We’re almost at the end of this long, cinematic odyssey, and just when it was going as stale as a loaf of bread, the series reworked itself. Here, the filmmakers deconstruct the franchise again, more forcefully even than Dalton ever did, and then begin a gradual process of reconstruction, to bring back all the old tropes from the shopping list I outlined ages ago. Some of these things work, others don’t, and by the time we get to the last movie, it feels very much like we’ve come full circle.
When we last saw out mutual friend it was 2003. He was surfing tsunamis, riding Wonder Woman’s car, and bonking Miss Moneypenny in cyberspace. Now it’s 2006, and let me tell ya; what a difference three years makes…
Before anyone had a chance to watch the bloody thing, Casino Royale did not bode well conceptually. It was written by the same screenwriters who’d penned Die Another Day (never going to be considered for inclusion in the Criteron Collection) and based on a book where Bond does bugger all but play a few hands of cards and make pedantic drink orders. Worst of all, Brosnan buggered off to be a dad in Mamma Mia! and now JB was going to be played by one of the blokes from Our Friends In The North. And he was blond! Travesty! Blasphemy! Boo hiss!
Yet, even 14 years on, Casino Royale feels shockingly well-made. Not only is it genuinely cool and effortlessly confident, stripped of the dead weight of over 40 years of continuity, but the story is actually fucking about something for a change. Namely, the character of James Bond himself. Who he is, and how he came to be.
Now, it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning its biggest influences. The first is The Bourne Identity, a grounded, character-driven spy caper, which managed to make Bond look hopelessly out-of-step the second it was released.
Matt Damon’s super-spy never experiences much opulence. He’s dredged out of the sea by sailors with no memory of who he is, and with only a name to go on. He spends the entire movie mystified by himself, dodging CIA assassins all over Europe just by thinking on his feet and taking calculated risks. His main love interest is an ordinary girl-next-door-type driving a beat-up car, who’s totally out of her depth in the brutal world of espionage.
There’s no daft gadgets, no moustache-twirling villains with grandiose ambitions, or Evil Lairs inside active volcanoes. Everything in the Bourne films feels refreshingly close to home, and all the advantages that 007 possesses are actively working against Jason. As I pointed out before, DAD could have taken the same basic premise after Bond’s North Korea torture trauma, but instead it opted to resolve Bond’s latent trauma with a shave and new duds. Typical.
We’ve seen the Bond franchise try to mix with different genres in the past, but now that there’s a new kid on the block with the exact same initials, the series hops on the next bandwagon and tries to be a psychological action-thriller. You know, the exact thing it was supposed to be in the first damn place.
The second antecedent is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – another movie which serves to revitalise a franchise by opting for a realism-driven prequel after goofy excess alienated audiences. It’s a formula that’s since been done to death, but at the time it was pretty daring to have a film that built the Caped Crusader from the ground up.
Of course, Batman Begins was just a live-action adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic Batman: Year One. But the intent behind it is the same: to try and make a man dressed as a flying mouse seem halfway plausible. It examines the character of Batman by working backwards, to show where his quirks and traits actually came from. What made him decide to get a special car? Where did he learn to fight like that? Why doesn’t he kill criminals? Why a bat?
Bearing these two movies in mind, the creators acquiring the rights to Casino Royale (the first Bond book, and the one that actually turned spy fiction from a fad into an enduring genre) couldn’t have happened at a better time. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade deliver a focused, witty, and genuinely intelligent script after churning out a total farce last time, and every member of the cast is on top form.
The movie opens in black-and-white, with a shot of a nondescript London office. Here, JB confronts traitorous section chief Dryden, a smug toff in a suit who taunts/congratulates him on achieving 007 status. The scene is inter-cut with a graphic fight between Bond and his first target in a bathroom. There’s nowt aspirational about it, and it immediately serves to establish Bond’s dual nature. On the one hand he’s sophisticated, smart, professional and posh, capable of verbally sparring with Dryden and tricking him into making a tit of himself with a handgun. On the other hand, he’s a killing machine on par with a Terminator.
However, Dryden waxing flippant over Bond’s first kill touches a nerve, and when he’s halfway through snarking: “Don’t worry, the second one is easier,” Bond shoots him dead and quips: “Considerably.” It’s every bit as quick, dispassionate and shocking as Connery’s “You’ve had your six,” moment back in Dr No. But this time there’s actually some motivation behind it. Now there’s an implied tension between Bond’s adherence to duty, and his repressed, Byronic passions. Now, the drama isn’t: ‘What’s Bond going to do in the next scene?’ so much as: ‘What’s the next scene going to do to Bond?’
