WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
“Bond had always been a gambler.”
– from Casino Royale
Casino Royale is hands-down the best James Bond movie, and Daniel Craig is the best James Bond. Yes, Connery is still in second place, but he’s only in second place to my knowledge. I haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and I suspect that George Lazenby got a raw deal when he made that movie. Most critics I respect have called OHMSS a thematic and tonal sibling to Casino Royale, and that makes me think that the best James Bond all along was Lazenby, not Connery – until Craig, that is.
First, let me clarify what I mean when I say that this movie and Daniel Craig are the “best” of anything: This is the first Bond movie to truly adapt one of Ian Fleming’s novels, and Daniel Craig is the first and only actor to truly put Fleming’s dark, brittle and fractured creation onscreen – though I’ll keep an open mind for Lazenby.
So first, let’s break down why Craig is so good:
He’s buff. All these years, we’ve had to put up with well-fed, doughy actors as Bond. Dalton was the most physically fit of the actors to play Bond, but he never stood a chance in his two lackluster movies. Craig actually looks like someone who MI6 plucked from the British special forces to be a double-0 agent. He looks like someone who could survive in the wild for two weeks with no supplies.
Furthermore, Royale shows Bond in close-quarters hand-to-hand combat – a welcome addition in the wake of the remarkable Bourne movies (which I’ll address later) – and we believe it.
He’s short. Or not very tall, at least. In the weird realm of special covert operatives, a certain kind of height is a requirement. All of the actors to play Bond, especially Pierce Brosnan, have been far too tall to play a covert operative, because those kinds of personnel need to be invisible. When Craig puts on a plain T-shirt, blue jeans and a light jacket, we can believe that he could disappear into a crowd, because he does. As Bond, Craig doesn’t look like anyone – a key requirement for a successful covert operative.
He’s scary. By calling this the best of the Bond movies, I’m being unduly harsh on the Connery movies. They’re damn good, and to his credit, Connery does come the closest to capturing the jagged sociopath that Fleming placed at the center of his masterworks – but here’s the problem: I doubt that movie audiences of the 1960s could have handled such a dark character, especially in a series that pitched itself as escapist fare. Today’s audiences, by contrast, have grown up in the wake of rich, layered and emotionally complicated entertainment as The Sopranos, 24, Buffy, The Wire, The Shield and Battlestar Galactica. Not only are contemporary audiences ready to see a legitimate adaptation of a Fleming Bond novel – I suspect that they were hungry for one.
To that end, Royale’s creative team gave us a Bond who not only kills with startling brutality, but he has a hard time doing it, too. Bond bludgeons his first target to death in a stark white bathroom, and director Martin Campbell – whom I owe an apology – has the good sense to hold on Craig’s craggy, motionless face as he drowns his prey with his bare hands. Craig goes on to use his flinty blue eyes to great effect in scenes where the script has him doing such scary shit as breaking into M’s house or laughing away the effects of a killer torture scene at the hands of Le Chiffre (an A-OK Mads Mikkelsen).
OK, now let’s look at why this adaptation is so good:
The novel Casino Royale makes it onto the screen basically untouched. The writers had to add a first act to bulk up Fleming’s intimate, largely action-free book, but when they get to the part of the movie that deals with the source material, they don’t stray from it. Such seemingly slow scenes as the book’s central card game and Bond’s convalescence at a hospital make it into the movie untouched and are given the attention they deserve – and rightly so. Who says a card game has to be boring? Not only has the popularity of those celebrity poker tournaments prepared today’s audiences for this kind of storytelling – but Bond is playing for hundreds of millions of dollars against a financier of fucking international terrorism. If a director and creative team can’t make that material riveting, they shouldn’t be in business. Fortunately, Campbell and his creative team are up to the challenge, which brings me to point number two:
Everything they add is there for a reason. A brief glance at the structure of the movie reveals an obvious script meeting – they added an action-packed first act. But they didn’t just add a bunch of action; they added a bunch of earthy, low-key, high-octane action that rose to the implicit challenge made by the Bourne movies and actually added to the story.
First, about rising to the challenge of the Bourne movies: There’s a whole other essay to be written about how good the Bourne movies are, but the key point is to recognize how the Bourne movies’ success signals the rejection of dumb, high-concept special effects by today’s audiences in spy thrillers. Both of the Bourne movies tell fascinating, emotionally resonant stories that feature three key action scenes:
1. A close-quarters martial-arts battle.
2. A thrilling car chase.
3. An impossible escape from a building swarming with guards.
Royale’s first major action scene has Bond chasing down a bomb-builder along the streets of a Madagascar city and through the delightful labyrinth of a construction site. Here’s where the filmmakers first showed me they fucking meant business: They hired Sebastien Foucan to play the bomb-maker. Foucan is a champion “free runner” – that crazy stuff you see kids doing on You Tube where they run at top speed through a cityscape and bound, bounce and blitz through obstacles like Ninja Gaiden made real.
