The reason that James Bond is the single most durable character in movie history is that he has no beginning and no end. He fits no time because he fits all times. His adventures are only vaguely related to each other, and they wrap up in a way that suggests everything will be ready to go again for the next one. It makes no difference when Live and Let Die occurs in relation to You Only Live Twice; no more than it matters where “The Hound of the Baskervilles” resides compared to “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Recurring characters, good and bad, string the stories together but the series has been mostly smart about when to get rid of them.
The history of the Bond franchise is a reactionary pendulum swinging from the two extremes of the series: When a movie gets too intense, the storytelling trends back to camp; when an installment proves too silly, they provide a grittier edition. The chain usually goes on the absurd end of the spectrum toward the end of a particular actor’s run as the British super-spy, then the filmmakers can introduced a new, more realistic Bond with a new face. With the exception of Connery, every actor who has ever played Bond peaked with their first entry. Though the jury obviously still remains out, that tendency applies to Daniel Craig, even though the pendulum has never swung so far back toward intensity as it had in preparation of Casino Royale, Craig’s first go.
That Bond was due for some realism is clear; the editions at the end of the Brosnan era were in danger of collapsing under their own ridiculousness, but the shapers of the franchise, in the midst of the mid-2000s fashion for reboots and revamps, panicked, and instead of realizing that their property was much more valuable because of its earlier history, chose to disregard it and start anew. Even in Fleming’s book Bond is an established spy when the story begins, but in the movie we are very much told that what we are seeing is Bond’s first assignment, his initial adventure. We are placed in a definite timeline, one in which this guy introduces himself as “James Bond” and falls in love with women. It’s very disorienting. In a series that is dependent upon familiarity and the anticipation of certain moments, denying us those isn’t a reimagination, it’s just mean.
That’s my main problem with Casino Royale, which is competent, exciting, well-paced, and has two very good set pieces; it obstinately doesn’t do what is expected of it, undercutting the power of having 20 previous movies behind it. Most every other movie is rated against Citizen Kane, but a Bond movie must be rated only against Goldfinger (1964), the finest of the bunch. Casino Royale would be a fine Jason Bourne movie or a Mission: Impossible, and in fact, as a film, it’s “better” than perhaps half of the movies in the James Bond series. But in relation to those Bond movies it’s inferior because even the worst ones, whether they have an aging Roger Moore slowly pursuing his man or a mugging Timothy Dalton with a nosebleed, were undeniably in the style and formula of James Bond. Craig in Casino Royale could be any actioner and that’s a fatal blow.
In the movie, Bond is in pursuit of the snaky Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), a cold banker and profiteer who invests money from terrorists. After his latest investment fraud ploy is foiled by Bond (in one of the two brilliant sequences, James averts the destruction of a airplane that would have manipulated the market in Le Chiffre’s favor), Le Chiffre is forced to try to win back the lost investments in a high-stakes poker tournament in Montenegro, where Bond is there to beat him once again. Bond is accompanied by the beautiful Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an accountant with the British government who is authorizing the money Bond is risking in the tournament. The poker scenes are the best in the movie, the most at home in the Bondian universe of tuxedos, elegant dresses, and menacing men with false eyes and scars. The poker is movie poker, where everyone has a tremendous hand and you just wait for the last person to beat it, but it maintains the appropriate tension. That tension is largely given away in the movie’s last third, which changes focus from the story we’ve been following for nearly two hours and even worse touches into true romance, an area Bond should never enter.
Perhaps if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you’ll enjoy this one, but I can’t help but think more about what’s not in it than what is. It seems to be intentionally withholding what we have been anticipating and then adding elements we’re not interested in. Despite this being an origin story of sorts, I got no new information about what makes James Bond who he is. I don’t care who he is; he’s a tuxedo who always wins. In fact, the more one thinks about who he is, the less appealing he becomes. This isn’t particularly fair to a movie that is intelligent and well done, but it’s a Bond movie that tries to deny it. I shouldn’t have to wait two and a half hours to get my first decent listen to that wonderful theme.