Casino Royale

Seeing as I’m probably the last person on the planet to watch the new Bond film, it seems a little redundant to be writing a review of it, but I’ve never been one to let irrelevance get in the way of pontification, so here goes:

Casino Royale (2006) [1] is an exceedingly juvenile film – an unconvincing mish-mash of staples from the thriller genre (I mean, please, an oil tanker fight, a high speed car chase AND a poker game!) with a plot that has the consistency of Swiss cheese, duly seasoned with liberal dollops of mush. For most of the movie, its protagonist lives perilously on the edge of the ridiculous, and for all its tortured soul-searching the film has the emotional depth of a three day old puddle. It’s an almost complete waste of time, except for one not so minor detail – Daniel Craig.

This new Bond is as beautiful as bitter almonds. He is, quite simply, the most dangerous thing to come out of Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. He’s a thug, which is a shock in itself, but he’s a particularly lethal thug, a new species of man whose survival instinct seems to be predicated on the belief that offense is the best defense. To watch Craig explode into action on the screen is to see the true poetry of violence brought vividly to…errr…life. This is not a man who needs to be corseted in fancy weaponry to get the job done, this is someone who kills with his bare hands with the skill and discretion of a masseur; give him a handgun and he’s liable to take out a few buildings. Even walking out of the sea in nothing but a blue swimsuit (and looking divine) he has the look of someone who’s been wrestling sharks for fun.

Much of this is conditioning. Long years of watching M/s Brosnan and Moore fiddle about with their cuff-links have left us thinking of the 007 tag as a sort of onerous duty, a kind of obligatory bad manners, never to be discussed in public. With Craig playing the role, it begins to dawn on you that the designation could be a privilege, that perhaps the license to kill is not so much a form of permission but a way of setting limits to what the killer can get away with. Craig’s 007 status is not a driver’s ID, it’s a hunting license. Forget bony fingers and a sickle – if there is a Death, he has eyes as blue as glaciers and perfectly toned abs.

It’s a testament to just how good Craig is that all the high speed action sequences in the film seem entirely natural – what seems like a stunt is the bit where he stands stil, wearing his tuxedo. He looks good, but you can’t help wondering if there were special effects involved. The truth is that when it comes to turning on the charm, Craig doesn’t quite cut it. Oh, he tries, and every now and then the sheer anomaly of seeing a smile on that butch face will get to you, but his talent for conversation is limited, and he tackles light repartee as though it were Shakespeare. Other Bonds deliver their lines with polish, our man simply chips them out with an adze.

This is not without its own raffish charm (especially if you remember what he looks like in a swimsuit [2]), but it means that the corniness of what he’s saying is mercilessly exposed (at one point he greets a Swiss banker with the line “Didn’t you bring any chocolates?” Gah!) and the fact that he has an unusual (for a Bond flick) amount of ’emotional’ dialogue to get through only makes this worse. You have the urge to push machete wielding bad guys in his way just so he can stop talking and start beating them up. M (Judi Dench) calls him a blunt instrument, and she hits the nail right on the head (or, as happens at some point, punches it into the skull with a pressure tool). There’s a scene where his side-kick, a Ms. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) says (approximately) “You’ve got your armour back on haven’t you? You’re not going to let me in”. But it’s not armour this Bond is wearing, he just doesn’t have the range as an actor.

(Not that Craig is entirely incapable of charm. There is one scene in the film where he is genuinely winning – it’s the bit where he’s being tortured by his opponent and refusing to talk. How can you not love a secret agent who’s more of a smooth talker under intense physical pain than with a woman?)

All of which leads us to an existential question – Craig is great, but is he Bond? Who James Bond is, exactly, is a question we haven’t needed to ask since Connery, because it’s been well understood that every other Bond has been a pale imitation of that hallowed ideal. In Craig, however, we have a new original – an alternate vision of Bond as a relentless killer who can fake the smooth stuff when he needs to, but is, at heart, a roughneck, a glorified bouncer on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

On the whole, I think I’m going to come down against Craig as Bond. Don’t get me wrong – I love the fact that 007 has been rescued from the effete attentions of lounge lizards like Brosnan. When M. gets a microchip implanted under Bond’s skin so she can keep track of him, that shot in the arm you hear is the entire Bond franchise getting a lift out of the realms of farce. And there’s a part of me that would really love to see a major franchise that tracked the career of an action hero who was entirely unfeeling and ruthless (note to the filmmakers – can we cut out the soppy romantic stuff next time?).

But the thing I’ve always valued about the Bond franchise, the thing that Connery had and Craig doesn’t, was a sense of its own ridiculousness. Connery’s Bond, like this new one, went easy on the puns and witticisms, but watching him on screen you couldn’t shake the feeling that he got the joke. It was this sense of not taking himself so seriously, even while he was fighting in deadly earnest, that made Bond superior. Like the new Bond, Connery’s Bond wasn’t superhuman – but there was always a hint of bemusement in his actions, a sense that he was play-acting just a little, like a cat toying with its prey.

My problem with the new Bond is that he’s too sincere. Daniel Craig’s Bond feels more like a combination of John McLane and Philip Marlowe than a version of 007. He has the killer cred, but he doesn’t have sense of humour.

I also can’t help wondering whether, if Bond is going to keep on the way he is, it isn’t time for him to defect. This new Bond feels as though he would fit better at the CIA (or the Hollywood version of the CIA) than at MI6. Surely his bluntness, his recklessness, his obvious disregard for tact, diplomacy or teamwork and, above all, his overblown aggressiveness, are all qualities that would be appreciated more on the other side of the Atlantic. Watching him tear into an embassy in search of a terror suspect, and blow it to bits in the process, is to see White House foreign policy in the last 6 years in microcosm. The whole point of the classy, self-aware British agent was that he would beat the Yanks, not join them. This new Bond may be hell on wheels, but he’s also the defeat of the Great English Hope.

You could say that all this is stereotype, that characters need to evolve with their time. And certainly the new Bond does much to break free of the upper-crusted mould of the recent films. But it’s worth remembering that the whole point of Bond, the reason we love him, is because he’s a cliche. In trying to break free of the old stereotypes, the new Bond runs the risk of losing the very things that define his identity. And that, in a world crowded with action heros, could be as fatal as a bullet from a Walther PPK.

Notes

[1] One mustn’t forget, of course, that quirky, delightful and entirely unofficial rendition of Casino Royale from 1967, starring David Niven as Sir James Bond, Peter Sellers as James Bond and Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond.

[2] It is my firm conviction, btw, that the focus on Bond’s body throughout the film is less a symptom of changing gender roles in society (as some people have argued) and more to do with the fact that, given Craig’s lack of sparkling dialogue delivery, it’s the only way to make the idea that just about any woman would want to fall into bed with him plausible. If you only saw Craig dressed to the nines, chatting up women at a roulette table, you’d wonder what they saw in him – once you’ve seen him emerging from the sea like some deadly male Venus, the answer to that question is, literally, a no-brainer.

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