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Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating Casino Royale (2006)

bond

Original illustration by Emilie Majarian for The Mary Sue.

Welcome to Bond Girl, a series where we’ll be re-watching and re-evaluating every James Bond film until Spectre’s release.

The 2006 version of Casino Royale is infinitely better than the version of the film that came out in 1967. Regardless of how you feel about Daniel Craig in the role, it’s obvious early on that Craig is a better Bond than Niven and that the Bond franchise was never meant to be comedic. Even if I hadn’t already watched the more recent Casino Royale a dozen times before ever even starting this recap project, I’d rank it higher than Niven’s version of the film.

But as it stands, I’ve always liked this version of Casino Royale, even with my complicated feelings towards the film.

Casino Royale is the twenty-first film in Eon Production’s James Bond franchise and Daniel Craig’s first in the role. It’s the third screen adaption of Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale and this one isn’t a direct adaptation (although it’s very close). This version of Casino Royale is a reboot that revolves around Bond at the start of his career and the earliest moments of his time as 007, when the ink on his licence to kill has barely dried.

gun barrel

After stopping a  terrorist attack at an airport in Miami (that looks nothing like the actual Miami International Airport, by the way), Bond ends up on the trail of a very dangerous man who actively finances terrorism (Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre) and winds up falling in love with Vesper Lynd, a treasury employee with a secret.  This movie really is set up to reintroduce us to James Bond. In this film, the man we’re seeing tear his way through Madagascar and who shoots first, isn’t the same character we’ve seen before.

And that’s something that’s both fantastic and frustrating about Casino Royale as well as Daniel Craig’s performance. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is a whole new animal. He’s new to MI6 and what the role of a 00 calls for, but he’s established on killing. Part of the recurring themes of James Bond films—starting, mind you, with the non-Eon film Never Say Never—has been a lowkey conversation about how spies like James Bond are becoming obsolete and how they’re little more than liabilities for their respective governments.

With Casino Royale, we see what happens when you bring Fleming’s book version of Bond into the twenty-first century. Where Brosnan was Eon brining the film version of the character into proper modernity, Craig’s Bond is quite honestly a faithful vision of the original character from 1953 that has been brought into our time.

The thing about James Bond in film is that for the most part, prior-to Craig, he’s been portrayed as a character ho’s very charming and very clever. He’s a killer and he’s good at it but he became known for his wit, his dry humor, and his ability to think his way out of a situation thanks to Q’s gadgets and his own ingenuity.

Craig’s Bond?

He’s as likely to kill you as he is to kiss you.

drowning

We see this from the start of the film. The opening of Casino Royale feels like it was pulled straight from a noir film. Done in black and white with Bond and his target—a section chief for MI6 that’s been selling secrets—talking in an office building in Prague while their conversation is interspersed with flashbacks that show Craig’s Bond fighting an assailant in his target’s pocket.

It’s a brutal fight scene, one of many in the film, and it really sets the stage for what kind of Bond we’re getting. Bond holds his assailant’s head under water until he’s unconscious (or as good as) and then, when the man tries to shoot him, Bond fires the first shot and kills him. And of course, Bond kills the section chief with a shot between the eyes, ending their rather one-sided conversation without much of a warning.

Honestly, I have feelings about Craig’s ultra-violent Bond that have been further complicated in the wake of Anthony Horowitz saying that Idris Elba was “too street” to play James Bond. (Whether or not Horowitz intended to be racist isn’t up for debate, but his use of coded language that combined classism and racism definitely is something that left me seething when I first heard about it on twitter.)

Craig’s Bond isn’t exactly a suave portrayal of the character. His approach to international espionage is entirely to beat the crap out of people or kill him. He in fact obviously hates the fact that he can’t shoot his way out of certain situations and that he can’t just go in and shoot Le Chiffre in the head.

burst through

He’s a brute in a different way from Sean Connery’s Bond or even Timothy Dalton’s Bond (as he was the Bond actor whose films discomfited me the most as far as violence was concerned). And while there’s nothing wrong with Bond as a hard hitting guy who sees killing as the easiest way to quell a situation, it’s interesting that we’re essentially seeing an argument that Idris Elba as an actor is “too ‘street'” (essentially too rough and not suave enough) to play a character who spent his first rebooted movie bumbling through the field.