Let’s talk about the supporting cast, because they’re every bit as well thought out as Bond is. They still match the usual archetypes – MasterMind, M, Final Girl, et al – but now they feel like genuine people in their own right, not satellites that have had the misfortune to fall into James’ orbit.
Judi Dench is back as M, and although she has less to do this time around, she’s as welcome as ever. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that she’s the only element of the previous era that Purvis and Wade opted to retain.
The relationship between her and 007 has shifted ever-so-slightly. When Brosnan was wearing the tux, M was his boss first and foremost. She was his foil, constructed to be Bond’s opposite. Female where Bond was male, mature where he was young, no-nonsense and businesslike where Bond was irreverent and rebellious. This time M feels a lot more maternal: she doesn’t criticise Bond for being a dinosaur or a relic. Instead, when Bond fucks up she scolds him like a teacher in ‘not angry, just disappointed’ mode. Indeed, it’s his youthful recklessness and arrogance which she wants to keep in check, not his sexism or disdain for authority.
This Freudian relationship will become the focus of Skyfall (to the point where M feels like the deuteragonist, but for now it’s used to highlight the dilemma Bond faces in the third act of the film. Bond has to choose between the two most important women in his life: M, who represents his career as a spy and his duty to Q&C, and Vesper, who represents the freedom and happiness he could find living a normal life outside MI6.
Ah Vesper. God, she’s good. It’s really weird to think that Phoebe Waller-Bridge has only just been brought on as a script consultant for a Bond film, because Vesper Lynd feels so much like Fleabag, I’m surprised she’s not giving wry looks to the camera every five minutes. Eva Green has been rightly praised for her performance, taking the role of a Bond Girl and delivering a character who nearly eclipses Bond for sheer wit, charisma, and sex appeal.
A lot of the things that make Vesper work are the same things that made the best Bond Girls stick out. Like them, Vesper has goals and agency outside of getting Bond’s dick wet. She’s not totally qualified to be in an action movie, but handles herself with aplomb. She’s traumatised by the violence she experiences first hand (in contrast to Bond, the master of suppression) and still manages to pull herself together and kick ass.
The burgeoning relationship between her and Bond is spoiled because of tragic circumstances conspiring against them, not because of Bond behaving like a total arse-cake. Not only that, but Vesper also shows us that (all together now) Bond Girls are more interesting when Bond has to work to win them over. The dialogue between them is barbed and vitriolic. As such, it’s a joy to behold. Just take a look at the duel they have on the train:
VESPER: You're good at reading people? BOND: Yes, I am. Which is why I've been able to detect an undercurrent of sarcasm in your voice. VESPER: I'm now assured our money is in good hands. BOND: You don't think this is a very good plan, do you? VESPER: So there is a plan? I got the impression we were risking millions of dollars and hundreds of lives on a game of luck (Pause) What else can you surmise, Mr Bond? BOND: About you, Miss Lynd? Well, your beauty's a problem. You worry you won't be taken seriously- VESPER: Which one can say of any attractive woman with half a brain. BOND: True, but this one overcompensates by wearing slightly masculine clothing, being more aggressive than her female colleagues, which gives her a somewhat prickly demeanor. And, ironically enough, makes it less likely for her to be accepted and promoted by her male superiors, who mistake her insecurities for arrogance. (Pause) BOND: Now, I'd have normally gone with 'only child' but, you see, by the way you ignored the quip about your parents. l'm gonna have to go with ... orphan. (BOND looks smug, but VESPER smiles back) VESPER: All right. By the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever, and actually think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain. My guess is you didn't come from money and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means you were at that school by the grace of someone else's charity, hence the chip on your shoulder. And since your first thought about me ran to orphan, that's what I'd say you are. (BOND's smirk slips) VESPER: Oh, you are. I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense, since Ml6 looks for maladjusted young men that give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect Queen and country. You know: former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches. Rolex? BOND: Omega. VESPER: Beautiful. Now, having just met you, I wouldn't go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard. BOND: No, of course not. VESPER: But it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine you think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr Bond I will be keeping my eye on our government's money... and off your perfectly-formed arse. BOND: You noticed? VESPER: Even accountants have imaginations. (Pause) How was your lamb? BOND: Skewered. One sympathises. VESPER: Good evening Mr Bond. BOND: Good evening Miss Lynd.
