Hollywood loves a good franchise, but for the most part the chances of a franchise being consistently good are very slim. The Bond franchise is a prime example of this. From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, a period that saw a Scotsman in Sean Connery rise in the ranks and become one of the most recognizable faces around AND one of the highest grossing movie stars of all time, to a series of misfires and miscast names throughout the 70s and 80s, and finally to Pierce Brosnan stealing the show in GoldenEye just for his later entries in the Bond catalog to fail both critically and commercially; similarly to Batman, the James Bond franchise was on its last legs as it entered the new millennium. To everyone’s surprise Casino Royale turned out to be a major sensation. A new star was born in Daniel Craig and James Bond was alive and well, and perhaps truer to the Ian Fleming’s original character than ever before.
How Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, changed the way we perceive and sympathize with Bond as a fleshed out character instead of a cardboard cut-out is still to this day an incredible achievement in storytelling and action filmmaking.
The most obvious aspect of Casino Royale is, of course, how blatantly indifferent it is to all the previous franchise entries. The film opens in black and white, suggesting a flashback sequence from 007’s first mission for the agency, with Bond literally smashing a guy’s face into a sink and violently shoving his face into said sink full of water until the nameless bad guy stops breathing. The scene is brutal, grim and openly demonstrative about the movie’s further intentions in establishing Bond as a atypical character.
Unlike Casino Royale’s predecessors, where the movie usually opened with an intense set-up that ultimately ended in either a sarcastic comment made by the agent himself or a funny set of circumstances that would serve to fuel the movie’s plot, Campbell’s film never attempts to emphasize humor the same way. After all, this is 2006 we’re talking about; the era of clunky one-liners and testosterone-filled actioners à la True Lies, Speed or The Rock is over, and even the most generic actions films take themselves seriously both in style and execution. Humor in Casino Royale comes at an expense and this is where things start to get interesting.
I fail to recall the last time I had seen Bond truly suffer as a human. And I don’t only mean physical pain because we all remember the fair share of painful adversities that Bond has had to face throughout the years (spiders, lasers, waterboarding, gunshot wounds, etc), I mean real, psychological pain, pain that exposes the character’s (up until then) few weaknesses. In Die Another Day, Brosnan’s last catastrophic outing as 007, Bond was indeed held prisoner by North Koreans and tortured numerous times, but the pain the character underwent was never given enough weight and was soon dismissed with Bond ultimately walking away a free man in a prisoner exchange.
In Casino Royale, however, our protagonist feels, just like anyone of us. Craig’s Bond is made of flesh and bone and is aware of his own physical limitations. M labels him a blunt instrument, a cold, calculated weapon executing the agency’s orders. But we soon learn that our protagonist, despite his best efforts to fight them, is a prisoner of his own feelings. And that is, I think, Casino Royale’s main strength: the movie is driven by our and everyone else’s preconceived idea that Bond is an emotionless machine working against the movie’s own initiative to mix things up and shape Bond into a more human version of the world famous agent with a license to kill.
Casino Royale knows what it is up against, namely a whole catalog of movies and fans of these movies that value Bond for his cartoonish appearance. And when the movie’s main plot kicks in, Royale does everything in its power to build a fun, engaging storyline that serves to de-construct and re-shape James Bond as we know him.
Rewatching the film with a friend who had not seen the movie, I noticed how she kept waiting for the eventual one night-stand or (as we like to call them) Bond girl, to come in, have sex with our protagonist and leave him in matter of nano seconds, only to be swept away by the franchise’s most real and heartbreaking romance. Because even though there is a scene where Bond, tied up and naked, gets his testicles crushed with the swing of a heavy rope (and the pain is both visible and audible) by the movie’s main antagonist, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, the definition of a Bond villain), the hurt that our protagonist turns out to suffer most is the feeling of pure grief, and the hopeless realization that he is forever bound to the memory of Vesper, a woman he tragically lost and who sacrificed her own life for him. Yes, him. The worthless machine serving the agency’s interests. A stone-cold killer with no sense of remorse. The blunt instrument meant to be used to bash someone’s head in.
Reinventing the Bond franchise was a necessary step for mainstream, crowd-pleasing cinema and resulted in Hollywood re-establishing the importance of high quality action movies familiar with the definition of ”character development.” The Bond franchise finally moved away from conservative studio shoots and CGI effects and decided to make fight scenes practical, aggressive and turn our protagonist into an underdog with real weaknesses to be exploited by stronger enemies. Too often had we seen Bond go through enemies like papier-mâché, sometimes not even bothered to look their way before killing them. Casino Royale changed the way Bond inflicts violence upon others and the way others inflict violence upon him. All of a sudden we are watching a character whose prime interest is not getting laid, but embracing the love of a woman and considering the possibility of early retirement.
Of course, nothing is perfect and the underwhelming follow-up to Casino Royale, 2008’s Quantum of Solace proved once again how hard it is to be consistently good as a franchise. But at least we now know that Bond breathes, sweats and bleeds like any other man. He is touchable.