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Film Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale (2006; Directed by Martin Campbell)

Never having been a big fan of the Bond films under any on-screen steward but still somehow having seen many of them, watching Casino Royale was a purposeful attempt to forge a new viewing relationship with the venerable, lucrative franchise. My Bond skepticism tended to be related back not only to their flashy, gut-punching shallowness, old-fashioned chauvinism, or quasi-fascist privileging of masculinized violence as not only a means to an end but an end in itself. My profound Bond doubts were also grounded in structural filmmaking concerns, as the narrative progression of most franchise installments (especially to the noisy and increasingly uninspired Pierce Brosnan entries to which Casino Royale is intended as a riposte) tended to feel like little more than expensively ticking off items on a checklist. Pre-credits action sequence: check. Maurice Binder design homage in the opening credits: check. Get gadgets from Q: check. Flirt with Eve Moneypenny: check. Approach interaction with M with mixture of deference and insolence: check. Bang different chick in each act: check. Kill lots of Communists or Communist-proxies awesomely: check.

casino-royaleGiving Casino Royale a fair shot, then, was a direct result of its marketing and construction as a brand relaunch, as close as James Bond was ever going to get to an origin story (Hollywood was all over blockbuster origin stories in the middle of the last decade, and still is). And, indeed, much of the superfluous fat was trimmed quite effectively. Really, Casino Royale works best when it’s least like the Bond we’ve come to know from the increasingly inane action extravaganzas; it even strips away previous franchise mainstays like the aforementioned Q and Moneypenny (who stay away until the most recent Craig-era episode, Skyfall).

Mind you, this 007 perhaps much closer to the James Bond that Ian Fleming laid out in his novels (and the plot does indeed mine Fleming’s initial Bond novel for plot and character detail): a ruthless android killer with misogyny, addiction, and masochism running in his veins. Daniel Craig is perfect for this sort of Bond, with his deep-frozen blue eyes and stiff manner broken only occasionally by a smile that comes off as almost cruel. The attempts to humanize him (mostly through his genuine-seeming romance with Vesper Lynd, who in the able hands and stunning form of Eva Green is almost too good to be a mere, inherently disposable Bond Girl) are necessary for the liberal-humanist time, but I’d almost prefer they were more honest and just let him be the murdering spy machine (which director Martin Campbell mostly does). There’s even a sort-of reversal of the famous swimsuit-clad moment of female objectification from Dr. No featuring Ursula Andress, with Craig’s rippling, wet physique shown off gratuitously on a beach.

Bond-ology aside, only parts of the film worked particularly. The ice-cold opening sequence was a welcome change from the overwrought action set-pieces that traditionally tend to open Bond films, a film-noir treatment from its black-and-white cinematography to the deeply nihilist core. Furthermore, none of the action sequences that crop up with regularity in the film match the sheer exhilaration of the first extended one, an amazing, superhuman white-knuckle foot-chase through a Madagascar construction site that proffers more badass action beats than even a Peter Jackson movie. But then I found the poker scenes to be tedious (I have little time for gambling, not even its supposed psychological underpinnings), the torture scene bizarre (herein lies the hints of Bond’s masochism), and the climax in a drowning building in Venice far too hard-working and entirely predictable.

Still, this film adds up to a watchable and often entertaining James Bond adventure, and in the years leading up to Casino Royale, when was the last time a discerning filmgoer could honestly say that? A step in the right direction for a franchise that, whatever one might think of its underlying politics or its uneven aesthetic value, is undeniably a cultural artifact of no small popular significance.

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