By Andrew Tracy
Dir. Martin Campbell, U.S., Columbia Pictures
Ah, Bond. The place where cultural inquiry and unapologetic shilling can meet and hold hands. There’s no other movie series—sorry, “franchise” —whose self-conscious styling as a product (and the products it so prominently places within its films) I regard with more affection. The crassness mixes so fully with the craftsmanship that to separate them would negate the whole. Perhaps the Bond films’ greatest accomplishment is that they allow us to view capitalism with nostalgia, even as it continues to ravage us in ever more vicious forms. The entrepreneurship of Broccoli and Saltzman, their tailoring of their property to fit in anywhere in the global market, now has an air of quaintness about it, just like Bond’s own unforgivable sexism and sometimes violent misogyny (am I the only one who smiles when Connery strangles a girl with her bikini top in Diamonds Are Forever?). Having pioneered the bigger-n’-better blockbuster strategy that later beat them at their own game, the Bond films have been placed in the curious yet profitable position of invoking their own tradition even as they promise the spectre (or SPECTRE) of novelty with each new installment. It’s the mercenary nakedness of it all that makes it so appealing—that and the genuine qualities of personalization and character that have advertently and inadvertently found their way into the films.
For all the media talk with every new Bond installment about how Bond is both unchangeable (as character) and interchangeable (as actor)—a cozy situation whereby the writer can pose as ironic cultural vivisectionist even as he fulfills his editor’s mandate of pushing this week’s mega-movie—it’s a growing interest in Bond-as-character and actor-as-Bond that has sustained him into an era where any other twenty mainstream action movies can lay claim to the same blow-‘em-up “thrills.” The series’ need for novelty means Bond can have no history—or at least none that can’t be easily forgotten with the next film—and yet with each new actor, we obsessively search for those defining characteristics cast upon this supposedly blank slate.
This is not only a game played by aficionados but a deadly serious consideration on the part of the producers. The tone and scope of the series depends to a decisive degree upon the bearing and intrinsic qualities of the actor embodying Bond; thus the films are largely cut to the measure of the supposedly negligible lead. Connery couldn’t have played Lazenby’s vulnerable and imperiled Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moore couldn’t have pulled off Dalton’s necessarily grim toughness in The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill, and Dalton would have shot himself before doing Moonraker. As to Brosnan, he will always occupy a wistful could-have-been place in the Bond pantheon—an actor whose desire to do good work was always handicapped by his weak-willed acceptance of wherever the producers’ wind happened to be blowing. That the second-generation production team decided to junk him even after the record profits of Die Another Day (the one with the ice palace and invisible car) reflects the kind of enlightened capitalist consciousness that has always prevailed in the Bond series: the knowledge that the best kind of disposable product always has a defining edge to it.
From that standpoint, Casino Royale and Daniel Craig are the best choices the Bond franchise could have made at this time. It may seem cynical to interpret a film’s attempt at emotional involvement and narrative intensity—for an astonishingly long amount of screen time without the benefit of action scenes—as good business sense, but the setpiece mentality of the Bond series has always encouraged a compartmentalized appraisal of its virtues. That Casino Royale features the only truly romantic Bond story since OHMSS has as much weight as its spectacular, non-CGI aided foot chase through a construction site: both are there to invoke tradition and freshness simultaneously, in an effort to distinguish the latest Bond from its competitors. And we wouldn’t have the considerable virtues, and pleasures, of both if not for the commercial canniness underlying their presence.
Craig, meanwhile, is the canniest move of all, and his presence greatly conditions the film that surrounds him. Not to sound like a pressbook, but Craig is absolute dynamite. He has the inimitable coldness and toughness which the vastly underrated Dalton brought to the part, and yet his thoroughly intimidating bulk (caressed by the camera with more attention than any of the impressive female physiognomies on display) paradoxically increases his vulnerability: this Bond gets hurt, both in action and in love. His doomed romance with Vesper Lynd—played by Eva Green with an appeal largely absent from her roles as balloon-breasted prop in The Dreamers and Kingdom of Heaven—has a poignancy in spite, or perhaps because of, its foreordained conclusion, evident even to those who haven’t read the book which the film so faithfully adapts. (It’s amusing that the highest praise for literary fidelity in the cinema is extended to those films that adhere closest to the formulaic moneyspinners virtually written as films-to-be.) Craig brings the aura of believability that is absolutely crucial to the kind of fantasy this is. As Bond has from the beginning been removed from any political specificity in the interests of commercial appeal, we require at least the feeling that Bond is playing for high stakes within a politically divided world—and those divisions are always far more important than the moral ones. That Craig’s ruthlessness doesn’t register as a “reimagining” of Bond only points up how he accentuates the reptilian aspects of the character that have always been present, and which have more than a little to do with his ongoing popularity.
That consistency, thankfully, extends to the behind-camera team as well. Martin Campbell, sensibly brought back after a string of hacks diluted his fine work on GoldenEye, succumbs somewhat to the rattle-cam and quick-cut style that’s become the unfortunate norm, but his action scenes, inventively choreographed within claustrophobic locations, still retain a pleasing clarity of line. Campbell’s regular cinematographer Phil Meheux, meanwhile, provides a beautiful and seductive sheen, particularly in the gorgeously shot black-and-white opening scenes which turn an office building into a glass labyrinth. One hopes that Campbell’s return heralds a reversion to the in-house production team tradition that sustained the series prior to the Brosnan years; but such faux-artisanal sentimentalities have little traction against the calculated money-mindedness that brought in Chris Cornell to provide another indistinguishable slab of droning modern rock for Casino Royale’s theme song (if it weren’t an oxymoron to patent anonymity, Cornell would hold worldwide rights).
As with any Bond review, this has been more of a consumer report than anything else. But it’s another of the Bond series’ great pleasures that (attempted) seriousness can mesh so well with capitulation to formula. Casino Royale’s ultimate cultural significance is that its all-around accomplishment gives yet another boost to the longevity of its likely unending series; and as the promise of sustained and continued pleasure, guilty or not, is Bond’s greatest contribution to this world where pleasures are increasingly transitory, that’s hardly a minor accomplishment.