Whatever resemblance the movie James Bond had to author Ian Fleming’s original conception was rendered effectively moot the moment Sean Connery quipped his famous Goldfinger kiss-off: “Shocking! Positively shocking!” From that point on, Bond became a pun-toting cipher whose license to kill in ever more garish ways, though never beyond the limits of PG-13, was merely prelude to the inevitable punchline. The Bond series is the epitome of stimulus-response filmmaking (I went for the stunts and stayed for the product placement) and a cornerstone of the immoral cinema (what other movie franchise has so consistently invited us to leer, at such a dispassionate remove, over a softcore porn parade of impossibly chiseled male and female flesh?).
All the Bond films are knowing, in some way, of their place in the cinema canon, but I never expected such an on-the-nose acknowledgement from the 21st picture in the series, Casino Royale, which sets an intimate action sequence in and around the controversial Bodies museum exhibit. This comes some time after we’ve witnessed the latest 007 (a superb and smoldering Daniel Craig) leaping chamois-like around an African construction site (in perfect mimicry of the parkour running craze co-created by Casino co-star Sébastien Foucan) and precedes his cringe-inducing, nether-regions torture at the hands of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre (quite literally, “The Cipher”), banker to the world’s terrorists, “which,” as Bond’s prissy Queen Mother contact M (Judi Dench) deliciously clarifies, “would explain how he could set up a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro.”
I’m certain there’s an essay out there that explores how the Bond films vampirically encapsulate the trends and obsessions of their respective times, regurgitating them as unabashed plugs and promotions that wouldn’t be out of place on a fashion runway. I hesitate to say that Bond’s barely disguised verbal shill for Omega watches, delivered in the midst of his teasing romantic repartee with treasury agent Vesper Lynd (the very sexy, oval-eyed Eva Green, heir to Jeanne Moreau’s gilded throne), creates any sort of need in the audience psyche. We go to Bond films precisely because the characters possess things the proletariat can never have: at worst it’s cynical, at best pleasing and playful (as a colleague observed, the difference in quality between a good Bond film and a bad one is damn-near negligible).
Casino Royale is one of the good ones and not just for the way it wittily recontextualizes several series touchstones, my favorite being Bond’s growling rebuke to a casino bartender after ordering his fabled Vodka Martini. “Shaken or stirred, sir?” asks the barman, to which Bond hisses, “Do I look like I give a damn?!!” Craig, to somewhat answer that rhetorical, doesn’t look like he gives a damn about anything and, good as the supporting cast and director Martin Campbell’s always-engaging craftsmanship are, the success of the movie rests entirely on his squared-off shoulders. It’s an understatement, and will no doubt come off as hyperbole, to say that Craig is the best Bond since Connery. I’m almost prepared to call him my favorite and I wish him a much-deserved longevity in the role, even though I suspect he’ll never be able to top the frayed, jangled-nerves characterization he pulls off here.
This Bond is rough and raw, nearly ape-like in his movements; despite his divinely piercing blue eyes, he might just as well have emerged from primordial sludge to do the bidding of Beelzebub. There’s an internal war raging in Bond—a sociopath who still possesses some remnants of a soul, and Casino Royale charts his journey toward an eventual and quite chilling renouncement of his humanity. When he declares himself at film’s end (uttering the immortal catchphrase, “Bond…James Bond” with a weight and authority its previous interpreters have scarcely mustered) we bear witness to, and are asked to celebrate, an act of absolute destruction: the demolition of a conflicted human being and the erection, in its place, of an amoral icon that exists solely to satiate our Pavlovian bloodlust. And damned if this blindingly beautiful golden calf doesn’t deserve our every single round of applause.