Bland. James Bland.
I hate to buck the trend of those critics who are hailing the new James Bond film, Casino Royale, as a return to form and reinvention of the superhero spy franchise, but I found the film, while technically proficient, overlong and underwhelming. I’m personally disappointed too, being old enough to remember when a new James Bond film was one of the few reliable pleasures of escapist movie going.
My criticism is not about this Bond’s not being “faithful” to either its literary or cinematic predecessors. It’s true that Daniel Craig’s Bond is, despite his blond hair, closer in many respects to Ian Fleming’s description of the suave-yet-lethal secret agent. Both Fleming’s Bond and Craig are, at least on the surface, cold and unemotional. They can be brutal and ruthless. They both have amazing survival skills and stamina, but Fleming’s Bond is also possessed of a sense of humor, not least about himself, that makes him good company through the casual sexism, racism, and brand name-dropping of the original Bond novels.
Being true to Fleming’s conception of Bond doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie in 2006 and beyond. Several choices made by the filmmakers and by Craig contribute to Casino Royale’s shortcomings. Some may be built-in tensions that no one can resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. Ironically, some may be due to Craig’s skills. It’s quite possible he’s too good an actor for this role.
The filmmakers wisely re-set the Bond clock so that, for this film, Craig’s Bond is on one of his first big assignments. This Bond is still rough – not the suave sophisticate with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine and the finer things in life, but a blunt instrument, a man who kills because it’s part of his job, and who has cut off most of his emotions so he can continue to do that job.
Craig’s Bond limits his sexual dalliances to married women because there’s far less chance of emotional involvement on both sides. He does flirt, but Craig makes it seem like something of an effort – a difficult concert piece instead of a jazz improvisation. Craig plays all this and creates a credible human being. Unfortunately, he’s not a human being that’s fun or interesting to spend two and a half hours with.
A built-in issue exacerbated by Craig’s conscientiousness as an actor is Bond’s indestructibility. In this franchise we’ve become accustomed to the hails of evil henchmen’s bullets somehow, magically never even nicking Bond, while a single shot from his Beretta or Walther PPK takes out one, two, or three of these red-shirts at a time. It’s become a convention of the genre, lovingly mocked by the Austin Powers movies.
The first big stunt set piece of Casino Royale has Bond chasing a terrorist bomber through a construction site, running and leaping like a pair of Spidermen on to I-beams and cranes set at dizzying heights, bouncing off walls and falling through roofs and floors – all without one missing a step or even running out of breath. Throughout the movie this Bond runs and runs and runs; he’s the Energizer Bunny, or another indestructible bunny: Bugs, or his cousin the Road Runner.
How can we identify with someone who seemingly can’t be hurt – and why should we worry about him? He even [SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!] survives a poison-induced heart attack that would have put an ordinary human into a hospital for a week. He not only survives, but is back playing high-stakes poker in an hour’s time, looking very little the worse for wear.
With the previous Bonds, their cartoon-like ability to bounce back, Lazarus-like, from situation after situation was made at least partly contextual by the slightly sci-fi universe that both Bond and his ever-more-grandiose villains inhabited. The increasingly elaborate gadgets that Q supplied to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan helped set this tone.
While Craig has a fairly cool cell phone/tracking device, as well as that handy-dandy portable defibrillator that shocks him back to life after the heart attack, the gizmos in Casino Royale are kept to a minimum. Craig’s Bond is Superman without the redeeming element of kryptonite and Batman without the elaborate crime-fighting tools – just your average un-killable spy. Again, why should we care about him?
Another miscalculation in Casino Royale is central to the story: Bond’s showdown with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who has unwisely lost hundreds of millions of terrorist dollars playing the stock market and must win it back at the gaming tables before the bad guys kill him. This plot is lifted almost directly from Fleming’s Cold War-era novel of the same name, with today’s all-purpose evil, international terrorism standing in for Fleming’s bogeyman of Soviet Russia. In the book, Bond faces off with Le Chiffre at the baccarat table, but the filmmakers have updated this to Texas Hold ‘Em no-limit poker, familiar to anyone who, like me, has become addicted to Celebrity Poker Showdown.
The cinematic problem with Texas Hold ‘Em, which gives each player two face-down cards and then lets each one make the best hand they can from five common cards that are revealed one at a time, is that unless the audience knows what cards each player holds, and therefore knows whether a player is bluffing, winning or simply miscalculating, there’s no real suspense. I mean Alfred Hitchcock’s kind of suspense as opposed to simple surprise.
If, for example, the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table that will go off in five minutes, everything that keeps the film’s characters in the soon-to-explode room is a source of agony for the audience. However, if the audience is as ignorant as the characters, all they get is the surprise of a “boom” when the bomb goes off — a few seconds of shock versus minutes of involved suspense. [SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!] We get a surprise when Bond finally defeats Le Chiffre, but because we don’t know what the players’ hole cards are, we are denied the pleasures of suspense.
Much is made in the film of “tells,” the tiny giveaways card players exhibit when they are bluffing – things as obvious as drumming one’s fingers on the table or as subtle as flaring one’s nostrils. Bond discovers Le Chiffre’s “tell” and foolishly shares it with his supposed allies, one of whom is in league with Le Chiffre, who then learns from the double agent that Bond is aware of his tell. Le Chiffre consciously controls his tell, limiting Bond’s ability to determine if Le Chiffre is bluffing.
All this turns out to be a set of rather smelly red herrings, however, since in the final, decisive hand, both Bond and Le Chiffre turn out to have what they believe to be unbeatable hands. Therefore, neither one is bluffing when they raise and re-raise each other. Also significantly, we never learn what Bond’s “tell” is. If he has a readable flaw, we never see what it is. As indicated, he is something more than human and therefore something less than interesting.
Bond’s one weakness (in the novels and in this film) is his heart: not the physical one that has to be jump-started, but the emotional one that falls for the wrong girl, blinding him to her complicity with his (and England’s) enemies. Craig and Eva Green, as his supposed amour fou Vesper Lynd, strike only a few sparks and not the sexual bonfire they should to redeem and humanize this hero.
The only real relationship this Bond establishes with anyone else is with Judi Dench’s M who, as head of the British Secret Service, is as tough as she needs to be, but who nevertheless manages to retain a few shreds of her humanity. Dench is a wonderful actress; she’s too good for this movie in a good way.
Can the filmmakers behind Bond solve the indestructibility issue? Again, this may be a built-in problem no matter who plays the part. We the audience may want a hero we don’t have to worry about, but that makes these films pure, no-consequences escapism. At their best they were a bit more than that.