Try and tell me that five minutes of this backhanded banter isn’t 100 times more captivating than a space lasers and explosions. Go on.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about CR without mentioning Mads Mikkelsen, a man for whom the role of ‘Bond villain’ was surely a career inevitability. Le Chiffré appears to be a traditional MasterMind (vaguely foreign, ‘deformed’ due to his heterochromia, boasting a metal-ass medical condition where he periodically weeps blood) but played subtly for a change. Also, unlike the Blofeld/Dr No/Stromberg crowd, Le Chiffré’s Evil Plan is simply to make money financing terrorists. He’s a glorified accountant: the perfect foil for someone like Bond, in a movie where the poker games are every bit as important to national security as the gun fights and car chases.
Le Chiffré is a bad guy on the back foot from the beginning. He’s not an omniscient megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur. He’s made himself the enemy of some extremely dangerous bastards, and is frantically trying to make a quick buck, to pay off the sinister criminal syndicate that want to serve his gonads to him with a side of curly fries. You’d think this would make him naff by comparison to his predecessors, but it only makes him more dangerous. Other MasterMinds are content to rest on their laurels stroking kitties until Act Three. Le Chiffré is terrified and desperate, and this only makes him more unpredictable.
The set pieces in CR are memorable without being OTT. We have Bond chasing a parkour expert through a construction site, foiling a terrorist plot on the runway of an airport, chasing after goons in a sinking building in Venice, frantically trying to restart his heart after being poisoned, and (most famous of all) having his balls mercilessly whipped. The above scenes are moments of pure spectacle, but they make an impression due to efficient storytelling, good editing, and sheer style. There’s no need for ski chases and flying cars when the movie opts to do new things.
But it’s Daniel Craig himself who ties everything together. It would be easy for his interpretation to have his Bond be an unlikable twat (okay, more of an unlikable twat than the norm), but DC is critical enough of the franchise to be uninterested in playing a character firmly planted on a pedestal, and this definitely works in the movie’s favour. Craig gets to build his incarnation from the ground up, and explore what moulded him into a womanising, emotionally-unavailable, sensualist, crusading civil servant.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that, as a prequel, Bond is able to go through some actual frigging character development. He starts off being young, overeager, and arrogant. It’s clear he’s keen to prove himself to his superiors, and hasn’t learnt patience, planning, or restraint. Bond changes, irrevocably, as a result of this story, and that’s almost unprecedented. Okay, so he changes into the person that we’re all familiar with. But that’s the very point.
All this culminates in the very last scene, where Bond, having lost the love of his life and nihilistically committed himself to a fully-fledged career in the secret service, shoots Mr White and introduces himself as “Bond… James Bond.” It’s the delayed moment the audience has been waiting for since the film began, and when the Bond theme kicks in for good measure, it works dammit! It works even if you found the last forty years of movies lacklustre.
According to this interview, the one line that convinced Craig to take up the part in the first place was Bond snapping “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked by a bartender whether he wanted his martini shaken or stirred. This sums up the whole approach of Casino Royale. These little references to the mythology of 007’s fictional world, built up over some 43 years, aren’t throwaway or trivial. Instead, they serve to subvert the format and reveal character in ways the audience isn’t expecting.
Bond snapping: “Do I look like I give a damn?” only happens when he screws up big-time. The out-of-character moment serves to highlight the stress he’s under. Simultaneously, the fact that we later find out that his signature drink is named ‘The Vesper’ adds a retrospective touch of poignancy. Now, when we look back and see Bond chugging back vodkas in the other movies, we can interpret that as him paying a tribute to a lost love, and not as unaddressed substance abuse.
This is what you can do with a franchise with a lasting mythology. Deft modernism can enhance the story and develop the characters. References to the past shouldn’t always just be ‘Hey remember when such-and-such happened?’ moments that just massage the egos of fanboys. But deconstruction for its own sake isn’t inherently enthralling. When storytelling devices are used to build on what’s come before, and even make us see past works in a new context, that’s when a series can do what a standalone work can’t. That’s what makes things like movie marathons worthwhile … or so I tell myself anyway.
Sadly, it wouldn’t be James Bond if the franchise didn’t find a way to take its successes too far, and all the things that are on-key Casino Royale fall very flat in the next movie…
Quantum of Solace:
Golly, it’s hard to write about this film. I’ve seen Microcosm of Remorse twice now, and yet I can barely remember a thing about it. It feels like a night out where I blacked out from boredom rather than booze. I can’t work out whether it’s a terrible Bond film but solid movie, or a solid film and solid Bond movie, or just generally terrible. I think, somehow, it’s everything at once.
