Films

Published on December 13th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck

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Casino Royale

Like a lot of people my age, the Bond, James Bond I grew up with wasn’t the much-loved Sean Connery but instead Roger Moore. The debonair, raised-eyebrow quippery of Moore was what Bond represented for me.

Not that I’ve ever been fanatical about Bond. When a Bond film is released, I’ll probably go see it. But I hardly wait for them with bated breath. They’re silly, but usually good for a laugh. My favourite part of a Bond film was always the stupid set piece at the start, a sequence Roger Moore always excelled at. My all-time fave was the one – can’t remember which film – where Moore was chased down a mountainside on skis by machine-gun-toting assassins. Moore fought off the assassins and completed a death-defying descent, most of it on only one ski. It was ridiculous, hilarious, and fucking sublime all at the same time. And it summed up Roger Moore: that smirk and raised eyebrow could make you a willing accomplice to practically any ludicrous stunt or arch silliness.

The true believers would always, at the first opportunity, mention that the only true Bond was Connery, that he was closest to the character originally written by Ian Fleming, that he had the brutish, amoral sex appeal down pat, and rhubarb-rhubarbrhubarb-rhubarb… Well, fair enough. But my abiding memory of Connery as Bond is Never Say Never Again, probably the most interminable and boring Bond film ever made (never had escapism seemed more like imprisonment). Nope, it’s Roger Moore for me, thanks very much. The franchise may well have descended into self-parody during Moore’s tenure, but what the fuck’s wrong with that?

At some point, though, Moore got too old to romance the lovelies and too arthritic to fight the baddies. Bond HQ then commenced a short-lived and disastrous experiment with Timothy Dalton, who, so all the advance publicity said, marked a return to a more serious Bond, a Bond with more angst and less wenching and one-liners. Boo. Boo-oooo-oo! Following on from Dalton, who may have excelled as a human sedative but was a flat-out catastrophe as Bond, was Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan was lukewarm reincarnation of Moore. Less silly, not as funny, but still light as a feather. Brosnan helmed at least one decent Bond film, the one with Michelle Yeoh in it, but for the most part they were fairly undistinguished by-the-numbers Bondage.

The entire Bond franchise, in fact, seemed to be slumping into irrelevance. Truth be told, Bond has seemed a bit creaky and anachronistic for years now. The Cold War is done; Britain’s a bit player on the world stage; and ever-so-urbane sexism doesn’t go over so well these days. In short, there just doesn’t seem much need for suave dinner-jacketed superspies anymore. Accordingly, Bond seemed to have been supplanted by the Robert Ludlum–inspired Jason Bourne and the Tom Clancy–inspired Jack Ryan. Both American, both more everyman than aristocrat, both more recognisably human because their well of emotions extends beyond debonair self-possession.

But just when Bond films appeared hidebound and captive to their own cliches, along comes Daniel Craig and Casino Royale. Like Batman Begins, Casino Royale returns to the start of its character’s story. Bond has only just been granted ‘00’ status, and we witness his first two kills. Daniel Craig’s Bond has the face of a brickie, with short blond hair and out-turned ears. He looks more bovver boy than patrician assassin. And that suits the story. This Bond is new to the job and blunders early in the story when he pursues a target into a foreign embassy and executes him, creating an international incident. As M (Judi Dench) says, he’s just a ‘blunt instrument’.

He’s interesting as a character and not just as a cypher for action, gimmickry, and fucking.

But that’s what’s so refreshing about Craig’s Bond: he’s not insulated by nonchalance and endless quippage. Although much is made of Bond’s callousness in this film, especially by love interest Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), this is by far the most human Bond yet. He’s fallible, and prone to both love and anger. And therefore he’s interesting as a character and not just as a cypher for action, gimmickry, and fucking.

This greater realism is evident in the action scenes too. Like any action film, there’s some far-fetched stuff, but not cosmically so. In fact, the action is reminiscent of the two Bourne films. Much of it is quick, punishing hand-to-hand combat. The opening sequence involves a breathtaking ‘free-running’ sequence, in which Bond and his target engage in a frantic, acrobatic pursuit and fight on a Madagascan building site. For a Bond film, it’s surprisingly visceral and short on gimmicks, and it succeeds because of it.

Even the villain in Casino Royale is bit less over-the-top than usual. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) isn’t a Lex Luthor type bent on world domination, but a shady banker for terrorists. The one obvious comic-book nod to past Bond villains is that Le Chiffre weeps blood because of a tear-duct disorder.

Thankfully, the changes extend to the female lead as well. I know, I know, every time a new Bond film comes out the latest ‘Bond girls’ talk about how they provide more than the obligatory parking space for Bond’s member. Usually that’s all it is: talk. But not this time. In Casino Royale, Eva Green plays Vesper Lynd, who’s assigned by MI6 to partner Bond at the casino. The script allows Vesper a personality and a character arc, and the chemistry between Green/Vesper and Craig/Bond is smokin’.

This is important because you can’t have too many interesting characters, and because if Bond has an emotional investment in someone else, then there’s something at stake in the film. And that gives dramatic weight to the plot’s machinations. (And it doesn’t hurt that Eva Green is spectacularly, jaw-droppingly beautiful.)

Anyway, although Casino Royale drags its feet a little toward the end, it’s the best Bond film in at least 30 years, and possibly the best action film of the year. Go see it. After all, everyone loves a little Bondage, right?

–HS Fruck


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