Despite being British, James Bond is, in many ways, the prototypical American action hero. From his very first movie outing in 1962, the character’s exploits set the tone for the modern action film. For four and a half decades now, he’s been blowing away baddies and bedding beauties; Bond — James Bond — was doing babes, boats, and bombs with flair long before Bruckheimer got into the game.
Now he’s back in his first major reinvention since the mid 90s, with more whizzing cars, more seductive ladies, more foreign villains with diabolical schemes, and more spectacular violence — all in the service of the queen (and movie-studio bank accounts). There’s a plot, sort of, in there too, though I defy anyone to truly make sense of it, and even if they do, to actually care. For what Casino Royale lacks in narrative oomph, it mostly makes up for in style, delivering a vigorous reworking of one of our oldest male, pop-culture archetypes. And though it falls apart toward the end, it provides a supple dose of what everyone in the audience wants to see, namely Bond being Bond.
Or, more precisely, Daniel Craig being Bond. Craig’s casting irked some Bond diehards, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s glorious news — especially for men with receding hairlines. Of course, Craig’s Bond is no average Joe couch potato. He’s as cut as they come, and he takes every opportunity to brandish his sculpted physique. The physical presence he brings to the role differs from previous Bonds; instead of the slender, refined elegance we’re used to, he compresses his compact, bulldog’s build inward, giving Bond a boxer’s hunch and a squinty glower, as if balled up and ready to strike. He’s a bad boy, and his every pose shows he knows it.
Previous Bond films binged on outlandish action-film escapades, and though Casino Royale isn’t short on energetic set pieces, it shies away from the goofy, willful excess that marked the last few entries in the series. That may disappoint those looking for more skydiving into falling airplanes and pulling them back into flight, or chases in which Bond leaps a motorcycle over rooftops while a helicopter tries to chop him up in its blades. No, Craig’s Bond no longer strolls through action scenes with the confidence of a tuxedo-clad Superman; now he slips, trips, and slams painfully into his surroundings, scrambling wildly for any edge over his many adversaries. He’s still slick enough to turn the tables with an unexpected move, but where Brosnan gave us a bemused charmer with a silencer and a bowtie, Craig turns the character into a snarling, steely-eyed human weapon.
Some might call this realistic, but only in the way that adult comic-book graphic novels are realistic in comparison with kid’s cartoons. Mostly it’s just grimmer and gruffer, reflecting both a reaction to the over-the-top follies of the Brosnan-era and a renewed audience desire for heroes who are darker, more brooding, and not quite so indestructible.
Over the years, Bond has adjusted, if sometimes clumsily, to the current mood, and here he continues to change with the times. Just as he provided the original inspiration for the modern day spy exploits of Mission: Impossible and 24, these newer sources now inform their progenitor. Having spawned decades of copycats that, in turn, influenced Bond’s present incarnation, you might think of this reborn 007 as his own grandkid — the child of his successors.
Hints of both Ethan Hunt and Jack Bauer can be found throughout Casino Royale, though they’re always served with a twist of one-upmanship, as if to reassert the primacy of Bond as the original tough guy superspy. It often seems like the movie is delivering an action hero’s challenge. Ethan Hunt may have some nifty gadgets, but they’re toddler’s toys next to Bond’s shimmering, six-figure wheels. And Bauer may have survived all manner of fantastically inventive torture, but Bond not only sits through one of the cruelest, most painful methods of inflicting agony ever dreamt up by a megalomaniacal villain, but does it with the sneering wit and attitude that only Bond could muster. One imagines the spies and their respective agencies would need to take a death-run through a gadget and torture packed gauntlet — a superspy Olympics — to settle the matter of who’s truly the toughest man of action. Presumably the winner would fight Chuck Norris.
It’s tempting to say that Casino Royale is more character-driven than its predecessors, but that’s probably inaccurate. Although it’s true that the film pays more attention than usual to the interaction between the various players, most of the characters here aren’t really developed so much as piled on with eccentric quirks and ticks. The bad guy, who we’re casually informed is an “Albanian chess prodigy and mathematical genius” (they’re so common these days), may not have much to him other than the standard make money/be evil motivations harbored by most high-end black-market terrorist bankers, but you won’t soon forget the huffy way he sucks on his asthma inhaler, the cold, calculating manner in which he clicks his poker chips together, or the fact that he randomly tears up blood. How’s that for deliciously evil?
Out of the many players, it is Eva Green as Bond’s dashing flame Vesper Lynd who most impresses. Sashaying through the film in world-class evening wear, she’s the best Bond girl in recent memory, complete with glassy doll eyes, plenty of conspicuous cleavage, perfect pitch-black hair, and a waistline that looks to measure in negative size numbers. And though she may be a snappy, self-possessed head-turner who can equal Bond in a game of armchair psychoanalysis, she is nonetheless frightened by his ease with brutality. She’s tough, but not so tough she doesn’t occasionally require saving.
The same, unfortunately, is true of the movie. For almost two hours, it makes quite a go of it, but then Bond and Lynd end up in Venice, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the plot to figure out what to do with them. It never does, and instead resorts to stuffing them into a spectacularly crashing building, which brings down the movie as well. The only mitigating factor is that things end on a bit of a downer, a rarity for such oversized blockbusters. In the end, Bond learns, as the audience has been discovering for a half an hour, that these things never end well.