Movies: Um, Is That You, Bond?

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

The perfect figure rises from the sea–lubricated and lubricious, like Ursula Andress in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No–and the audience lets out a little gasp of sexual admiration, the voyeur’s version of applause. But this body belongs to Daniel Craig, the new 007, and with his Sisyphus shoulders and pecs so well defined they could be in Webster’s, it’s no surprise that the camera lingers lovingly to investigate the topography of his splendidly buff torso. If Craig spends more time with his shirt off than all previous Bonds combined, it’s to make the point that this secret agent is his own sex object. In any romance he has with a shady lady, he seems to be cheating on himself.

Body talk is relevant here, because it’s the most obvious hint that Casino Royale means to be a very different Bond movie. The 21st in the official series produced by the Broccoli family (two others–a spoof called Casino Royale and a freelance Sean Connery opus, Never Say Never Again–were made outside the fold), this one tries to rejuvenate a 44-year-old franchise that was showing signs of tired blood and losing its appeal to the young-male action-film demographic. The writers–Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with the ubiquitous Paul Haggis–and director Martin Campbell wanted to go harder, faster, not to stir the formula but to give it a vigorous shake.

So, in the tradition of Batman Begins and the Star Wars pre-trilogy, they went back to square one and created a baby Bond. Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel, and Bond here is an agent on his first big case, a rough diamond who has not yet acquired his savoir faire or taste for the double entendre. The Craig Bond might know no French at all; he’s not the suave, Oxbridgian 007 of legend but the strong, silent type, almost a thug for hire, and no smoother with a sardonic quip than John Kerry. Still, he fits one description Fleming gave of his hero: “[His face was] a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.”

The brutality is on display in the first scene, which hews to the previous films’ text by providing a daring exploit and a minor league kill before the stylized opening credits. This time, though, the fatal confrontation is shown in monochrome and takes place in a Saw-style bathroom. The killing is grimly realistic, as if to suggest that this Bond operates in the real world of real pain and has wounds that may never heal. A later scene, with a naked Bond getting his testicles whipped, inevitably calls up Abu Ghraib atrocities (and should have earned the film an R rating instead of the indulgent PG-13 it received). Bond can take punishment and dish it out, impersonally. When asked whether it bothers him to kill people, he replies, “I wouldn’t be good at my job if it did.” He’s a killing machine–one of Q’s most sophisticated gadgets.

Along with Brutal Bond, Casino Royale offers Hyper Bond, a character more muscular and kinetic than before. So is the movie. It’s not easy to freshen up the elaborate action sequences that the franchise more or less invented and that have been imitated in hundreds of movies. But Casino Royale succeeds by taking a modern form of physical activity–parkour, the urban steeplechase in which participants run up stairwells, jump across roofs and slip through transoms that was showcased to exhilarating effect in the French film District B13–and applying it to Bond’s pursuit of a bad guy (parkour star Sébastien Foucan) on the high beams of a construction project. Marvelous!

Unfortunately, Casino Royale has to stick to the Fleming plot; it must also be Basic Bond. (The movie is so personality-split that 007 could refer to the number of the hero’s warring personalities.) In this case, that demands not just the sneering villain (Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre, banker to the terrorist élite) and the tempting females, one blond (Ivana Milicevic) and one brunet (the criminally alluring Eva Green). It means that the focus of the plot must be … a card game! We grant that high-stakes poker has its tension, especially if it’s your hand and your multimillion-dollar stake. But dramatically there’s something lacking in a movie climax that needs the hero to be holding higher cards than the villain. Luck is not fate.

But love is. And at last, toward the end of its nearly 21/2 -hr. running time, the film arrives at its final Bond: the secret agent with a vulnerable heart. Bond has one, which he wants to give to his ally in the Le Chiffre charade, Green’s sympathetic Vesper Lynd. It’s a nice try, throwing romance into the stew, but after all its expert exertions, Casino Royale can’t rev up the melancholy mood. Which is appropriate, for this is a Bond with great body but no soul.

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