James Bond is a fictional character first introduced by novelist and ex-military intelligence officer Ian Fleming in 1953’s Casino Royale. The literary character was quite popular, with popularity in the United States being boosted by the fact that John F. Kennedy took a liking to the series after being introduced to the novels by a good friend and mutual acquaintance of Fleming’s. The novels and the film series that followed focus on the eponymous James Bond/007, an agent of the MI-6 (Foreign Intelligence). In the novels, Bond is described as one of the best 00 operatives currently active. The 00 designation indicates a “license to kill.” (discretionary use of lethal force if necessary in the course of their duties) The success of Fleming’s novels led film company Eon Productions and film distributor United Artists to commission a film based upon the character. The James Bond/007 film series originated with 1962’s Dr. No, starring Sean Connery. Since the momentous success of Dr. No, which arguably introduced what we now know as the modern blockbuster, there have been 23 more films. The 24th entry in the franchise, Spectre, released in October 2015. Over the course of 53 years, six actors have portrayed the role of 007: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig.
By the time the 20th film in the franchise was released in 2002, Die Another Day, it was clear that the series needed a complete overhaul if it was to continue on. Pierce Brosnan’s run as 007 is what I, as a die-hard fan of the series, like to refer to as “The Dark Ages.” 1995’s Goldeneye was a very entertaining film and, to this day, is known as a quintessential Bond film, with most ranking it up with classics like Goldfinger and Live and Let Die. The subsequent entries in Brosnan’s era… sucked. The plot of a James Bond film is usually ridiculous and fantastical. Goldfinger was about a German billionaire and gold tycoon’s plan to nuke Fort Knox, rendering the gold there useless, thus increasing the value of his gold. Goldeneye was about the robbery of the Bank of England and the use of a Russian spy satellite to erase all financial information, thus crippling England’s economy. The plot of these movies are always stupid, because it’s the right kind of stupid… fun stupid. James Bond foils these plots with equally fantastical spy gadgets and cool cars with spy gadgets in them. It was a winning formula, until it wasn’t. Following Goldeneye, the plot’s that 007 foiled went from being stupid to being straight up nonsense. Tomorrow Never Dies follows a media mogul’s plan to start World War III to boost his coverage and sales. That’s boring and stupid… this time the wrong kind. The World is Not Enough follows Bond acting as bodyguard for an oil tycoon’s daughter after he is assassinated by a terrorist. It is revealed that the daughter and the terrorist were in cahoots (the terrorist held the daughter captive before the events of the film began, and she developed Stockholm Syndrome), and they’re planning to cause a nuclear meltdown to… I don’t even know, the Wikipedia summary is even stupid.
Die Another Day was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Also jokingly called Buy Another Day, Die Another Day featured a sickening amount of product placement, and unlike some other reviewers, I am usually never bothered by product placement, even if it is rather shameless. Here, it was literally shoved down your throat. It was staggering, even for a universally loved and known franchise such as this. It also featured Halle Berry as 007’s love interest, a North Korean albino military commander, another North Korean colonel (and the film’s main villain) who uses gene therapy to change his appearance, assume the identity of a wealthy British socialite named Gustav Graves, who plans to use a satellite that can harness solar energy to cut a path through the DMZ so North Korea can invade South Korea. Also this…
Die Another Day was a disaster of a movie but a box office success, as all 007 films have been. It was clear that someone at MGM/Eon Productions knew the franchise was in need of a reboot. MGM was plagued by severe financial troubles and the Bond franchise went radio silent. In 2004, after MGM was rescued by Sony Pictures, (that is extremely ironic if you know the current state of Sony Pictures right now) the search was on for the next 007. As is typical, many big stars like Clive Owen were rumored to pick up the mantle. On October 14th, 2005, it was announced that the blond-haired. blue-eyed Daniel Craig would become the sixth actor to play James Bond in an adaptation of Fleming’s original novel, Casino Royale. People were furious. In Fleming’s novels, Bond, facially, is described as resembling Hoagy Carmichael. In terms of physical description, generally it is said that Bond has a “slim build; a three-inch long, thin vertical scar on his right cheek; blue-grey eyes; a ‘cruel’ mouth; short, black hair, a comma of which falls on his forehead. Physically he is described as 183 centimetres (6 feet) in height and 76 kilograms (168 lb) in weight.” (From Wikipedia)
An original sketch by Fleming
Craig looks nothing like literary Bond, but neither did Roger Moore. People threatened to boycott the film, with websites popping up protesting Craig, bondisnotblond.com being one of them. Boy, they look really stupid now.
Casino Royale was the reboot the franchise desperately needed. It was the first film to stray from the formula, and it was awesome. Directed by Martin Campbell with a screenplay by series veterans Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the film does away with gadgets and plots for world domination or destruction, instead being a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel, which I have read.
In the film, James Bond is a newly minted 00 operative who is on the hunt for Le Chiffre, played by the brilliant Swedish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Le Chiffre is a mathematical genius and banker who handles money belonging to several terrorist organizations on behalf of a mysterious shadow organization represented by Mr. White. Le Chiffre plays the stock market with his clients’ money and looses. In order to recoup that loss and avoid the wrath of his murderous clients, he enters a high stakes poker tournament at the fictional Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond, the best poker player in the Secret Intelligence Service, is assigned to enter the tournament, beat Le Chiffre, and then offer him sanctuary in exchange for everything he knows. While certainly a complicated and expensive operation, in comparison to Moonraker, this is as down-to-earth (pun intended) as the franchise has ever gotten.
