife, the airport explosions, and the poker thread were effective at keeping the plot alive in sometimes seductive, often action-packed, and occasionally suspenseful ways.

What worked so well in the Bourne films and the well done Mission Impossible sagas was how richly they slipped by their plot extravagances with no-holds-barred high octane scenes. Add Casino Royale to the list of great contemporary action films. While the gender dynamics were distracting, the effort to create a humanized lead with unique and varied moments elevated the picture to unexpected heights. This one was a surprising cut above the blockbusters I’ve seen in the last decade. [B+]

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