Bright Lights Film Journal

Uncovering the Romantic Bond: Thoughts on Casino Royale

“By describing a conscience for James Bond the character, the story has provided a subconscious for James Bond the movies

What do James Bond movies and American Football have in common? Well, for starters, no one comes out of the womb liking either. Both are too convoluted, too counter-intuitive to be natural pleasures. They are hyper-sexist, escapist spectacles within which we (men and women alike) have somehow managed to see ourselves and, on occasion, even be entertained.

Casino Royale, the latest installment in the James Bond saga, is a remarkable and enjoyable achievement outshining the ones that came before it. So brilliant by comparison we are left a bit puzzled, if not embarrassed, by our enthusiasm for bygone Bonds. Like football, maybe we learned to appreciate those earlier Bonds Environmentally, so to speak — from the enthusiasms of others around us (or in the case of us post-baby boomers) from the inescapable importance these movies just already seemed to have? Assuming they entertained you in the first place, comparing the old Bond and the new is the difference between gratification and pleasure.

In Casino Royale James Bond (Daniel Craig) has just achieved “00” status. Yet no sooner does he get his license to kill than London becomes concerned he’s using it too cavalierly. Ordered to take a “holiday” while M (Judi Dench) decides his fate, Bond, unrepentant and undeterred, follows a lead to the Bahamas. Eventually he uncovers what is essentially a bank for global terrorists headed by a nefarious financier named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of investing his clients’ loot in the no-risk, interest-generating portfolios they expect, Le Chiffre uses it to speculate in markets he intends to manipulate (ruthlessly and catastrophically, of course). Bond foils the plot.

This alone sums up many a Bond tale, yet it’s only the first, and arguably least important, part of Casino Royale. Le Chiffre‘s otherwise foolproof scheme ruined, he must earn back the money before the terrorists can find him and repay his betrayal. A math genius with a penchant for poker, he convenes an ultra-high-stakes Texas Hold’em card game into which James Bond (as if bankrolled by the British nation itself) is entered. Next come accountant and Bond-girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), sent to oversee Bond’s gambling with government funds. The competitive foreplay between the two, each painting the other as their intellectual and emotional inferior, while common enough for romances, works to uncommonly entertaining effect in a Bond movie.

By comparison, pre-Casino Royale Bonds were essentially comedies. comedic tales told in terms of espionage — of farcical villains, preposterous plots, and gee-whiz gadgetry all interwoven with a chauvinism designed to be laughable. Yet Casino Royale bears witness to Bondthe comedy transformed into Bond the romance, from Bond the lothario to Bond the lover (1969’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service with George Lazenby and Diana Rigg notwithstanding). Still, adrenaline junkies needn’t worry that this touch of romance will rob them of their action fix. The frenetic opening chase that sees James Bond and a bomb-making mercenary race up and down construction cranes and girders high above a Madagascar coast should soothe any skeptics as to this movie’s Bond credentials.

Bond’s speedy improvisations, fearless jumps, and stone punches betray the instinctual responses of a professionally trained, albeit blue-collar agent — embodied in Daniel Craig’s hard drill-sergeant jaw, chiseled abs, large unflinching blue eyes, and lips made pouty by fury. In Craig, Bond the gladiator succeeds Bond the matador. Where the matador but for his sword and cape is clearly inferior to the bull, this more martial Bond (bereft of gadget or gimmick) is the equivalent of his adversaries, cut of the same cloth, just better. Through admittedly genius casting, the Bond brand, with its hallmark cartoonish violence and caricatured sexuality, slides gracefully from slapstick to hyperreal, becoming what Umberto Eco calls an “authentic fake.” Experiencing Casino Royale, at last we genuinely get lost in a simulated world of espionage — one that of course has never existed.

The earnest note struck in the opening chase suggests that director Martin Campbell’s Bond is turning upon its comedic legacy (arguably presaged in his earlier Bond effort,Goldeneye). Instead of relying on formula, Campbell (with screenplay provided ultimately by the team of Purvis, Wade, and Haggis) has made an honest-to-goodness story: a world where relationships develop; a script whose intricacies are meant to be followed, that drives to a climax defined by a hero’s choices rather then simply how close he is to catching the bad guy.

Interpersonal relationships make this story tick. Casino Royale succeeds at telling a romantic tale (complete with operatic ending) in terms of espionage. The attraction of Bond girls past was presumed to be visual if not visceral, stunning its perceiver the moment it was revealed. However, the allure of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is more complex. Again, between Bond girls old and new is the difference between good looks and beauty. Like her relationship to Bond, Vesper’s beauty grows. That said, Campbell certainly wasn’t hamstrung directing a woman who the master of erotica Bernardo Bertolucci once said is “so beautiful it’s indecent.” Like Craig, Green too is a casting marvel.

New “Bond” and new “Bond woman” are Adam and Eve for a new Bond era. But as the Viennese bard of psychic (and Oedipal) dramas recognized a century ago, interpersonal dynamics are considerably more than the superficial back and forth between two people. They emerge from deeper and prior love triangles. It is Judi Dench’s M who completes this triangle. Allow me to suggest that the M stands for “mother” or maternal, and that together with James and Vesper, the formative (yes) Bonds at the root of the Bond story are now exposed! Casino Royale segues between the gendered nature of Bond’s past and future. Ultimately Casino Royale is a story in two parts: Bond the developed professional and Bond the developing person.Combining the two, the series is rejuvenated, if not reborn. By describing a conscience for James Bond the character, the story has provided a subconscious for James Bond The movies — on which more superficial sequels may now legitimately be based.

New Bond supersedes old, but no bona fide turnabout or revolution casts all that went before as mere bunk. You must transcend the past, give it new meaning; you certainly can’t deny it. New Bond Suggests that the chauvinist nature of the Bond character reflects its origins in a particular romance (or in romance itself if you prefer).

Still, some are not easily weaned from formula. Perhaps Bonds were never meant to be anything but comedies. The comparative lack of a strong nemesis figure might be too unsettling for some. The bad guy is well played by Mads Mikkelsen, but alas he is not part of our love triangle, and in a way he is less essential to the film and certainly less essential to the James Bond myth the film is creating. Perhaps if Casino Royale were experienced strictly as a romance and evaluated in terms of the romance genre alone, it might begin to seem too light. However, most of us will see this as a Bond film and judge it as such. We leave the theatre mulling over the differences between old and new, startled by the movie’s simple pleasures, intrigued by what future installments could now entail, and pondering whether external forces really could have compelled our enjoyment of inferior Bonds.