By hiring Foucan for this scene, the filmmakers showed that they were dedicated to real-world action that relied on the physical skill of their actors and stuntmen. George Lucas bungled his way into action of this caliber when he hired Ray Park to play Darth Maul, then came to his senses and digitally grafted the head of an 80-year-old man onto the body of a stunt man to have a lightsaber duel with a fully digital Yoda.
The chase scene with Foucan also includes a rousing hand-to-hand fight on the dizzying top of a construction crane that, again, shows Bond’s thuggish knowledge of martial arts.
But that’s not the whole first act. The movie goes on to show the bad guy’s master plan: He borrows a shitload of money (more than $100 million) to play the stock market, with the plan to destroy a prototype aircraft and cause a key aerospace company’s stock to tank and net himself a bundle.
In case you can’t see what that plan amounts to, let me spell it out: It’s a terrorist attack on an airport. Bond foils the plan, of course, which propels Le Chiffre into the central, high-stakes card game at movie’s center. Awesome. The filmmakers mine post-9/11 dread to give their villain a vested interest in playing in a high-stakes card game. Well done.
Much hoopla has been made over Paul Haggis’ influence on the script, but let me say that I found the dialogue a little underwhelming at times. The scene where Bond meets Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, bulls-eye) deserve to be better, and as striking as the image is of Bond comforting a woman in the shower fully clothed as she teeters near a nervous breakdown, there was no need to invoke the image of unwashably bloody hands. Shakespeare ruined that image for writers everywhere.
That said, I loved how the filmmakers, in their crusade to resurrect the Bond of Ian Fleming, mined the source material for key details about the secret agent: He’s an orphan who comes from a poor background. I didn’t like how they just came out and said that (culpably clumsy dialogue: “You’re an orphan with a chip on your shoulder”), but I adored the scene where a rich guy mistakes Bond for a valet, and Bond happily parks the guy’s Range Rover – at 30 mph into the surrounding cars.
(Oh, before I forget – it’s an utter delight to see Jeffrey Wright in any movie, and I chortled with glee when he revealed himself as that Fleming mainstay, the fiercely loyal Texan CIA operative Felix Leiter. I had completely forgotten that Wright had been cast in the movie.)
Also missing from this movie are the annoying gadgets. Notice I only said that “annoying” gadgets were missing. For once in a Bond movie, we don’t have to put up with a plot-specific gizmo that we all know will save Bond at just the right time. No, Bond has his gadgets, but he brings them out in one of the most inspired scenes in the movie.
Get this: The bad guys poison Bond during the card game. Bond realizes what’s happened and staggers out of the room, grabbing a salt shaker on his way. He lurches into a bathroom and fills a tumbler with the shaker’s contents and some water, all of which he swallows. He then pukes into the sink and struggles outside to his car, where he breaks out the gadgets: Anti-toxins and a fucking defibrillator. He gets on a commlink with the MI6 geeks back in London, and they talk him through the process of injecting himself with the antidote and using the defibrillator. I was digging the movie until then, but that scene knocked me on my ass.
After all this praise, I must give some due credit: all of this goodness came from essentially the same creative team that had been making the last half-dozen or so Bond movies, including the Broccolis, who disproved the claim that they were too stogy and enamored of the “successful” Bond formula to change. James Bernadelli over at Reel Reviews clued me in on this, so I’ll quote his excellent review here:
It’s interesting to note that the radical revising of Bond is being done by the “usual” team. It’s not as if an entirely new group was brought in for the “re-boot.” The producers continue to be Michael G. Wilson and Barbara (daughter of Cubby) Broccoli. The writers are Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with an assist from Paul “he’s everywhere these days” Haggis), who were involved in scripting the last two Brosnan movies. Director Martin Campbell oversaw Goldeneye with Phil Meheux as his cinematographer. And David Arnold has been composing Bond scores since he took over from John Barry in the ‘90s.
So, Martin Campbell. I thought you were a Brett Ratner or a Stephen Herek – a glossy, glam studio whore-for-hire. But I am delighted to be wrong. The Broccolis gave Campbell a tough assignment and great source material – and he delivered. Campbell put Fleming’s vision onscreen undistilled and unadulterated, and he got a brawny, explosive talent in Craig to help him do it. I’m not saying that cinematic adaptations of novels should slavishly follow the source material – I never have – but in the case of Fleming’s novels, not one filmmaker, producer, director or writer had ever given Fleming’s work the chance to inhabit the screen. Fleming wrote about a fascinating line of work – covert operations – and he created one of the most memorable antiheroes ever. The filmmakers put him onscreen, going so far as to include the novel’s harrowing, heartbreaking final line: “The bitch is dead.”
It’s about time we got to meet the real James Bond onscreen.