I get that expectations were high following Casino Royale’s success. However, in QOS, all that happens is that the modernist understatement of CR is itself taken to excess. It was all fine and dandy when the last film drew inspiration from Jason Bourne to reign itself in a bit. But Quantum feels like it could be any generic action movie with Bond plopped in, and all the attempts to establish a new continuity with the last film feels like we’re going back to self-plagiarising again.
This is the first time that a Bond film has directly followed-on from the previous one, which had a lot of potential as an idea. But Craig has aged visibly since last time, and the idea doesn’t really go any further than setting up the revenge plot, which we’ve already seen done several times. As such, it doesn’t really hold your interest, and neither does Bond going rogue after being framed for murder. I kept waiting for some delayed novelty that never arrived.
The MasterMind is a bit of a wet fart too. Compared the other villains we’ve seen, he’s utterly underwhelming. He doesn’t even have camp silliness to fall back on, because this film is so desperate to be taken seriously that it’s suspicious of anything fun. Apparently, director Marc Forster declined to dress up Dominic Greene with any kind of deliberate grotesquery, to emphasise the hidden and secret nature of the villains in our late-stage capitalist society. It worked for Benicio Del Toro, and it’s a neat idea but…
Seriously, can anyone else name five things about Greene that make him memorable as a character? I’ll give you thirty seconds. Shit, I’ll give you all day as long as you promise not to peek at Google. Bet you can’t think of anything. Seriously, you couldn’t pick him out of a crowd of one. Maybe he’d have worked as a starter villain for an even younger Bond, but after all the shit Jimmy went through last time, a yuppie with a fire axe just seems utterly underwhelming. It’s like if Commando ended with Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting Rick Moranis. At least A View To Kill had a blimp for Christ’s sake.
The movie sees Bond investigating the über-nasty baddie organisation Quantum, (which our lawyers have advised us to make clear is definitely NOT just Spectre without the implied threat of litigation). Spectre’s plan is to use Dominic Greene, an outwardly eco-friendly CEO with dastardly intentions, to pollute Bolivia’s water supply to monopolise the sale of H20. I could almost call this premise topical, after the Flint water crisis, so I can’t criticise it for lack of realism. But while I’m as sick of stolen diamonds and hijacked subs as the next man, this scheme is so boring that it’s difficult to care very much.
Olga Kurylenko is good Camille Montes, although her character is a xerox copy of Melina Havelock, and she shares decent chemistry with Daniel Craig. Crucially, she doesn’t actually hook up with James by the end of it all. Man alive! Has someone finally gained immunity to horniness-inducing Bond’s pheromones? We need to isolate that gene sequence ASAP.
Apparently, the decision to have Camille dodge a tryst with Bond was due to her being a rape victim, and the writers thought that having 007 seduce a sexual assault survivor would be in poor taste. I want to say ‘Better late than never’, but after 21 films without this kind of forethought, ‘Too little, too late’ is probably more apt.
The action sequences suffer from the same problem as the villain: they’re totally forgettable. By now, I’m used to these films parading wacky set pieces like killer fun-houses and ninja fights in front of me – if nothing else, they drew attention to themselves. I’m confident that there were car chases, fist-fights, and shoot-outs in Very Small of Regret, but I can form a clear picture of any of them in my mind.
A lot of this comes down to the editing, which was so choppy that even an ADD sufferer like myself felt like there was too many cutaways. You can watch this movie and count how long each individual shot lasts, and it’s rare for any of them to stick around longer than two seconds, which just makes it that much harder to follow. I know that this was a bad habit that a lot of action films in the 2000s picked up (Taken, I’m looking at you) but it doesn’t make it any less grating here.
I wish I had more to say about this one, but honestly: I’m drawing a blank. QOS reminds me of that mute girl you went to high school with, who sat at the very back of the classroom, too shy to ever make a peep, so that even the yearbook committee almost forgot to include them.
Nobody ever hated those kids growing up, because there was nothing to hate about them. But nobody ever got to know them either. They were so afraid of embarrassing themselves they settled for a camouflage of boredom. This movie has the same problems. It’s not confident enough in itself to make us laugh or cheer or gasp, so it feels like it’s settling for just not making anyone cringe.
The result? A movie experience that’s as bland as lukewarm gruel. Casino Royale was bold and brazen and engaging. QOS expects a pat on the back for repeating the very same tricks. None of it feels new and fresh, let alone Bond-like, even if there’s a shot of a naked bird smeared in crude oil.