The best thing about Craig’s Bond is that he is (in this film, at least) an actual character. Previous incarnations of Bond have all been flat and static characters. He never changed at all as a person. He got a mission to save the world, met a hot chick, and saved the world. That was it. He didn’t need to do anything else because the charm and stunt work carried it through. He honestly wasn’t too interesting of a character in the films up until this point. After Die Another Day, Purvis and Wade must have realized they needed to have a solid narrative background in case the action ended up like before. Lucky for them, the literary character of James Bond as created by Fleming is actually very interesting.
According to a fictional dossier developed as viral marketing for the film, James was born to Andrew and Monique Bond in 1968. They were tragically killed in a climbing accident in the Swiss Alps when he was eleven. (Depending on the author writing the story, sometimes Bond’s parents are revealed to be MI-6 operatives, although due to the countless number of authors to pick up the torch after Fleming, this has been contradicted. The Bond series, both literary and film, doesn’t adhere to a fixed canon.) After their death, he is raised by his Aunt Charmain and educated at Eton School for one year until being expelled for “repeated curfew violations and trouble with one of the maids.” Later, he boxed competitively at Fettes and formed the first judo team for the public school circuit. After school, Bond joins the Royal Navy, excelling in his training in every way. He was first an intelligence officer aboard a vessel. He did not feel challenged by his duties and transferred to the Special Boat Service. He excelled at the grueling training once again, equaling or exceeding the skills of his superior officers after very little experience. His extraordinary skill in all areas led to his placement in the 030 Special Forces Group. While in the 030, he served with distinction, performing covert action in Iraq, Iran, Serbia, and Libya, as well as active service in Bosnia, where he is credited with saving the lives of 100 men from a Serbian militia in a small village. Due to his exemplary service, Bond was awarded the rank of Commander and transferred to the Defense Intelligence Group. Afterwards, he retires from the Royal Navy at the age of 30 and joins MI-6. While at the DI, Bond once again impressed his superiors, undertaking hazardous and valorous missions and providing valuable intelligence. His superiors did take issue with Bond’s casual and cavalier attitude towards the chain of command and borderline insubordination. Indeed, Bond’s psychological profile shows troubling issues stemming from the death of his parents, including abandonment issues, lack of any significant close personal relationships of any kind, pathological distrust of authority, and emotional immaturity.
The 2006 dossier developed for Bond is almost entirely consistent with the backstory Fleming created, with only minor details being changed to fit the modern timeline.(originally a World War II combatant, Germany instead of Afghanistan, etc.) I am unsure as to why those in charge of the previous films did not use this backstory to spice things up. Probably because they didn’t need to. Here, though, the backstory comes in handy. Craig’s Bond is not a sociopath, but just doesn’t give a crap about emotions… or murder… or people… or anything, really. And that fits with a character with that kind of backstory (in the novels, Bond actually lied about his age to join the military, so combat experience at such a young age probably further hardened him and messed him up psychologically). “Kind of a sociopath” is actually exactly how Fleming wrote the character. People seem to be under the impression that Bond is nice. Bond is not, nor has he ever been a nice guy. Yes, Roger Moore couldn’t help but be nice, but Connery, Dalton, Brosnan, and Lazenby weren’t all that nice. From the opening scene onwards, it is clear that, physical appearance notwithstanding, Ctaig is literary Bond to a T.
Casino Royale may forgo the crazy gadgets and ridiculous megalomania, but it certainly didn’t lose the action. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, viewers are presented with an extensive parkour chase sequence that, in my opinion, is possibly the best action sequence in the franchise.
The sequence ends with Bond basically blowing up an embassy, leading to M’s (played by longtime series veteran Judi Dench) reintroduction into the franchise.
It is clear that Judi Dench’s M is meant to be a very important character in this new timeline. Like the previous Bonds, M was a tool to provide exposition and a central conflict, and was not seen again until the end of the film. In Casino Royale, like Craig’s Bond, we now know what M is thinking, we know her emotions, and we know her feelings. Casino Royale is the first movie in the long-running franchise to provide real character development, leading to emotional investment, leading the audience to remember more than hot girls and set pieces as they leave the theater.
The film does not skip out on hot girls, though. This time, instead of a throwaway we never learn anything about or ever see again, we have Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green. Lynd, in both the novels and the film, is the first person Bond has fallen in love with. Much like the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, the fact that Vesper is an intelligent woman who is too smart to fall for his boyish charm is the reason Bond falls for her.
Lynd is the Treasury agent who is in charge of the money and also a part of his cover, that being the role of a loving couple. Throughout the film, Vesper takes none of the crap Bond tries to sell her, but ends up melting his heart. In the climax of the film, both are captured and tortured by Le Chiffre in what I consider possibly the single most perilous scene in the entire series.
After being rescued, both recuperate with an excursion to Rome. The lovestruck Bond retires from MI-6. It is, rather unceremoniously, uncovered that Vesper is working for Mr. White, the man seemingly behind everything.
I feel as though Casino Royale‘s major flaw is the speed at which it takes Vesper’s betrayal. There is little to no emotional impact for the viewer. I would personally liked to have seen such a major event in the character’s history be handled much more delicately. Nevertheless, Casino Royale handles Bond’s transition from the young and cocky agent to the battle hardened veteran with grace and ease, Vesper’s all-to-swift betrayal and death notwithstanding. Casino Royale is a brilliant first outing for Daniel Craig, a more than serviceable adaptation of the 1953 novel, and does an admirable job updating the character for modern audience. After the high-point that was this film, people were very hopeful that the sequel would reach the same heights, and maybe even raise the bar. We’ll talk about that in Part II, though.