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How Bond Got His Balls Back (and then nearly lost them again): The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Casino Royale
Directed by Martin Campbell

Reviewed by A S H Smyth

After one weekend it?s already a clich? to remark that the Bond movie is actually very good. It has a good cast, a sensible plot and (at last) a good script. So I am content saying this: Whatever the production team might have set out to achieve, Casino Royale did exactly what I had hoped for ? it gave James Bond his balls back.

There were two stages to this, the first of which was a reworking of Bond himself. Ian Fleming?s Bond is a mean killer: a slightly-cruel, highly-sensual, gambling/smoking/drinking type, with no qualms about bumping people off. Remember, Royale was the first Bond novel, the book in which both the audience and Bond himself were supposed to work out who he was and what he did.

But over the decades the films degenerated into mediocre soft porn. The Connery movies were never as good as people like to remember. Then came a haggard Roger Moore in a shell-suit (the nadir for the franchise). Timothy Dalton struggled in the ?80s. Pierce Brosnan was cruelly brought down at the last hurdle by an appalling script and a ludicrous CGI tidal wave. Bond became too suave, too emotionally attentive to the vacuous blondes, and altogether too glib. But Daniel Craig in Royale is Bond as he should be. No diaphanous tarts drifting about in the theme-tune. No ghastly one-liners. No dancing.

Its direction is clear from the prelude, which presents the back-story of Bond winning his double-0 status. The footage is black and white and grainy, brutal and uncompromising. Are the various shades of grey a morality metaphor? Probably not. Then roll the credits, fittingly constructed from playing cards, splitting and overlapping in a series of vicious knife-fights.

Violence is all. Even though the bad guys? weapons misfire occasionally, you genuinely feel that Bond is in danger, in the thick of it. He lands messily, he sweats profusely, he kills with his bare hands, and he gets blood (much of it his) all over his nice white shirt. This is mano a mano, not the bullet-ridden ballet that typified the Brosnan period.

And there?s sex, of course. It happens, but without the horrific fore-script, which reached rock bottom in Die Another Day. And Bond forgoes it, when duty calls. Sex is never the object, except perhaps at the close, to demonstrate that Bond has not been ?unmanned? by his ordeal.

Thankfully, Royale dispensed with ?Dr. Evil?-quality arch-nemeses. A perfectly effective villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), is merely trying to keep himself alive, not take over the world. He is truly calculating (a former-Soviet chess prodigy), constantly working out the odds in every situation. During a preliminary poker game, Le Chiffre remarks to a lesser opponent: ?I have two pair, and you have a 17.4% chance of making a straight.? Maybe he is telling the truth, maybe not. His opponent folds anyway.

The casino scenes are over-indulged (and why are they playing poker, not baccarat?) but they are supposed to show that there?s little difference between Le Chiffre and Bond. Both serve higher masters. Both are merciless. Both are revealed, to us and to each other, at the table. ?You lost because of your ego,? snaps Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Well, ma?am, ego comes as standard with the Alpha Male.

But it?s all modern complexity with the old-school moral base. This is not the self-reflective style of the Brosnan films, but an assured orthodoxy. Bond knows (and we know) he is right, because he?s a servant of Her Majesty: the others are simply terrorists.

This is fundamental to the second aspect of Bond?s renaissance: a broader, conceptual one. Gone are the days of SMERSH or SPECTRE. Gone, too, are the megalomaniac individuals who replaced them, with Nintendos strapped to their arms and lasers at their bidding. If each generation gets the Bond it deserves, I have to ask: If you can?t drum up a good movie in the current intelligence climate, when could you?

Royale augments Fleming?s lean original with valid contemporary references. Twenty-first century intelligence has a wide compass: terrorist networks and their financiers; child soldiers; International Relations protocols; unhelpful press; governmental oversight. We see M?s flat and discover that ?M? is actually her initial. We even glimpse her husband. And my personal favorite: M?s assistant urgently searches on Google. It happens ? those in the know call it ?open-source intelligence?.

The film also has a logical global scope: Uganda, Madagascar, Montenegro, Miami, Bahamas, and the good citizens of Switzerland, Albania, U.K. and ?Nambutu.? None of it seems to have been worked in purely for exotic value, as has happened so often in the past. And it?s certainly more interesting than Fleming?s version, which was limited to Normandy.

In its time, Goldeneye was hailed as the savior of the franchise. But it is Casino Royale that has finally remasculated Bond. Twenty-one movies on, Bond has finally been restored to a form that Fleming himself would have recognized.

*****

A S H Smyth is a writer living in West Malling, Kent


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