One serious example of this is during the scene in Madagascar where Bond chases bomb-maker Mollaka through a construction site next to an embassy. I’ve seen people refer to it as Bond doing parkour. No. That’s not at all what that scene is about and that is so not what Bond is doing.

Bond is a mess in this scene. He’s basically bursting through walls and stumbling over cords while chasing someone far more skilled than he will ever be in this arena. He’s not graceful. He’s not fluid. Honestly, Craig’s Bond lacks a lot of the charisma of other Bond portrayals. He’s just… kind of a mess that is finding his legs.

Unfortunately, this path is very clumsily taken.

Watching Craig’s Bond bumble and blunder his way through international espionage is interesting to me because even in his most recent film, there’s a marked focus on how different he is from the previous James Bond incarnations we’ve seen before. This Bond is uncomfortable in his bespoke suits and doesn’t dive into wealth the way that previous Bonds have. Regardless of his backstory, the man that Bond is now isn’t familiar with this luxury and he certainly isn’t comfortable with it.

In essence, Craig’s Bond isn’t suave. He’s not portrayed as cultured. He’s actually a bit of a brute.

Despite his backstory, he’s not what you would think of as filling this particular role.

So to watch this movie and write about it while knowing that Black actors like Idris Elba are considered unfit for the role because they’re considered too rough, too uncouth, is kind of upsetting. The usage of coded language is so painful because we can look at Craig’s Bond crashing through scenery and dragging MI6 into public scrutiny and see that he didn’t start out as this suave spy and he was given the chance to change opinions.

Okay, with that said, it’s not as if I dislike this portrayal of James Bond or the movie.

The point of Casino Royale as a reboot is to showcase Bond’s beginning. Not his backstory or his early time with MI6, but the early history of this character who has just gained a licence to kill and uses it without compunction. The movie succeeds at showing us Fleming’s James Bond at an early part of his life and it has absolutely nothing to do with any of the films that we’ve seen before.

Craig’s Bond is absolutely unlike anything we’ve seen before in the franchise but it works. He’s brutal and cruel at times, terrible with women (and that’s saying a lot considering how we all watched Connery’s questionable attempts at flirting), and he’s actually seriously vulnerable here. It’s not something that I was always looking for in these films because of my near singular focus on the women in the film, Bond’s vulnerability and the idea that he’s always generally a ‘safe’ character was shaken in Die Another Day but here –

Oh.

Yeah.

torure

We see Bond broken down in an entirely different way, coming close to death twice (once in the torture scene at Le Chiffre’s hands and rope in an uncomfortable scene that shows Bond literally stripped of his defenses and placed at Le Chiffre’s less than tender mercies). Bond’s brave face is such a front and it’s hard to watch him take the torture from Le Chiffre until he’s all but screaming from the pain being inflicted on his body. Really, much of this movie revolves around Bond being tortured and pulled out of his limited comfort zone. He deals with physical torture as well as emotional. After dealing with the original torture, he has to then deal with the loss of the love of his life after she betrays him? How messed up is that?

This is a Bond that hasn’t lost Tracy (yet) and so this is set up to be his first meaningful loss and it’s intense.

Actually, all of Bond’s emotions are intense. He doesn’t do anything lukewarm in this film except kill—that seems to be easy for him. Throughout the film, we see Bond acting first and then dealing with those actions. He’s impulsive and reckless. What he sees as the best set of actions often… isn’t and that gets him into trouble with MI6 and with M.

And oh… M.

m co

One big change in this rebooted film is M’s position in Bond’s life.

