Casino Royale: confessions of a layman
I’ll say it upfront: I’m not what you’d call a Bond fan. Oh, I’ve seen a fair share of the films, and have enjoyed a number of them to some degree, but I’m by no means a completist, and can’t recall ever seeing one that I’ve absolutely loved. Even the strongest, most strait-laced ones, which, for me, have been the two Timothy Dalton ventures, had their moments of high camp that were at best annoying and at worst verged on bringing the whole thing crashing down. As such, my review of Casino Royale should be taken very much as an outsider’s point of view. What I liked and disliked about it won’t necessarily be the same things that a hardcore Bond fan will like and dislike.
The short version: this is a very good film. Actually, it’s close to being an excellent film, with only a handful of problems preventing it from being a top-tier effort. I’ll get on to these in due course, but first, I must say that I really liked this “reboot”. In the past, Bond films seem to have gone lurched back and forth between serious to camp, with a Licence to Kill being followed by a Moonraker (well, that’s chronologically incorrect, but it serves the purpose of illustrating the series’ two extremes). As you can probably gather, I prefer the former, and found Timothy Dalton’s hard-edged, merciless portrayal of 007 to be far superior to Roger Moore’s nudge-nudge wink-wink camp antics. Even Dalton had his flaws, though, for me, stemming mainly from the fact that, when the scripts called for him to be more light-hearted, he seemed hopelessly out of his depth.
Casino Royale is no Roger Moore romp. It’s the first Bond film I’ve seen that is completely straight-faced. That’s not to say that there isn’t humour in it, but the humour is subtler, derived not from Bond foiling the terrorists and parachuting down to Felix Leiter’s wedding all in one swish movement (a particularly cringe-inducing moment in the otherwise commendable Licence to Kill), but rather from various dry retorts that, while self-conscious, ultimately serve the characters rather than playing to the gallery. (Bond’s response when asked whether he wants his Martini shaken or stirred put a smile on my face.)
The change in tone is partially due to the script, but also in no small part to the casting of Daniel Craig as Bond. Back when various actors were being touted as successors to the bland Pierce Brosnan (not a fan, sorry), I immediately latched on to him as my preferred choice (although the alternatives, ranging from Hugh Jackman to Orlando Bloom, meant that there really wasn’t much of a contest as far as I was concerned), and was most pleased when he got the part. People, however, were criticising the choice before they even saw a frame of footage: “Craig’s too ugly, he’s not sophisticated, he’s… he’s… he’s blond!” To that I say “Phooey!” Craig is certainly nothing like any of his predecessors, but, in my opinion, he comes the closest of all to making Bond seem human. Timothy Dalton was tough, sure, but I always saw him as more an attitude than a real person. Craig, in contrast, doesn’t really have the sophistication of some of his predecessors, but this “blunt instrument”, as M (Judi Dench - whose retention, despite this reboot, didn’t bother me anything like as much as I thought it would) puts it, lives and breathes in a way that the others, for me, didn’t. (That said, bear in mind that I’ve yet to see George Lazenby’s turn in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by a number to be Bond’s most human turn.)
In part, that’s due to the way the writers build up his relationship with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, a fantastic actress and a Bond girl who, unusually, seems to have been cast for her acting abilities as much as her looks). Theirs is a relationship that begins as a series of thinly-veiled sniping matches, but which eventually becomes one of mutual dependence, as both find that the job they have to do is no walk in the park. The scene in which Bond comforts a tearful Vesper, who has just seen two men killed in front of her, packs more emotional punch than any other scene that I’ve seen in the series. You get the feeling that Bond genuinely cares about this woman and that, had things been different, their relationship would have gone further. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) Oh, and it also helps that Green is convincing as an intelligent secret service agent - Denise Richards she ain’t.
But what of the setting? A casino hall didn’t sound to me like the most exciting location in which to set a 140-minute film, not least because I know nothing about cards. Well, the truth is that it doesn’t matter. I still know nothing about the game that was being played, despite Bond’s handy explanation of it to Vesper, but in reality it’s not necessary to understand the details in order to become engrossed. The casino, while the backdrop of a significant portion of the film, is really just that - a backdrop - with more interesting events being played out against it. Lest anyone be under any misconceptions, it’s also worth pointing out that the entire film is not set there: Bond doesn’t reach the casino until over an hour into the film.
Oh yes, and it’s bloody. This film is vicious - far more so than Licence to Kill. The Bond of this film gets beaten and bloodied, and he gives as good as he gets: I can see where the notion that Craig is a thuggish Bond comes from, for he really is absolutely ruthless in the various action scenes, thrashing his opponents within an inch of their lives and, on several occasions, killing in cold blood. Nothing quite lives up to the sheer brutality of the opening bathroom beating (although the torture sequence comes close), but the approach to violence throughout the entire film is more visceral and realistic than anything we’ve seen before. This time, we actually believe that Bond stands a chance of failing - he’s pitted against people who are more than a match for him. As befits this grittier Bond, the film was shot in the inherently grainier Super35, compared to the smooth Anamorphic Panavision of its immediate predecessors.
Having tossed around so many superlatives, I now feel inclined to point out the areas in which the film is more problematic. I essentially have three main complaints:
1. The product placement. This film, which features gratuitous advertisements for everything from Sony Ericsson phones to Blu-ray discs, leaves you in doubt that Bond is now property of Columbia Pictures.
2. The title sequence. The song is forgettable, but the execution of the graphics themselves is cringe-inducing. The concept - a “cards” motif that also showcases the new Bond - is pretty decent, but someone decided to apply a cheap, quasi-animated “cel-shaded” effect to it, which looks like something out of a video game.
3. The pacing. I didn’t mind the length, surprisingly enough, but I do agree with criticisms that the final act is rather anticlimactic. My understanding is that Ian Fleming’s original novel was more or less the second act, and that the bulk of the first and third acts were fabricated for the film. It’s a difficult situation - I’m not sure how I would have done things differently had I been writing it - but, despite an explosive climax in Venice, it feels a bit like an over-long afterthought after
Highlight below to reveal spoiler text:
the main villain has been disposed of.
All in all, though, I had a blast. This one, for me, more than lived up to the hype, and I can’t remember ever becoming so engaged by a Bond film before. After 20 films playing to largely the same formula, I’m glad they shook things up with a leaner, meaner interpretation, and that, for once, the public seems to have accepted it. 9/10.