Breaking the
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 off.

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.

And, dammit, 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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