Terrorists: I Hate These Guys
Oh man: James Bond’s got Indiana Jones all over him all of a sudden. He bleeds. He hurts. He grins nastily at his own handiwork. He laughs in the face of his torturer (yeah, torturer — and don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you: the scene may not be graphic, but it is highly disturbing). He’s earthy and grounded and there in a way that Bond never has been before, a real man who suffers — inside and out; Daniel Craig = a god of cinema — but who is also, when it’s not his own well-being at stake, genuinely cold-hearted, almost sadistic. You cheer for him, a devil on the side of the angels, but it’s hard to actually like him, because he’s more than a little scary. You believe that that frosty smirk of his is just as revealing about the man as is the fact that he holds open a door for a hotel maid, an act of unthinking, automatic chivalry.
By the time you’re trying to unravel the conundrum that is this new James Bond, you’ve entirely forgotten that scene with the fuel truck at the airport that made you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the first place.
Casino Royale — from screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (recent Bond vets who wrote Die Another Day and The World Is Not Enough as well as the Bond parody Johnny English) and Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), and director Martin Campbell (who directed Goldeneye and, more recently, Beyond Borders and The Mask of Zorro) — is exactly what I was hoping for, and everything I was expecting from the first Generation X James Bond. It’s cleverly funny but never campy. When it mocks, it mocks out of love. It’s completely, fannishly, geekily worshipful… and it expresses that geeky worship by taking Bond, deconstructing him and stripping away all the nonsense that has accreted around him in recent years, and finding the core awesomeness that made Bond so appealing and appalling (in that way that can’t resist embracing danger) in the first place. Casino Royale is more like Batman Begins that it is like The World Is Not Enough. It’s more like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man than it is like Die Another Day. It’s Bond’s superhero origin story reconsidered from a perspective that respects and understands the authority and the intensity behind the character. It is, in that way that defines a genuinely geeky approach, serious about something silly. But not too serious.
So it’s unquestionably Bond, but it tweaks Bond in order to kick him in the ass and get him back on track. It rewinds to the beginning and starts all over fresh, pretending that all the Bond that’s come before simply never happened — that’s exactly the kind of revitalization the franchise needed. Here, Daniel Craig’s (Archangel, Infamous) Bond is newly promoted to double-O status in the era of the global war on terror, battling a baddie, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen: King Arthur), who acts as banker to terrorists while also planning his own acts of terrorism, not out of any desire to affect politics but just for his own financial gain. He’s an entrepreneur, that’s all. (Though you gotta love the sly joke of his evilly sleek yacht, which is right out of the Villain Supply catalog — it’s so supercool that it has to be a dig at bad-guy clichés.) There’s one traditional Bond girl, all tits and botox-inflated lips and next-to-no clothes, but she is quickly dispatched in favor of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green: Kingdom of Heaven, The Dreamers), an accountant sent along to watch over Bond as he sneaks into a high-stakes card game, playing with goverment money, in which Le Chiffre is competing; Lynd is gorgeous, of course, but she’s also an intellectual match for Bond, and where in older Bond films their banter would have been a tedious exchange of obvious puns and double entendre, here it’s more like 1940s-style screwball comedy, where the hero and heroine snipe because they can’t stand the sight of each other, until, of course, they fall madly in love.
Yup, Bond in love, and you know this can’t end well, that it must set him up to become the dispassionate cad we know him to be… or that we know he’ll become… Oh, I can’t get my head around the temporal distortions here, how we’ve fast-forwarded to the past. And there’s a lot of that here, a sense of complete freshness that feels wonderfully old-fashioned at the same time — we have indeed gone back to the beginning, and it’s a beginning that is as modern as right now and as classic as Tracy and Hepburn. (Last year I called Mr. & Mrs. Smith the first “screwball action movie,” and there’s a lot of that attitude here, too.) The action, which is breathtaking and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and half the time funny as hell — all I’ll say: construction-site foot chase — and the other half nonstop nailbiter, looks to be mostly traditional stuntwork, no FX or other cartoon baloney. (Craig says he hurt all the time making this flick and doing many of his own stunts.) It’s all honest and organic and authentic.
So it becomes easy, with that duality you can’t help but have watching Casino Royale and seeing it as totally new and totally immersed in its own history as the same time, to get a bona fide thrill of geeky delight when Bond puts on a tuxedo jacket for the first time, reluctantly… until he sees himself in a mirror and realizes that, yesss, this is a look he likes. To keep humming that iconic Bond music all along and then feeling your own geeky heart soar when it finally makes its first appearance at the end of the film as this novice double-O is reborn as Bond, James Bond… M (the still luscious Judi Dench: Pride & Prejudice, Ladies in Lavender) may complain that, Christ, she misses the Cold War, but we don’t have to. All of a sudden, we have an antihero for the new reality.