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Kevin Fullam writesThe fourth Wall: “Casino Royale”

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2006 film Casino Royale.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Clarence: 

“Bond. James Bond.”

Anyone who knows anything about film history will recognize that famous introduction. Even those who have never seen a frame of the 25 feature films on which this character is based.

I was one of them. Until a few months ago, I had never seen an entire James Bond movie in one sitting. I was familiar with many of the scenes, the one-liners, the cultural discussion of the character and the actors who played him. But not the movies themselves..

Recently, though, I’ve binge-watched all five of the Bond films featuring its most recent lead actor, Daniel Craig. I remember when he made his first Bond appearance in Casino Royale in 2006 there was controversy around how a blond-haired, blue-eyed actor, even a talented one, could pull off such an iconic role. Skeptics needn't have worried; He did, and continued to for another 15 years. 

Casino Royale is a bit of a strange entry in the Bond series. The first movie to carry that title (released in 1967) isn’t considered official canon for several reasons and was panned by critics when it first released, but it was based on the Ian Flemming novel of the same name, in which the character James Bond first appears.

Craig’s version keeps many of the aspects that makes a Bond film a Bond film (fantastic locations, maniacal villains, an agent using his wits and fantastic gear to fight them while also "connecting with" a parade of gorgeous women), but also updates the character to fit in better with modern times. This is a grittier, more “realistic” version that explores Bond’s inner makeup and turmoil between the spectacular chase scenes and explosions.

Not having had any particular interest in sitting down with the other chapters, I very much enjoyed this movie. It checks all the boxes of a first-rate thriller and action vehicle. Overall I would say it’s the best of the five Bond films featuring Craig (the other four, in descending order of quality, being Skyfall, No Time to Die, Spectre, and Quantum of Solace).

Kevin, what did you think of Craig’s turn as the ultimate agent, especially compared to the actors who did it before? Are there any pre-Craig Bond films you would recommend? And considering the current geo-political state of the world, does this long-running series have anything to say, symbolically or otherwise, about the power of The West to keep us safe from The Enemy (terrorists, rogue scientists, etc.)?

Kevin:

I still can't believe that you'd never seen a single 007 film until recently! (This brings to mind another idea for an essay -- "Gaping Holes in our Personal Pop-Culture Spheres." Lord knows I have plenty of my own.) A while back, you mentioned to me that in your home state of Nebraska, Bond was seen as a rather "foreign" entity. 

Right around 1986 or so, I watched a network telecast (remember those?) of The Spy Who Loved Me. 'Twas my first Bond movie, and I was hooked. Many fans of the British super-agent never quite warmed up to Roger Moore after Sean Connery's departure, but most critics agree that 1977's TSWLM was the best of Moore's run. It had all the hallmarks of the series that you mentioned, ramped up to the nth degree*. Standard Bond tropes at the time, but to a kid? Fresh and ingenious. 

[*Case in point -- the indestructible Jaws, the only villainous henchman who's ever made more than one Bond appearance. Jaws was so popular in TSWLM that not only was he not killed off, but he was brought up for the follow-up, Moonraker.]

Over the next few years, I worked my way through the entire catalog, culminating in the theatrical release of Licence to Kill, the end of Timothy Dalton's brief two-film stint. But outside of Goldeneye, the first Pierce Brosnan picture, I hadn't returned to the series until catching Casino Royale last week in preparation for this dialogue. 

If Connery was the Action Bond and Moore was the Suave Bond, then what was Daniel Craig? The Terminator Bond? Not only does Craig absorb an absurd amount of punishment throughout this caper -- from the opening parkour chase to an airport runway battle (during which he performs a jump-and-roll onto asphalt from a truck doing at least 40 MPH), but it also seems like he has his own world-class cutman just off camera. No matter how many scrapes and bruises he suffers -- whoosh, after a quick shower and a wardrobe change, he's back playing Texas Hold 'Em with no one the wiser. And I won't even get into the torture scene!

So, I do agree that the action is "grittier" in terms of the pacing, with the audience right on top of the mayhem. Is it more realistic? Big picture, yes, despite the aforementioned caveats, as both the Connery/Moore agents were often winking to the audience. 

