If there’s a pop cultural icon in dire need of being revisited – and revised – at this historical moment, it is Bond, James Bond. Now that our leaders’ own fantasies of besting evil supervillains and making the world bend to their fancies have run aground on the reality-based community known as Iraq, surely it is time for Bond – who shares with his real-life state employers a similar combination of superior technology, unthinking machismo and rakish charm – to look in the mirror and face some unsavory truths.
It’s to the credit of the writers of Casino Royale–Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis – that just such a scene occurs midway into the 21st installment of this apparently inexhaustible franchise. Having just brutally murdered by hand two Ugandan freedom fighters of unnamed cause – one thing Casino Royale fails to revise is the series’ casual racism – a shaken Bond (Daniel Craig, aptly mixing ferocity with emotional restraint) washes the blood off his hands and greedily devours a giant glass of whiskey in a vain attempt to steady his nerves. Taking a moment to collect himself, he stares numbly at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, his previously suave tuxedo torn to bits and drenched in blood. It’s not a pretty sight.
Although Casino Royale offers up the ludicrous plot, obligatory pyrotechnics and dutifully pulse-pounding chase sequences of any run-of-the-mill blockbuster, it distinguishes itself from the lumpen pack by presenting a Bond whose ultra-cool and debonair demeanor is no longer simply an aspect of his personality. Rather, the film takes considerable pains to suggest that this womanizing and shrewd, instrumentalizing persona is a rational response to – or escape from – his dehumanizing line of work. The film repeatedly emphasizes that Bond’s emotional numbness is what allows him to do his job in the first place.
A typical example occurs when Bond needs to learn more about a suspect, and so seduces the man’s wife to (ahem) pump her for information. Getting what he needs, he leaves her immediately – there’s a terrorist plot to foil – but upon his return, finds that she has been tortured and killed for her transgression. Staring at the woman’s mangled corpse alongside an unmoved Bond, M (Judi Dench, in imperious matron mode) remarks that she might be worried that Bond’s responsibility for her death would affect his detachment, except, “that doesn’t seem like an issue for you.” Bond says nothing.
Bond’s detachment, however, is soon threatened by the introduction of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British Treasury officer who will control Bond’s share in a high-stakes poker game hosted by the nefarious Le Chiffre at the Casino Royale hotel. (Did I mention the ludicrous plot?) How their relationship develops is predictable enough (although if you’re worried about spoilers, now would be the time to stop reading): They will start off as flirtatious, yet antagonistic adversaries. They will then fall hopelessly in love. And, inevitably, Vesper will be unmasked as a “femme fatale,” a mole who works for the enemy and betrays Bond.
Formulaic as the course of this relationship may be, its characterization is decidedly not, particularly in comparison to previous Bond films. Upon first meeting Bond, Vesper archly observes that he’s a man who views women as “disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.” While other “Bond girls” have shown similar pluck, they typically melt after being heroically rescued by Bond. But in Casino Royale, Bond never rescues Vesper; in fact, it’s she who saves his life, twice.
Indeed, one of the charms of Casino Royale is its insistence on either ignoring or subverting the standard Bond genre expectations. There is no visit with Q and no fancy gadgets. At one point, after a furious Bond orders a martini and the bartender inevitably asks “Shaken or stirred?,” he snaps, “Do I look like I give a damn?” There’s even a scene that directly echoes the infamous sequence from the first Bond film, Dr. No, in which Ursula Andress emerges, Venus-like, from the ocean – only this time, it’s Bond who arises from the water, soaking wet, clad in a too-tight swimsuit, chest bursting out.
More than just clever allusions, these subversions point to one of the film’s major (if not only) concerns: Can Bond refuse to be what he is supposed to be: a mindless killer serving at the enjoyment of his masters (or, perhaps, the audience)? After he falls in love with Vesper, he tells her that he’s leaving Mi6 because he needs “to get out while I still have whatever small part of my soul is left,” so that he can devote it to her.
Structurally, of course, that can’t happen, but not because of any logic within the film. If anything, Casino Royale argues that Bond’s work makes him an uncaring, paranoid sociopath. But you don’t let a character who has made your studios $1.3 billion over the past 40 years quit his job. (James Bond will return, indeed.) Thus, Vesper must betray Bond, turning him back to the soulless embrace of Mi6. And in its last shot, Casino Royale joins the cold embrace as well, picturing an omnipotent Bond standing over a wounded adversary, giant machine gun in hand, and introducing himself with the staid catchphrase – “I’m Bond, James Bond” – the insane fantasy restored intact. To crib Vesper – a warm character, sacrificed on the altar of commerce–Casino Royale may attempt a meaningful pursuit of what makes Bond tick, but in the end, it’s all too willing to accept being a mere disposable pleasure.