Shiny Shelf

Casino Royale

By Lance Parkin on 16 November 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

A James Bond film can be many things, even without changing the lead actor, and there’s no right way or wrong way to do it. The Bond films since Goldfinger have been based on a simple idea: the next one has to be bigger than the last … but every so often you have to chop them back down to basics, because the last one just got silly.

Three times, now, a movie about a bad guy controlling a space weapon and threatening every point on Earth has been followed by a much smaller scale movie with an emphasis on character and brutality, with no reliance on gadgets.

Each time the part is recast, we’re promised the new Bond is ‘getting back to Fleming’s original character’. I enjoyed ‘Die Another Day’ a lot, but it was very clearly as far as it was possible to take that version of the character, and Pierce Brosnan – who never did much more than look the part – was beginning to look a bit like James Bond’s dad.

This time round, we get both back to basics and a new Bond, and it’s the most radical overhaul since ‘Live and Let Die’ (a film with a sandy-haired bastard of a Bond, no Q, a Magnum instead of a PPK and whisky instead of martinis).

My anxiety with Daniel Craig has never been over casting a superb actor to replace Pierce Brosnan, it’s been that the culture shock might scare off audiences used to mistaking smarm for charm. That and a fear of the bland Transatlanticism that presented ‘London’ as being one of the exotic locales for its American audience and had Bond talking about ‘taking vacations’. I worried if, in an attempt to do ‘Bond Begins’, the makers would scrape away the wit and mischief, forget the Britishness and compromise for the US multiplexes. ‘The Bourne Identity’ might be a great spy film, but Bond never needs any help with that. No.

‘Casino Royale’ is a superb film, it’s a superb modern-day adaptation of a book that would seem to defy that, and it’s also a superb Bond film. Daniel Craig approaches it as his former ‘Friend in the North’ Christopher Eccleston approached ‘Doctor Who’, as a character with a rich inner life, a hard shell that can be penetrated. He’s not missed the point that Bond jokes and puns, and the script gives him all the self-awareness of the previous incarnations – ‘the Double Os don’t have a very long life expectancy’ and so on – but there’s a darker edge, where Bond might be untroubled but it’s deeply troubling to watch. A scene with M where she notes that nothing affects him emotionally is virtually (and deliberately) a rerun of a scene between Rosa Klebb and Red Grant, the bad guys of ‘From Russia With Love’. From the first scene, we see a Bond who’s both in control and borderline psychotic, and it’s extraordinary to watch.

Daniel Craig’s hopeless and prickly at playing the role of ‘James Bond star’ in front of journalists, but achieves his mission of being ‘the same, but different’ on screen, the only place it counts, before the opening credits start rolling. Early on, Bond literally bulldozes his way towards a villain – but before much longer, he doesn’t need the bulldozer to do the same job. Long, long before he says he’s ‘Bond, James Bond’, he’s convinced you of that. Whether he’ll be so happy by the fourth movie, where he’ll inevitably be fighting clones in Atlantis, is another thing, but he might be the man to keep the producers honest.

The script’s clever, a little bit too interested in slower ‘character moments’, particularly towards the end, but it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a novel that’s also confident enough to slip a line about
‘no cavalry coming to your rescue’ that can only be a reference to the David Niven movie.

The action sequences are superb, the look of the thing is stylish and modern (the male section of the audience I watched it with gave an audible sigh when the new Aston Martin appeared on screen), the contemporary politics feels like legitimate intelligence concerns rather than something that will date the movie or offend or just cash in. There’s a little bit too much reliance on wireless technology and cellphones – you half expect Bond to update his blog or text someone about his iPod – but that’s more than made up for than the fact that, unlike his predecessor, this Bond doesn’t need automatic weaponry or to sit in a car pressing buttons to fire missiles at you, he’ll just grab your hair and punch you in the face until you die.

Put it this way: this Bond would win a straight fight with any of the old lot. Most Bond films, most portrayals of Bond, contain both brutality and mischief, but they’ve tended to alternate between the two – sometimes rather awkwardly, between scenes, but usually with the one giving way to the other over time. ‘Casino Royale’, and Daniel Craig have managed something that’s never been done before, and combined the two. The result is stunning, visceral and smart. Every Bond film for twenty five years has wanted to be close to Fleming’s original, wanted the Bond
Girl to be more an equal than a bikini, wanted to emphasise character over gadgets and wanted to establish Bond as a contemporary figure instead of a sixties relic. Some of those films have come close, some of them have been great Bond films, but all have been at least a little disappointing. ‘Casino Royale’ hits the target, cracking it in half. With a bare fist.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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