Comics Ate My Brain

December 1, 2006

Royale, No Cheese

Filed under: james bond — Tom Bondurant @ 9:45 pm
I talked about Casino Royale in a roundabout way over in this week’s Grumpy Old Fan, but I know Nik wants to hear what I thought about it as a movie. Here you go, and watch out for SPOILERS:

I liked it. It was a little long, and I still can’t quite get used to the substitution of poker for baccarat, or Daniel Craig’s blond hair. Those are minor nitpicks. The Best Wife Ever liked it too, probably because she hadn’t brought all her fannish baggage. We tried to go on opening weekend, but it was only on one screen at our lone theater, and it sold out that weekend. It sold out for our show last Saturday too, just after we got tickets.

It was a better introduction to Bond than Dr. No, although that’s not fair to Dr. No. CR has a couple of big advantages over its (by now distant) ancestor, mostly forty years of the public’s familiarity with the character. There will never be another 1962 audience that didn’t know it could be so entertained by a Scottish actor playing a British assassin. Casino Royale, the movie, is pumped full of action that the book doesn’t have, but which audiences would naturally expect. Bond’s relationships with M and Vesper are both riffs on traditional series elements, but they’re handled in ways that would be familiar to casual fans or even non-fans. Bond’s tweaking of M is particularly reminiscent of any number of plays-by-his-own-rules heroes. Here it works, because this Bond is finding himself and dealing with new responsibilities the extent of which he probably doesn’t appreciate yet. He’s not the polished agent of the previous movies, so it’s understandable that he would be testing boundaries at this early stage.

Before I forget, I want to mention the fantastic work of composer David Arnold. He builds the score around a very catchy figure, so syncopated it almost sounds like mixed-meter, and uses it to such effect that I barely noticed the relative absence of the classic Bond theme. When the Bond theme does creep in, it’s mostly the bass-clef foundation, whetting our appetites for the Real Thing to erupt, fully formed, over the end credits. I can’t decide if David Arnold or credits designer Daniel Kleinman is the best thing to happen to Bond (before Craig) in a long time, but they should both be locked into the series for as long as possible. I can’t remember a lick of lyrics from “You Know My Name” (beyond that phrase), but I’m still humming that syncopated figure. It’s a shame that the themes (by and large) haven’t carried over from film to film, because it would make a good addition to the music library, along with John Barry’s “007” and OHMSS themes.

And that’s a decent segue into the real issue with these kinds of back-to-basics movies: at what point does an innovative Square One movie give way to the inevitabilities of its parent series? This film placed the “gunbarrel sequence” at the end of the opening scene, but don’t we all expect the next Bond movie to open with it? The fan consensus I’ve seen is hopeful that the mystery organization after Le Chiffre is SPECTRE, freed from the shackles of litigation by the same deal that allowed MGM and Sony to co-produce this film.

[That reminds me — if memory serves, this movie is the first to list Craig as playing “Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007,” and also to state that it is “based on the novel by Ian Fleming.” None of the previous films had the latter credit, styling themselves as “Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger” (for example) or as featuring “Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007.” Another byproduct of the settlement, perhaps?]

So anyway, if Bond 22 is full of the classic theme-music and has Bond fighting SPECTRE — or even if Bond 22 is a faithful adaptation of another novel (Live and Let Die was the follow-up) — how long will it be before Craig gets his first rocket-launching Aston Martin or laser-torch wristwatch? I really can’t see Craig playing opposite John Cleese’s Q (and indeed, we might not see Q for a while, since he wasn’t as prominent in the books). The stakes presented by Casino Royale were economic and therefore more abstract, with the danger to the world’s largest airliner feeling almost like an obligation to threaten something big and explodey. A more familiar Bond-movie setup would end with the danger to the big explodey thing, but I think that’s the lodestone towards which the series is expected to gravitate.

It’s the same problem that the sequel to Batman Begins faces: now that the gangsters and the lower-profile supervillains are out of the way, The Dark Knight promises not only more Batman in costume, but the Joker too. I guess the challenge is to invest the Joker and the further development of the first film’s characters with the same quasi-realistic approach, which allows The Dark Knight more leeway in terms of where they’re “supposed” to end up. The Batman mythology, extensive as it is, is helped further by being more setup than narrative, without the same kind of continuous-storytelling throughline that, say, Marvel built into its cornerstone characters. Spider-Man has the death of Gwen Stacy, the Fantastic Four have Reed and Sue’s wedding and Franklin’s birth, and Bond has Tracy’s death. Batman doesn’t have anything after-added which is that iconic except the addition of Robin, and apparently that can be ignored in the interests of avoiding excess frivolity. (Robin opens all kinds of worm-filled cans, including Batgirl, Nightwing, and Dick’s successors.)

Actually, as important as Tracy’s death was to the literary Bond, it may well be fading in the rear-view mirror of the cinematic Bond, especially in light of Casino Royale‘s character-definitive ending. Ironically, Casino Royale‘s fidelity to Fleming’s sensibilities may do the most to liberate the franchise from 40 years’ worth of expectations. I’m ready to see it again, and I’m excited about the next one.


  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it was a little strange to see Bond playing what amounted to Texas Hold’Em rather than Baccarat or Chemin de Fer. Of course, for American audiences, poker is a much easier game to follow — and the film did an excellent job building up the suspense in those scenes.I may be mis-remembering, but didn’t Bond play poker against Drax in Moonraker (the book, not the movie)?

    Comment by Scott — December 7, 2006 @ 12:39 am

  2. Moonraker featured bridge. And talk about games with non-Bondian associations — can you see M, Drax, or Bond following those daily newspaper columns? (Do they still run those?)

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — December 7, 2006 @ 1:32 am

  3. I knew it was some card game. I just remember that Bond caght Dax cheating using a reflective cigarette case.In terms of bridge columns, this article suggests that few papers carry them any more and they’ve mostly been replaced by Sudoku. I played a little Bridge in college and I could never make heads or tails of those columns.

    Comment by Scott — December 7, 2006 @ 3:12 am

  4. Don’t forget that in Goldfinger, Bond plays Gin against the titular villain when he encounters him in Miami.

    Comment by simon — December 22, 2006 @ 8:08 pm

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