Gone is much of the professional distance between M and 007. In this reboot, M is a more overt maternal figure to Bond. It’s to a point where she even kind of puts Bond in a time out after the Madagascar incident winds up blasted across newspapers all over the world.

M: I need you out of my sight. Go and stick your head in the sand somewhere and think about your future.

She still kind of treats Bond with disdain but there’s definitely a note to it that is leading towards a more maternal and personal relationship with Bond. It’s weird. None of the M’s that have interacted with Bond before or after Dame Judi Dench have been easing towards this sort of relationship. Even during Pierce Brosnan’s run, the relationship between Bond and M was professional.

The shift here towards framing M as Bond’s ‘mother figure’ when no M before or after that has been placed in the ‘father figure position’ is something I have tons of questions about. Especially because it doesn’t actually seem as though they like one another. At the same time that M sees him as a liability, he sees her as someone that’s keeping him from doing what must be done, and we’re supposed to see this maternal relationship (something that gets played up more and more until Skyfall‘s conclusion).

Actually, now that we’re on the subject of Bond’s relationship with M in Casino Royale, let’s talk about the rest of his relationships with women in the film. James Bond has always been aggressive about going after the women that he’s wanted (especially for the sake of his mission) and it doesn’t change here.

solange

The first woman that we see sleeping with Bond is the wife of our first bad guy to go belly up. Solange Dimitrios is the wife of Alex Dimitrios and basically the sort of character you can’t help but want good things for. We don’t see much of her relationship with Alex, but what we do see is that he doesn’t treat her very well.

So when Bond shows up with her husband’s car and a relatively roguish smile on his face, she tumbles into bed with him. I actually liked her scenes with Bond because Solange is one of those characters that I always wind up falling for in these movies. She’s very similar to the model Bond Girl, but she’s this kind of sweet character who admits openly that she knows that she’s doing wrong by sleeping with him.

Playful and very aware of the choices that she’s made, she seems a good match for Bond who really is only interested in in the moment and the information. Once he gets it, he’s gone, but we get the feeling that this sort of thing (picking up a lover while her husband is distracted or in a poor mood) is something that’s probably par for the course for her.

Of course, Solange’s fate is sadly predictable.

Wife of a bad guy who gets killed?

The last person that’d know what Alex Dimitrios’ plans would be?

Of course she gets tortured and killed. Of course. From the moment that she picked up the phone to speak with her husband while she and Bond were rolling around on the floor, we knew that her fate was sealed. Because neither the organization that Dimitrios worked for before his death nor Le Chiffre take kindly to betrayals, even the accidental kind.

I do think that her death, while really horrible, doesn’t quite count as a fridging. I did think it did for the longest time but while her death might not count as a fridging, it’s still one of those angry-making moments in Bond history. Why? Because Bond doesn’t care. He doesn’t look as if he’s moved by Solange’s torture or her death, something that M points out in the scene.

Sure, it’s one of those logical ends. Of course, Solange has to die as she’s the last loose end. However, the way that Bond reacts to her death—or rather, the very obvious non-reaction—is something that reinforces something that many people believe about Bond and how he feels about women.

Even with Vesper Lynd, the woman that Bond falls hard for over the course of the film, you’re sitting there and frowning at the screen because he’s kind of a jerk to her. Even when he’s being sensitive, you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And of course, other shoe drops and it drops hard.

At first, Vesper and Bond’s relationship is contentious. He tries to read her and she successfully reads him. She’s resistant to his charms (laughing outright when he tries to use a line on her after the poker scenes in Montenegro), just as acerbically witty as he is, and clever. We see the relationship start to shift after Bond’s fight with Steven Obanno, a leader of a Ugandan terrorist group that has given money to Le Chiffre to invest. Because Vesper “helps” Bond kill him, she becomes traumatized and convinced that she has blood on her hands.

vesper vulnerable

When Bond finds her in the shower, still fully dressed and shaking, he does the unthinkable. He helps. He gets into the shower and comforts her, showing a very unexpected moment of sympathy. (Of course in a scene a few minutes later, he grabs Vesper and holds her arms tight enough to hurt her so Bond isn’t even close to perfect with his treatment of women…). Even after their victory, there’s still a distance between them.

