Back to the Beginning…

Looking ahead to today’s opening of the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, I decided to look back at Casino Royale last night since the new film picks up right were Casino left off.  Casino Royale is a new Bond beginning in more ways than one, and for a generation of new Bond fans, will color their perception of future Bond films.

Casino Royale introduces us to a new Bond, Daniel Craig, who as Bond is new to the 007 gig.  Actually, we meet him just as he completes his second kill to attain double-0 status.  He then sets off on an around the world journey chasing after a small-fry bomb maker and the bigger fish who finance terrorists around the globe.  In this film, Bond’s main villain is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a quiet, pathetic man with a dysfunctional left tear duct that occasionally leaks blood instead of water.  On his way to Montenegro to play in a high stakes (up to $150 million) poker game with Le Chiffre, he meets Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) his partner from MI-6, and a very new type of Bond girl, with whom he eventually falls in love.  After Le Chiffre loses the game, he captures both Vesper and Bond and tortures them in an attempt to attain the account number and password for their winnings.  They escape, and Bond, thinking all is over, tenders his resignation to sail around the world with his new love.  However, he quickly realizes that Vesper is not who she appears to be, and the sequel, Quantum of Solace, very much starts with these last twenty minutes of Casino Royale.

Casino Royale‘s plot is both entertaining and intriguing and represents just one of Bond’s many new beginnings with a de-centralized villain and toned down technology.  Again, we have a new actor playing Bond and a Bond new to his job.  We also have a new Bond girl that is actually integral to the story and not just window dressing.

The second Bond film after 9/11, Casino Royale actually feels like the first, true post-9/11 Bond film.  There is an emphasis on global terrorism and the ways in which it is funded.  Wealthy globe-trotters fund small-time bombers, not international space weapons, as in Die Another Day.  We are unsure of Le Chiffre’s nationality and his criminal associations.  As M (Judi Dench) says, “Christ, I miss the Cold War.”  The real threats are these financiers, but the bombers are no joke either.  The one that Bond chases in what is one of the series’ most intense, exciting chase sequences ever, has a badly burned face and hands from production gone awry.

In pursuit of Le Chiffre, and those even higher up on the chain of evil, Bond relies on technology, but not the type that Bond enthusiasts might have expected.  Gone are jet packs, rocket launchers, BMW’s that can be steered with a cell phone, exploding cufflinks….  Bond’s new technology in Casino Royale is very much of our time.  His most-used gadget?  A cell phone.  He tracks placed calls and sent messages to locate Le Chiffre’s colleagues.  He finds out the truth about Vesper from her cell phone that she unwisely left in the hotel as they prepared to sail away from Venice.  Bond’s gun play is even limited.  In the end, Bond’s greatest gadget, or weapon, is his own body.  M even refers to him as a “blunt instrument.”

From the beginning, Casino Royale emphasizes Bond’s physicality.  He accomplishes his first kill not by stealth but by gruesome, ugly brute force.  As he chases the first bomber, he does so on foot, not in a fancy car.  Drawing from extreme running, he scales great heights, even leaping from one large crane to another.  When he pursues a terrorist financier to Miami, he tracks him to a Body Worlds exhibit which reveals the muscular-skeletal frameworks of people in a variety of day-to-day poses.  Bond must exhibit his strength against his opponent in close, quiet physical combat.  We see much of Daniel Craig’s sculpted body throughout the film, not in the usual love-making scenes, but in more physical or athletic pursuits.  We see him naked the longest as Le Chiffre tortures him by beating his genitals with a thick rope.  For all his physical ability and threat, Le Chiffre still apparently fears Bond’s sexuality more.  Even a beaten and battered Bond is appealing to the opposite sex.  Vesper reassures him, “If all that was left of you was your smile and your little finger, you would be more of a man than anyone I have ever known.”

Bond’s MI-6 counterpart, Vesper, is also a fresh addition to Casino Royale.  Beautiful like all the other Bond girls, she brings a greater amount of intelligence to the role.  Their first encounter on the train to Montenegro is the stuff of Bond film legend.  This exchange tells it all:

Bond:  You’re not my type.

Vesper:  What, smart?

Bond:  No, single.

Vesper is indeed smart enough to hide her full identity from Bond and the rest of MI-6, which could just as well signal a breakdown in our security/defense agencies’ abilities to know everything about everyone in a technologically advanced age that benefits “heroes” and “villains” alike.

Obviously, much skepticism and criticism surrounds the selection of a new actor to play James Bond.  I even hesitated briefly until I remembered Craig’s brilliant performance in the British gangster film, Layer Cake, which could be seen as something of a Bond audition for him.  All but the most stubborn Bond fans deemed Craig the best Bond yet.  Craig brilliantly effects a wide range of characteristics and emotions that both disappear and are responsible for his predecessors’ subsequent behavior.  Towards the end of Casino Royale, M asks Bond, “You don’t trust anyone do you?”  When he tells her that he no longer does, she responds, “Then you’ve learned your lesson.”  If the ending of Casino Royale is any indication, Bond has quickly lost his ability to love and trust, perhaps the source of Connery et al’s womanizing after all.

Casino Royale (144 mins) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content, and nudity and is available on DVD.