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Uncovering the Romantic Bonds:
a movie review of Casino Royale

by Charles Lord

Charles says: While I grew up in Montreal Canada I have been
unable to extricate myself from Ann Arbor Michigan. Largely this has been the fault of my graduate studies (and a related pig-headedness). To date I have masters degrees in cultural anthropology and social work and at present I am working on a Phd. in Higher Education. That said, of recent I have begun to direct my energies instead to freelance writing. Movie essays are a particular favorite. Anthropologically minded travel essays are yet another passion. I expect to do quite a bit of the latter as soon we are off to Bombay India for a year, at least. I have two daughters, ages two and five, who are nothing less than this father’s sun and moon.

What do James Bond movies and American Football have in common? Well, for starters, no one comes out of the womb liking either. Both are too convoluted, too counter-intuitive to be natural pleasures. They are hyper-sexist, escapist spectacles within which we (men, and women alike) have somehow managed to see ourselves, and, on occasion, even be entertained.

Casino Royale, the latest installment in the James Bond saga is a remarkable and enjoyable achievement outshining the ones that came before it. So brilliant by comparison we are left a bit puzzled, if not embarrassed, by our enthusiasm for bygone Bonds. Like football, maybe we learned to appreciate those earlier Bonds environmentally, so to speak--from the enthusiasms of others around us (or in the case of us post-baby-boomers) from the inescapable importance these movies just already seemed to have?  Assuming they entertained you in the first place, comparing the old bond and the new is the difference between gratification and pleasure.

In Casino Royale James Bond (Daniel Craig) has just achieved “00” status. Yet no sooner does he get his license to kill then London becomes concerned he’s using it too cavalierly. Ordered to take a ‘holiday’ while ‘M’ (Judi Dench) decides his fate, Bond, unrepentant and undeterred, follows a lead to the Bahamas. Eventually he uncovers what essentially is a ‘bank’ for global terrorists headed by a nefarious financier named le chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of investing his clients’ loot in the no-risk, interest-generating portfolios they expect, le chiffre uses it to speculate in markets he intends to manipulate (ruthlessly and catastrophically of course). Bond foils the plot.

This alone sums-up many a Bond tale yet it’s only the first, and arguably least important part of Casino Royale. Le Chiffre’s otherwise foolproof scheme ruined, he must earn back the money before the terrorists can find him and repay his betrayal. A math genius with a penchant for poker, he convenes an ultra-high-stakes Texas Hold’em card game into which James Bond (as if bankrolled by the British nation itself) is entered. Next, enter accountant and Bond-girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) sent to oversee Bond’s gambling with government funds. The competitive foreplay between the two, each painting the other as their intellectual and emotional inferior, while common enough for romances works to uncommonly entertaining effect in a Bond movie.

By comparison pre-Casino Royale-Bonds were essentially comedies. Comedic tales told in terms of espionage--of farcical villains, preposterous plots and gee-wiz gadgetry all interwoven with a chauvinism designed to be laughable. Yet Casino Royale bear’s witness to Bond the comedy transformed into Bond the romance, from Bond the lothario to Bond the lover (On his majesty’s secret service (1969) with George Lazenby and Dianna Rigg notwithstanding). Still, adrenaline junkies needn’t worry that this touch of romance will rob them of their action-fix. The frenetic opening chase that sees James Bond and bomb making mercenary race up and down construction cranes and girders high above a Madagascar coast should assuage any skeptics as to this movies Bond credentials.

Bond’s speedy improvisations, fearless jumps and stone punches betray the instinctual responses of a professionally trained, albeit blue-collar agent--embodied in Daniel Craig’s hard drill-sergeant jaw, chiseled abs, large unflinching blue eyes and lips made pouty by fury. In Craig, Bond the gladiator succeeds Bond the matador. Where the matador but for his sword and cape is clearly inferior to the bull, this more martial Bond (bereft of gadget or gimmick) is the equivalent of his adversaries, cut of the same cloth, just better. Through admittedly casting genius, the Bond brand with its hallmark cartoonish violence and caricatured sex slides gracefully from slapstick to hyperreal, becoming what Umberto Eco calls an “authentic fake.” Experiencing Casino Royale, at last we genuinely get lost in a simulated world of espionage—one that of course has never existed.

The earnest note struck in the opening chase suggests that director Martin Campbell’s Bond is turning upon its comedic legacy (arguably presaged in his earlier Bond effort, Goldeneye). Instead of relying on formula, Campbell (with screenplay provided ultimately by the team of Purvis, Wade and Haggis) has made an honest-to-goodness story: a world where relationships develop; a script whose intricacies are meant to be followed, that drives to a climax defined by a hero’s choices rather then how close simply he is to catching the bad guy. 

Interpersonal relationships make this story tick. Casino Royale succeeds at telling a romantic tale (complete with operatic ending) in terms of espionage. The attraction of bond-girls-past was presumed to be visual, if not visceral, stunning its perceiver the moment it was revealed. However the allure of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is more complex. Again, between Bond-girls old and new is the difference between good-looks and beauty.  Like her relationship to Bond, Vesper’s beauty grows. That said, Campbell certainly was not hamstrung directing a woman, master of erotica Bernardo Bertolucci once suggested is ‘so beautiful it's indecent’—yet another casting marvel.

New ‘bond’ and new ‘bond-woman’ are Adam and Eve for a new Bond era.  But as the Viennese bard of psychic (and Oedipal) dramas recognized a century ago, interpersonal dynamics are considerably more than the superficial back and forth between two people. They emerge from deeper and prior love triangles. It is Judi Dench’s ‘M’ that completes this triangle. Allow me to suggest that the ‘M’ stands for ‘mother’ or maternal, and that together with James and Vesper, the formative (yes) bonds at the root of the Bond story are now exposed! Casino Royale segues between the gendered nature of Bond’s past and future. Ultimately Casino Royale is a story in two parts: Bond the developed professional and Bond the developing person.  Combining the two, the series is rejuvenated, if not reborn. By describing a conscience for James Bond the character, the story has provided a subconscious for James Bond the movies—upon which more superficial sequels may now legitimately be based.

New-bond supercedes old, but no bona fide turnabout or revolution casts all that went before as mere bunk. You must transcend the past, give it new meaning; you certainly can’t deny it. New-bond suggests that the chauvinist nature of the bond character reflects its origins in a particular romance (or in romance itself if you prefer).

Still, some are not easily weaned from formula. Perhaps Bonds were never meant to be anything but comedies. The comparative lack of a strong nemesis figure might be too unsettling for some. The bad guy is well played by Mads Mikkelsen but alas he is not part of our love triangle, and in a way he is less essential to the film and certainly less essential to the James Bond myth the film is creating. Perhaps if Casino Royale were experienced strictly as a romance and evaluated in terms of the romance genre alone, it might begin to seem too light. However, most of us will see this as a Bond film and judge it as such. We leave the theatre mulling over the differences between old and new, startled by the movie’s simple pleasure, intrigued by what future installments could now entail and pondering whether external forces really could have compelled our enjoyment for inferior Bonds.

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