House cleaning with a review from many months ago I never got around to publishing. It’s the films ten-year anniversary as the best blockbuster from 2006, and what with the blockbusters this year falling down left and right with no idea what on earth they’re doing, the time seems right.
2015’s Spectre introduced its reptilian British assassin with that film’s best scene, Bond slithering through the streets of Mexico City in death’s garb like the brutal, unerring slasher he truly is. The decade prior reenvision of the character, Casino Royale, essentially charts the trajectory of the human parts that were refigured into that primeval, thuggish bloodhound ready for the kill. In Royale’s final image, the man accepts the destruction of his humanity and embraces his icon status by restating his franchise-player name, his signature phrase, as he had for decades. Only this time, he does it with a cold-blooded emptiness broken only by the light of a devilish smirk, the fallout of which is essentially the audience’s awareness that his fractured psyche has reduced him to a mercenary whose only joy in life could be to mercilessly raise hell and find some iota of purpose in it. Casino Royale’s climax, its very final image, is less heartbreaking than a question mark about whether there was ever a heart to break, a state of the union address for action cinema that lays bare the terrifying reality that the world, the audience, and the franchise, would rather just have Bond on a leash to do its bidding than be a human.
Within, even the failure of the film to actually peruse the implications of its amorality feels oddly and not awkwardly like a necessary suggestion of the limits of the franchise. If the actual film is ultimately little more than duel-wielding franchise thrills and character-focused chills and using each to keep the film shaken but not really stirred with the Bergman-esque mortal philosophy that the film’s proponents argue it truly exhibits, at least as an action film the mixture is still palpably vicious, and even nasty, when it needs to be. If Casino Royale exhibits the lexicon of a Bond film, it reorients the patois. Even its essential conflict – a youthful Bond (Daniel Craig) must confront villainous terrorist supplier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) – is cheerfully downtuned as Bond is essentially called in not because of his skill with a gun but because he knows how to play poker. Indeed, the climax of the film is a card game, which is a fairly dangerous gambit of a centerpiece for a major franchise tentpole, especially one with the weight of the character on its back and a villain who registers more as slithery accountant than monomaniacal monolith of destruction (grounding him, for the better).
Admittedly, Casino Royale isn’t a blockbuster rebellion so much as a mischief maker, riddled with questions for the blockbuster machine and Bond’s amoral status but not so much ready to function as a conspiratorial accusation of the character altogether; it’s bending franchise rules, but not breaking them. The implicit critique of the franchise is no half-hearted fabrication, but those expecting an Antonioni picture should stick to their cinematic malcontents. Casino Royale, still a streamlined blockbuster when all the perforations of the blockbuster form are stripped away, is at best a demi-devil or an imp raising a minor ruckus with its franchise without really destabilizing the house around it.
Which is fine, expectations kept in line and all. Casino Royale is, on its own mainstream terms, dynamite, a film never bridled by its shifts into seriousness (unlike, say, Nolan’s Batman movies) because director Martin Campbell’s vision for the gloom is more bruising efficiency a la Bullitt than lugubrious, lethargic omnipotence a la The Dark Knight. Casino Royale’s effectiveness, essentially, is that it wears its seriousness not like it is a light shining itself onto the world, pretentiously informing us of its greatness at every turn, but as an excuse to expunge the fat. In Casino Royale’s mind, Christopher Nolan’s sense of terrible grandeur is an equally desperate, cloying form of cinematic fat compared to the nullifying silliness of most other blockbusters.
The unbecoming, slovenly lunacy of the latter-day antiquated Pierce Brosnan Bond pictures are torn out and trampled asunder, resulting in a film sans ephemera of any kind. The character analysis is kept on the right side of creeping-in rather than announcing itself with a laser light show, even when indifferent, milquetoast script doctor Paul Haggis is on display reminding us how atrocious a social commentator and dramatist he is. This being one year after the abysmally over-baked Crash, there’s a mid-film conversation between Craig and Eva Green on a train that is more or less batting practice for the film to air out its grievances against Bond and double-back to reaffirm his cold-blooded cool, ultimately embracing misogyny in a ham-fisted critique of misogyny that is about as over-baked as it possibly could be in its desire to sum up the film in one fell conversational swoop. But dialogue of this self-aggrandizing caliber is mostly kept in waiting for the rest of the film, which by and large prefers action and reaction rather than smarmy verbal battery.
The real figures lighting our way are Craig and Campbell. The then-new Bond himself defuses the bitter aftertaste of Die Another Day with a thoroughly morose portrayal of a man more or less discovering what little capacity for fun he actually has, emphasizing stillness and sangfroid and decrying any show-off status with an appropriately thuggish, wonderfully unrefined performance (smacking and shoveling like an ass when a previous Bond would have gone for subtlety) as a personification of a weapon more than a human being. On his own, he derails decades of misguided decisions about the character, rekindling Connery’s dry-ice chill of a fire.
The more unsung master at work is Campbell, never an appreciated director but one who brings a Walter Hill-like efficiency to his films that trade more on violence than wordplay. The introductory scene – impossibly crisp chiaroscuro cut down by an experiment in grain to evoke the discrepancy in Bond’s second and first kills, respectively – is a small wonder, a brutal implosion of frighteningly efficient characterization rather than a pompous, torpor-inducing explosion of action. Of course, when the protoplasmic character is stabilized as “Bond” after the introductory credit song (an admittedly deflating bro-rock number that represents the worst of once-great frontman Chris Cornell’s post-Soundgarden career), he returns from exile with a gut punch of a ferocious foot chase that proves the film’s “big action” credentials are on fine footing. Again, even this chase focuses on the character discrepancies between the unformed axe that is Bond (smashing and crashing around) and his slinky parkour-using nemesis. Clandestine British imperialism is visualized as volatile mess, even if the film around it doesn’t exactly fracture the oppression machine any more than it feels comfortable to do so.
It’s sobriety without suffocation, a depiction of brutally blunt efficiency that, in its opening moments, evokes the platonic ideal of the “blunt instrument” that creator Ian Fleming referred to Bond as. Brooding is sometimes apparent around the edges, but the macho poetics that have more or less crippled action cinema for a long while never run amok over the film; this is a gloriously deadlined motion picture, rushing and hurtling and resting only when possible, a film without the time or the release valve to weep for Bond’s failure. It explores the character as he might explore himself, with a kind of sociopathic monomania and blinkered worldview that is threatened by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who the film doesn’t exactly utilize with the grace and self-reflection many of its proponents suggest.
More or less embracing its franchise’s playful cruelty, only here scraped away of some of the play, Casino Royale eventually concludes by turning its protagonist into its weapon and its moral worth. When Bond comes into his own in the film’s finale, it’s not only a calling card but a sublimation, the untethering of whatever potentiality for love remained dormant in his mind. (That said, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service still hits with a more frighteningly arbitrary force in its finale). While Spectre, flaws aside, finally visualized Bond as from-the-shadows killer best kept at bay in the darkness, Casino Royale shows the origins of the boogeyman and essentially explores what happened when he first lost the light.