Dir. Martin Campbell. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen
It’s just a little too talky, isn’t it. Not a lot too talky, but it’s just talky enough that it pulls you away from what’s really exciting about the film itself. Before anyone arrives in Montenegro for the poker game, there’s a ceiling on what dialogue can do for the movie. It’s designed that way. That black-and-white pre-credits sequence in this film may as well have thrown back to 1925; the dialogue there is meaningless compared to the slouching posture of James Bond (Craig) in that chair, wielding the handgun with the silencer. It’s not that the dialogue is bad in this sequence—it gets so much worse later on—but that conversation about how Bond isn’t a 00 yet just isn’t worth the focus. At that moment, he has the longest phallic symbol in the room, and that matters more than the license to kill that he’s earning. Heck, in just about any room, regardless of whose symbolism is greatest, he’ll act like he’s got something special cocked. Since this movie came out, people from critics to Joes Public have been talking about the free running stuff in Madagascar as a statement of the new Bond, something which dictates the tone of Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the character. (I say “people” because I heard this multiple times as a teenager, both at school and at church, and I have seen it on the Internet ever since. It’s a very pure example of “they’re saying…”) You can see the Craig-Bond in this opening sequence, mixing a laconic personal presentation with rapid, ruthless movement. It works beautifully, not because those two are necessarily so unlike each other on screen, but because they create a genuine trouble within Bond. He is a laconic sort. He does want to be the coolest boy in the form. That’s what gets him into trouble when it comes time for him to shoot his shot. As good a shot as the Craig-Bond is, he suffers time and again due to his belief that no one else could be a marksman at the same time as him, let alone as good a marksman.
That shock that Bond always seems to have when he finds out that someone else is as powerful as him or as well-informed or as skilled is what makes the twists in the film sing. There’s an initial series of missions that Bond goes on which prove that he is the physical specimen who can track down even the wildest of free runners (that chase with Sébastien Foucan which keeps going up and up and up is genuinely thrilling), and that he can knock out slimy mid-level international criminals like Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) while squiring their wives, like the lovely and doomed Solange (Ivana Milicevic). All this he does while breaking a sweat, admittedly. Bond is clever enough to attach an explosive to a criminal instead of letting it destroy an airplane, but it’s the much the cleanest success he has in the first half of the movie. He gets a stern talking to courtesy of M (Judi Dench) because of how the Madagascar chase ends with deaths and explosions, and it’s well-deserved seeing as the mission was supposed to end with a live capture and not a dead bomb-maker. He does not predict that Dimitrios’ failure/death will lead to a death by torture for Solange, and you can see the guilt he feels for not thinking to protect her. Bond is great in pursuit, and he’s great at killing people, but the rest of what makes a great spy is missing for him. There’s a certain kind of espionage nicety that Bond scoffs at when he refuses to go by “Mr. Beech,” understanding that Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen) and his goons must know who he is. This is well and good, given that that’s true, but the bull in the china shop attitude that Vesper (Green) rolls her eyes at is the same one that M had cautioned him for earlier. It’s also the kind of nicety which makes him a target in the way that Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) never becomes a target, because despite Leiter’s status as CIA agent, he doesn’t insist on being Archer once he gets to Montenegro.
I wanted to like Vesper Lynd a little more than I did, and Eva Green does what she can with the part, playing the Treasury agent with some remove from the basically unlikable secret agent she’s been paired with. The trouble with the character is that she’s smart in that psychoanalytic way, which has always seemed to me a particularly masculine mode of displaying a character’s intelligence for the (intended bourgeois) viewer. The implication, which I’m sure Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and Paul Haggis (yich, yich, yich) would all defend themselves against, is that Vesper Lynd is especially smart because she’s so intellectual. Watching her psychoanalyze Bond on the train, a scene which feels absolutely interminable after the rush of action sequences in the first half of this film, is an endless process. It is a train scene which lacks romance and sex alike, which is, to be short, a waste of a train scene. How pretty they are is immaterial to their chemistry later on, which turns out to be significant because of the physical performances and not because of what they say to one another. Absent any kind of sexual spark, all this scene does is show us that Vesper is not just smarter than James Bond—not all that tall an order, given what’s been going on in this picture!—but smart like a man. It’s condescending, to say the least, and the conversation itself isn’t even interesting enough to back up the condescension. Maybe the back and forth where the two of them size each other up works for some people, but all I could hear through their comments about clothing and affect was, “Red hair, and a hand-me-down robe…you must be a Weasley.”
The film slows down to a crawl after Le Chiffre is killed by Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen), thus rescuing Vesper and James from torture, death, you know, the usual stuff. It never really recovers either, even though there’s a fairly impressive set piece involving a Venetian building sinking into the canal and taking Vesper with it. James and Vesper quit their jobs with the British government, fool around on some beaches, and so on, and Bond only figures out in the last instant (with the assist from M, natch), that Vesper has the money from the poker game that he won. That chase plus drowning plus sinking building is less than the sum of its parts, a case in which less would have been more. The climactic moment of this film is watching Le Chiffre fall to the ground, a hole in his head, because it is Le Chiffre and not Vesper Lynd who is the true threat to Bond’s life. Vesper might endanger James Bond or work as a tool against his mission, but in the chess game at hand, she is no more than a bishop where Le Chiffre is a queen.
Bond’s ego makes him vulnerable in Casino Royale. We are suppoesd to know that, because I think I heard the word “ego” more times in this movie than I heard it in Guadians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Ratatouille put together. Le Chiffre’s financial recklessness make him vulnerable in much the same way. This is one of the rare pre-Recession films to recognize the foolishness of playing games with the market, and Le Chiffre, who treats gambling the way Bond treats guns, lives large and dies hard by its vicissitudes. These semi-intelligent action movies are often at their best when they present our hero and our villain as different sides of the same coin, and I prefer “these arrogant Europeans think they can play God over a poker game” to “these two maniacs dress up in costumes and punch each other.” Le Chiffre is also like Bond in another important way: they serve masters with punitive power over them. That sequence with M in the beginning has a mirror during the poker half of the film, where Obanno (Isaach de Bankolé) throws Le Chiffre around and threatens his girlfriend in order to emphasize how much he needs his money back. There’s development of the two as foils in a way that’s really effective, and thus when Le Chiffre is killed instead of Bond, the movie feels like it’s ended. That it has a ways to go on that front, as well as another important named character to knock off, is a miscalculation on the film’s part. It believes that Vesper Lynd is more meaningful to developing James Bond as a character than Le Chiffre’s death is to the rhythm of the movie. I suppose one’s mileage may vary, but all I know is that the movie rips when Bond is in action and getting closer to the eddy created by a criminal mastermind, and the movie gasps for air when he falls in love.