My two favorite pre-Craig Bond films:

*The Spy Who Loved Me. Besides Jaws and a certain Lotus Espirit, there was Barbara Bach as a Soviet agent who vacillates between cooperation/competition with Bond. Bach's Anya Amasova (codename: Triple X) was the first female in the series who was presented as Bond's equal. And how 'bout the movie's intro? From Wiki: "Eon executive Charles Juroe said that at a screening attended by Charles, Prince of Wales, during the Union Jack-parachute scene: 'I have never seen a reaction in the cinema as there was that night. You couldn't help it. You could not help but stand up. Even Prince Charles stood up.'"

True story: Steven Spielberg, just months after finishing Jaws, wanted to direct this tale but was turned down by producer Albert Broccoli! 

Diamonds Are Forever. Connery received a then-record $1.25 million paycheck for this 1971 film -- his last "official" Bond entry, though he returned a dozen years later as 007 in the non-canonical Never Say Never Again, which was essentially a remake of the earlier Thunderball. Readers of this series probably know my feelings when it comes to anything remotely bordering on camp, but in Diamonds? The humor works, especially a self-referential one-liner that might be the best joke in any Bond film. 

As far as "The Enemy" -- a bunch of years ago, I created some documentary shorts that looked at the evolution of Hollywood villainy vis-à-vis societal fears. In my opinion, the Bond series has been "its own thing" and deals primarily with megalomaniacs as opposed to any politically-relevant foe? But yes, Bond is certainly a stand-in for Western Might. The "old" Bond was backed by what seemed like limitless financial resources; was it telling that, in Casino Royale, the MI5 attaches an accountant to Bond's hip and balks at providing a paltry $5 million stake after he originally gets busted out of his poker showdown? (He has to ask the Americans for the cash! "Do we look like we need the money?")

However, Bond is also a symbol of sophistication, and that sets him apart from his American counterparts. This guy ain't a machine-gun-toting Neanderthal like Rambo. (Could you ever imagine John J. Rambo in a suit and tie?) Everything about 007 oozes culture and British refinement, from his wardrobe to his vehicles to his choice of libations. American heroes are largely built out of the cowboy/frontier montifs, and Bond definitely ain't a cowboy. 

Hollywood has had its own spy heroes over the years, of course. True Lies, a 1994 James Cameron film, was designed as an American homage to James Bond... though nobody would ever accuse Arnold Schwartzenegger of being suave and sophisticated. (Actually, this one might make for a good Fourth Wall entry in its own right, especially as aspects of this adventure have not aged well, three decades later.) We had the xXx series with Vin Diesel -- definitely more of a cowboy than a superspy -- and also the longrunning Mission Impossible franchise with the ageless Tom Cruise.

Perhaps Craig is closer to MI's Cruise than to any of the earlier British superagents? Both of them seem saddled with serious countenances that prevent them from cracking jokes. Ditto with the titular hero of the Jason Bourne series -- *absolutely* another cowboy. 

Looking at the whole spy genre in general, do you have any favorites? And any thoughts on how the public's relationship with secret agents has evolved over the years? Seems like lots of Grey-and-Gray Morality out there right now, as opposed to those halcyon days when we were spying on the Soviets and Nazis. 

Clarence:

I think the romance angle illustrates the real enemy Bond is fighting - his own legacy. A 2020s Bond would not be able to skate through his adventures without thinking about love, family, and getting old. That's how we know he’s deep.

Also, the original idea of Bond is a bit of an antique. Between the sexism and “imperial nostalgia” (potentially risking overseas box office receipts), there are things about this character that, if he were invented today, just wouldn't fly in the 21st century.

[But this has also been what happened to Batman, Rocky, The Avengers, and pretty much any intellectual property from the past being updated to modern times.]

In fact, Bond (and his contemporaries Bourne, Hunt, and xXx) aren’t really spies, in the traditional WWII sense of the term. With all the weapons and explosions and running around killing people, they are soldiers fighting an eternal secret war on behalf of us “normies” while we go about our business, oblivious to everything but the odd random detonation or shootout. That’s actually right in line with modern action films where fears of terrorism and the asymmetrical destruction of The Homeland using advanced technology and immortal tactics are always just under the surface.

Broadly speaking, a spy’s job is to infiltrate organizations and gather intelligence that will be acted on by someone else while doing their best to not be identified and/or captured.

I think that’s why there are so few movies I can remember where spycraft is the focus - if you do your job well, no one notices you!

