Audience's Bond: Casino Royale in Context
By Katharine Coldiron
April 1 , 2007
If Casino Royale (which arrived on DVD in mid-March) represents a
revolution in James Bond cinema, it may not be a revolution worth the blood.
I loved Casino
Royale. I found it exciting and wholly not forgettable, a quality most
unusual in action movies these days. But there was a sadness in me for the old
days of Bond, for the wink-and-escape attitude of
Moore and the irresistible coif of Brosnan,
even for the incomprehensibility of a film like The Living Daylights.
Craig’s Bond may be the best ever, the closest to Ian Fleming’s vision, but the
new direction for the franchise leaves behind the comfortable, cheesy old road
we had been traveling with 007. And maybe that road has more to offer us than
the gritty speed of Casino Royale.
I’m not your
typical Bond viewer. For one thing, I’m female. I don’t have any statistics on
the typical Bond viewer, but I’d bet bucks to bullets that they skew male. For
another, I much prefer dramas and indie films to overblown action movies. If
it’s got Stallone or Van Damme in it I’m probably not interested. But I’ve got
a boyfriend, and for an early Christmas present I bought him two of the four
deluxe James Bond DVD sets, over which he squealed like a little girl.
As we watched them
together, I came to recognize the qualities that used to make up a Bond flick,
qualities which most men could probably rattle off without a second thought: the
theme song, the opening credits, the girls (generally not women, I note), the
improbable villains, the one or two ginormous explosions and the many smaller
ones, the fast cars, the lame jokes. And most importantly, the sophistication:
a perfect tuxedo never soiled by sweat or blood.
Much of this (even
at times the un-stainable tuxedo) has been retained for Casino Royale,
but it doesn’t feel the same. And there is so much more. There’s
backstory, there’s love and loss, there’s expert cinematography and very good
acting. There’s a woman, not a girl, with motivations of her own. There’s real,
sustained character empathy, where before there was mere enjoyment. Casino
Royale is, in short, a fine film. That’s where my alarm bells start to go
The only Bond
movie I’ve seen that, for me, qualifies as a better-than-average piece of
cinema (even action cinema) is Dr. No. In all the others, the pace
drags, or the plot spins out of control, or the movie is just a string of
chases and explosions held together by Roger Moore’s raised eyebrows or Sean
Connery’s winning smile. Memorable action flicks have to do a lot more than
most Bond flicks have bothered to do, even respectable efforts like Goldeneye.
They have to have the same qualities as all narrative fiction: good characters,
credibility, and an involving story, as well as eye-popping visuals and a capable
acting. To expect all of these things to come together for a franchise as
reliable as the James Bond films is near-unnecessary; scores of people will go
to see a paper sack in a bow tie play James Bond, as long as there are kickass
explosions and maybe a boat chase.
The fact that the
makers of Bond films haven’t bothered to put all of these elements together for
more than a slim percentage of the franchise is a little depressing, but at
least it gave audiences a reliable expectation. This was not going to be great
cinema. This was going to be low- to mid-level popcorn entertainment, and its
saving grace was going to be the undeniably fascinating character of Bond
himself. It’s amazing to realize that James Bond is a character unique amongst
all others in fiction for his durability, his flexibility, and the fact that
people have been making up stories to put around him (not a type similar to
him, but the singular character), in varying media, for fifty years.
To make Casino
Royale far more than a decent Bond flick was breaking violently against
type for the franchise, and luckily there were enough explosions for them to
pull it off. I was stunned by the seriousness of the film, by its demands on
the audience (running time being the least of it), and I remembered thinking we
were a long way from that redneck sheriff whooping out of an acrobatic AMC
Hornet in The Man With the Golden Gun.
there’s something wrong with that. The Bond franchise is reliably silly, I
think, a quality that we as an audience took for granted. Rolling our eyes at
Bond’s quips felt almost nostalgic after 20 years of watching him navigate
through increasingly ludicrous situations. His value to our culture—American,
British, worldwide—is difficult to estimate. He is beloved by so many, and
brings simplistic enjoyment to so many more. Is the spiky, bleeding Bond that
Craig presents us with so easy to love?
I think no.
Although my instincts fight the censure of a film as finely made as Casino
Royale, I think the franchise’s trustees have made a mistake in turning
Bond into quality cinema. Bond’s worth to us as a caricature of a secret agent,
rather than the literally heart-stopping reality that Craig has presented us
with, is far greater than the value of a good film.
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READ ANOTHER ACID LOGIC JB PIECE: Of James and Bondage!