But the aftermath of the torture from Le Chiffre and his associates, things change. James Bond falls for Vesper and she falls for him in return. It’s love, fast burning and hot. And that’s why it can’t end well.

Because the thing is, it’s Vesper. Like Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the one constant is that she dies and leaves an indelible imprint on Bond’s heart.  Unlike Tracy though, Vesper betrays Bond before that. She’s the first person that Bond opens up to and the first person that seriously breaks his trust. The realization when it hits Bond that she’s betrayed him and their country is kind of heartbreaking because she cracked his shell. They were adorable and happy together and then—WHAM.

She shatters him.

Regardless, he does try to rescue her. He does. Charging after Vesper and the henchmen that’ve been pulling her strings, he does try to save her. We get some unbelievably gory scenes in this attempt (including a moment where Bond shoots a henchman in the eye with a nail gun) and yet, Vesper still dies.

Vesper Lynd’s death is just tragic.

It’s weird because it’s hard to classify. Is it a fridging or is it a sacrifice? Vesper isn’t killed to drive Bond’s pain—though her death does manage to shore up his desire to get to the bottom of it all. In fact, Vesper’s death is actually a suicide. She refuses to allow Bond to save her, dropping the key to the elevator cage to the ground into the water beneath her on purpose because of her guilt. By the time that he does manage to get her out of the elevator, it’s too late and Vesper doesn’t revive when he performs CPR on her.

vesper death

After the fact of course, Bond finds out from M that Vesper’s boyfriend was kidnapped by that shady organization and blackmailed into cooperation. Too late for anyone to do anything about it, but

In that same scene when Bond reaches M, they have the following, telling exchange:

M: Get back as soon as you can. We need you.

Bond: Will do.

M: If you do need time…

Bond: Why should I need more time? The job’s done… And the bitch is dead.

I’m not here for anything where a man calls a woman a bitch. However, this is definitely something we’ve seen before: Bond absolutely failing at handling grief. He doesn’t actually. With both Vesper and Tracy, we’ve seen him go off to get revenge but he doesn’t grieve. He doesn’t allow himself to. All he does is bottle up the emotion while outwardly showing detachment.

It’s not something I approve of but it’s so true to his character, to what makes Bond Bond, that I get it. I do. At this point, Bond is very raw and the film shows us that he isn’t even close to healing the hurt caused by Vesper’s betrayal as well as her death and I like that we get to see this side of Bond that is a little more human, a little less hired gun for her majesty.

The thing about Casino Royale for me is that even with the things I strongly dislike about the film, I like that we got this reboot. I like that we got this look at Bond from the beginning and the way that we see what makes him tick. While my viewing of the film and my review of it were definitely colored by recent events, Craig does a good job of bringing Fleming’s character to life.

Yes, this includes the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the character. Honestly, Craig’s take on Bond is one of my favorites because it is complicated, because I have complex feelings for a Bond that essentially is nothing like the characters that came before him. I could easily write four or five thousand words about this movie. I had to cut words from my draft because of how much I wrote and how much I just loved talking about all of the aspects of the film.

What I’m Looking forward to:

Quantum of Solace is one of those movies that no one can agree on. When I bring up James Bond in my office job, one thing that incites disagreement is this movie. Out of Craig’s run, this is my least favorite Bond movie.

I appreciate the nods to earlier canon (Goldfinger!!) and the way that the film wraps up the plot started in Casino Royale but it also wasn’t very memorable to me. I may have watched this movie tons of times but Quantum of Solace? Maybe I’ve watched it three times prior to this project. Maybe. It’s going to be interesting to talk about how this film develops Bond further as a character and how the women in the film are portrayed.

But after that movie?

We hit Skyfall, and I’m probably going to go way overboard.


 

Zina Hutton writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.

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