Produced by Barbara Broccoli, Andrew Noakes, and Anthony Waye
Directed by Martin Campbell
Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming
Released by Columbia Pictures
It is with great trepidation and some sadness that I must announce that James Bond is dead. Granted, there is a capable actor named Daniel Craig playing a character named James Bond in Casino Royale, the 21st “official” picture in the series, but there are major problems with the film.
I do not mean to say that Martin Campbell has made a bad movie—he has made an engaging postmodern thriller with some interesting characters and plenty of action. This Bond is human, not a cartoonish cutout superhero whose adventures serve as an excuse for highlighting sci-fi gadgetry, leaving character and story by the narrative wayside—a stage the series has gone through a number of times in the past. In that regard, Casino Royale is more akin to one of my personal favorites (including both the novels and the films), From Russia With Love. The capable Mr. Campbell has not made a James Bond movie, however. Indeed, the film’s creators were faced with an impossible task: to reinvent the Bond series, in effect restarting the timeline and narrative sequence in such a way as to engage 21st-century audiences.
Ian Fleming, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his great detective, Sherlock Holmes, created a character in James Bond who seemed real to his readers and, later, to moviegoers. The world Bond came from was rooted in the 19th century, a world that produced such latter-day “clubland” heroes as Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond; the villains Dr. No and Blofeld are direct descendants of Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Like Holmes, Bond is quirky and set in his ways: As with Doyle’s wonderful “consulting detective,” Bond fans knew every detail of their hero’s world. Bond always wore a dark-blue worsted-wool suit with a black knitted silk tie, for instance. He wore half-sleeved Sea Island cotton shirts. We knew that breakfast was Bond’s favorite meal; what gun he carried; that he had a scar on his right cheek; and that he was the object of the affectionate disapproval (chiefly for his “womanizing”) of his hoary British gentleman boss, known only as M. Commander Bond, R.N.V.R, flirted with the desirable Miss Moneypenny and inhabited a world both deadly and outlandishly exciting.
There are two ways a filmmaker might approach the Fleming material and the Bond character: One way, which was thankfully followed by the original Harry Saltzman-Albert Broccoli production team, would be to find the right actor, set a stylish tone, and have fun. As I wrote in my review of the first of the Pierce Brosnan Bond vehicles, Goldeneye (Vital Signs, March 1996), in the best of the Bond films, the charismatic Scotsman Sean Connery “was able to evoke the gentlemanly, but roguish, quality” of the clubland heroes of an earlier era, while adding a hard, postwar edge to the character. Like Fleming’s creation, “Connery, tongue firmly in cheek, faced the most unlikely of villains with a sense of amused irony, but was nevertheless able to lend a seriousness to the role that seemed more realistic” to Cold War-era audiences. (Goldeneye, the best of the latter-day Bonds, was also directed by Martin Campbell.)
Without a doubt, Bond’s escapades would have made Holmes and Hannay, not to mention Dr. Watson, blush. But Bond also had style. He was not The Man With No Name, a “.45-toting angel of death,” but a tough guy who nonetheless lived by a code and a certain sense of honor. “Bond,” I wrote back in 1996, “is a killer, but not a murderer.” With Connery (and Brosnan in Goldeneye), the 007-film franchise achieved a sort of balance between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek high adventure, with stress on the latter. The production team was able to pull off the increasingly unlikely character’s tales of derring-do and make moviegoers, like Fleming’s readers, revel in Bondania: Our man liked his vodka martini shaken, not stirred; he traded quips with the delightful Desmond Llewellyn as gadget master Q; and he always announced himself as “Bond, James Bond.”
Another way to film Bond would be to emphasize the ruthlessness and sometimes reflective guilt of the character. A filmmaker could emphasize the harsh actions of the character and the violence of the Fleming novels (dismissed as a combination of “sex, snobbery, and sadism” by critics), following the lead of film noir and “adult” westerns of the late 40’s and 50’s, a more realistic and tough-minded approach that was eventually superseded by the amoral carnage of Clint Eastwood’s squint-and-kill “spaghetti westerns,” followed by the savage brutality of “slasher” films. What else can one do with the Bond series in a world where one of the most popular fiction characters is serial killer Hannibal Lecter?