There are TV and film versions of the book Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy that have been on my viewing list for a while. I remember Spy Game (Brad Pitt and Robert Redford) being pretty good, too.

But I think my favorite spy movie of the last few decades is about corporate espionage - The Informant!, starring Matt Damon as an Archer Daniels Midland executive who is recruited by the CIA to uncover global price-fixing of the chemical lysine. It’s a comedy based on a true story that may not sound like much, but I enjoyed it. What I liked even more is the This American Life episode the movie is based on, "The Fix Is In." It is a spellbinding hour of radio, and when they get to the Big Twist about halfway through, my jaw was on the floor. I recommend to anyone reading this to go listen to it.

But back to Bond. What are your favorite theme songs from that franchise? They’ve had some good ones - “Goldfinger” (Shirley Bassey) and Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” stand out for me. The late great Chris Cornell did the music for Casino Royale, but it didn’t hit me as hard as the other songs that I only heard on the radio.

Also, did you ever hear the Internet theory that, in order to explain why so many actors have played the same character, James Bond is in fact not a specific person but a code name given to whatever agent is designated 007? That helps explain why the Bonds could take so many risks with their health from all the drinking, fighing and sexual relations, since they weren’t expected to live that long, anyway. The events of Skyfall kind of put that notion out of reach, but I thought it was an interesting take…

Kevin:

Very good observation as far as how nobody would notice a spy who's doing their job well! Much like every other occupation*, espionage is jazzed up on the big screen to generate plenty of white-knuckle moments. 

[*What percentage of cases go to trial? 2%. What percentage of Hollywood films about lawyers involve a trial? Er... 100%?]

As far as theme songs, "Goldfinger" and "Live and Let Die" are definitely classics, agreed. Is it bad that I'll forever link the former with the "Max Power" cover? I'd also put "For Your Eyes Only" (Sheena Easton) and "Nobody Does It Better" (Carly Simon) in the pantheon. And a special shout-out to Monty Norman, who wrote the killer guitar riff that's been used in every film in the franchise. 

A long while back, I remember reading that James Bond and other literary creations (like comic heroes) were much easier to sell to filmgoing audiences via different actors than characters made solely for the screen. We've had about half a dozen Batmans, right? Better yet, he's almost always wearing a cape and deadpan scowl -- there ain't much deviation in his appearance or demeanor. But another Rocky Balboa or Indiana Jones? Much tougher to pull off. It's why the studios have preferred to trot out Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford in their 70s and 80s. 

And since I mentioned the Caped Crusader... I decided to watch Skyfall after you mentioned it, and I was startled by how much the film resembled a Batman adventure? 

* Like Bruce Wayne, James Bond is an orphan, and while Bond's parents weren't wealthy to the extent of the Waynes, they certainly had some serious coin -- enough to own a huge chunk of property, along with a manor that had its own caretaker. (Alfred-lite?)

* Javier Bardem's Silva seems cut from the same cloth as the Joker? A mix of devious genius with eccentricity, with a taste for macabre threats. He's even got a facial disfigurement to boot! 

* The Aston Martin DB5 is a signature Bond vehicle, but a souped-up car like this (complete with machine guns and other gadgets) might as well be a stand-in for the Batmobile? 

A bit of a segue regarding cinematic heroes in general: We all know that Indiana Jones is going to emerge unscathed, the same way we know that James T. Kirk will always find a way to outsmart the Klingons. There's tension, yes, but there's not real Capital-T Tension. So why are we watching? Well, we're curious as to just how they're going to wiggle out of danger, but we also simply find the characters endearing in general. The flair is what separates Indy from the many mooks that he pummels/whips/shoots during his escapades. 

Sean Connery's James Bond had flair. And, in my opinion, so did Roger Moore's 007 (albeit perhaps to a lesser extent). Craig, as I mentioned in my previous response, is a Terminator Bond. He doesn't have flair, and neither did Batman*. Even Craig's leathery face is a mask in itself. 

[*This is one major reason why I never found Batman to be all that compelling a character. Interestingly, the one iteration of the hero who did have flair was the Adam West edition! But as we all know, his '60s TV Batman had its own issues...]

Bottom line -- these two Bond films hit all the right notes... yet there's something missing? My idea to shake up the franchise? FOUND FOOTAGE Bond. Let's do it. 

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