In Casino Royale, a young Bond has just earned his “00” prefix by registering two kills on an assignment. His boss is not the venerable Bernard Lee or a reasonable facsimile, but a quite unsympathetic, hard-nosed woman, played by Dame Judi Dench. (Her coming aboard as M in Goldeneye was a sure sign the series had outlived its time.) Craig’s Bond is a fine impersonation of an SAS commando, desensitized to killing and the hard world he inhabits, full of terrorists, African warlords, and money launderers. He is attractive to certain women, but hardly suave. He is distant and cold, perhaps because he fears attachments in a world that seems so harsh and transient. He has little in the way of a sense of style, and his short-cropped hair advertises a military background. This Bond looks as if he would feel more comfortable in fatigues and combat boots than in a tuxedo.
Bond’s assignment in Casino Royale, as in Fleming’s 1953 novel, is to beat the villain Le Chiffre (played with brooding menace by Mads Mikkelson, Le Chiffre weeps blood from a deformed eyelid) at a card game, clean him out, and set him up: Le Chiffre can either turn himself over to the authorities and tell his secrets as a bankroller of terrorists and warlords or die at the latter’s hands, having lost their millions in a high-stakes poker game (no baccarat for Craig’s man-of-the-people character). Bond is accompanied by Vesper Lynd (played by the lovely Eva Green), a treasury agent in charge of his $10 million poker stake. In the course of the assignment and after some battle-of-the-sexes sparring between the two (suitably underplayed by both actors), Bond’s emotional armor is penetrated by Vesper, herself resistant to personal attachment. The love affair ends in tragedy, as it did for Fleming’s Bond. The author must have foreseen that it was far too soon to marry off 007.
After surviving brutal torture at the hands of Le Chiffre (the torture scene in Fleming’s original prompted critics’ recurring “sadism” charges) and witnessing Vesper’s death, Craig’s Bond straps on his emotional armor and, having been schooled in style by Vesper and having acquired some taste for the high life at the card tables of an exclusive casino, is transformed into . . . what? A jaded commando who likes to vacation in Cancun and play poker with rich people? A leathery veteran who sometimes wears a tuxedo, which his late lady love picked for him? What we are left with would be a strong ending for a one-off thriller with a noir sensibility, or even a BBC miniseries. Indeed, the filmmakers have made a noble attempt at restarting the Bond franchise by going back to its roots in Fleming’s novel. But Daniel Craig is not James Bond. Indeed, he can’t be, because the world the character lives in cannot make James Bonds. The filmmakers perhaps had no choice but to reinvent Bond as another postmodern Terminator, albeit one who can capture a degree of the audience’s sympathy. Still, the letdown is inevitable.
The romance is gone. So are playfulness and irony, as well as the stylized characterization that Connery, perhaps the last of the old-fashioned movie stars, could pull off. This Bond looks more like Steve McQueen in Bullitt (though without McQueen’s screen presence or charisma). The high adventure and savoir faire of big-screen swashbucklers from Fairbanks to Flynn to Connery is gone. In any case, Connery’s impersonation of Bond was a throwback to a time that was already past when 007 faced the celluloid Dr. No in 1962. Gone are the days of Cary Grant and stars like him, dressed to the nines, carnation in lapel with Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn on his arm, fighting and making love, living dangerously and well. Nobody will leave the theater after Casino Royale humming Monty Norman’s unforgettable James Bond theme. Nobody will want to be Craig’s Bond. It may be time to end the series, leaving us to savor those memories of Saturday matinees, an Aston Martin with an ejector seat, Pussy Galore, Oddjob, SMERSH, SPECTRE, and M. In the words of Auric Goldfinger, as a deadly laser beam bore down on 007, “Goodbye, Mr. Bond.”