The Sex Panther Prowls Again: Dalton, Craig and the Promise of a Serious Bond in Casino Royale
by Gregory Sahadachny (@MisterGreggles)
Sitting in a theater, there was a great sense of excitement in me. A new Bond. I had heard that this outing would be a “serious” take on the suave secret agent/action hero we all grew up on; that this installment would set the series apart from the silly, over-the-top, pun-heavy detours of the previous keeper of the flame. Bond has become a work of folklore, of socially disseminated tales and shared cross-culture memory the world over, especially in the West. And, for me, he is a hero just like Batman or Superman. Was I ready for this “serious” take though? Was I going to get the necessities? The shaken-not-stirred martini? The “Bond. James Bond.”? The gadgets? Or was this going to break from formula? What about the one-liners? Was I going to even recognize the Bond I grew up with? That was at least a part of my excitement, sitting there in the theater that night. Then, the lights went down. The opening was memorable. Parachuting in to Felix Leiter’s wedding? The awesome cherry-on-top to a noticeably Hollywood-influenced action scene. (It was like a damn episode of Miami Vice.) But this dark-haired, heavy-browed thug with piercing eyes? I wasn’t so sure about him. This was the summer of 1989. And my Bond was Timothy Dalton.
I never saw The Living Daylights before my dad took me to Licence to Kill, so this was the first new Bond for me that I hadn’t already seen on VHS. James Bond was a character he and I bonded over, like many fathers and sons. I had gone to the school of Connery; my dad’s favorite. I had graduated first in my class from Moore; even taken a semester of Lazenby, which, at the time, I didn’t think much of, little more than a mandatory requirement. Now, in my adult life, I appreciate Lazenby and Dalton for the great interpretations of Bond they brought to the screen, as well as the excellence of their entries. But, yeah, Dalton was a new “serious” Bond. And having mainly accepted Moore in all of his tongue-in-cheek charm, I wasn’t too sure about him. 133 minutes later, I had changed my mind. Licence to Kill was harsh, sweaty, violent, and lacking a lot of the sophistication of Roger Moore’s read on Bond. By all accounts, Dalton was tapping into how Ian Fleming’s writing painted the MI6 operative; a more conflicted, timeless representation of male gravitas. The best analogy is to think, how would you react if you grew up on Adam West’s Batman, then Hollywood plopped a deep, brooding Michael Keaton in your lap? (I joke, but the parallels between Batman and Bond on screen are many. *editors note: see #Bond_age_ essay on Octopussy*) Anyway, I was ready for the Dalton series. A series that never came.
Bear with me. I would not spend two paragraphs talking about my hesitant, then full-on love affair with Timothy Dalton if I did not have a point. Who would have guessed that, in 2006, we would be in the same boat?
The history of Bond, Dalton & Pierce Brosnan is a fascinating game of musical chairs. But, Brosnan is not to blame for what the series had become by 2002’s Die Another Day. It was a joke. Not the Old Man joke of A View to a Kill, but one of “what has this series become?” It was a sex pun, wrapped up in hacky plotting. Brosnan did his best with what he had. Arguably, the last of his two entries undid all the greatness of the first two. Serious? Brooding? None of them were really, but at least the first two were made by competent action directors. Goldeneye’s director, Martin Campbell, especially, knew how to make a Bond movie exciting again. Vying to keep the series a competitive spectacle, Bond’s writers and producers, however, lost their way. And, Bond fans were underwhelmed too.
It was advantageous, then, that Campbell could be wooed over to save the series again in 2006. Injecting new life into Casino Royale was a blond, blue-eyed, young Brit, somewhere between magazine cover model and serious stage actor. Daniel Craig was not the wrapper the public expected for Bond. He did not exude “dark” or “brooding” or even an exquisite level of charm. The one film the masses might have known him from, 2004’s Layer Cake, had Craig playing a smooth, but naïve drug dealer in the London Guy Ritchie reinvented and Matthew Vaughn vacationed in. Based on all evidence, what the hell were we getting?
Any fears audiences had might have been informed also by the landscape of action cinema in 2006. There was no way a straightforward, Cold War spy thriller was going to work in the 21st century, around 15 years after the break up of the U.S.S.R. Goldeneye was lucky enough to benefit from the residual unrest in Eastern Europe, but what would Bond’s world look like now? Who would be the bad guy? We couldn’t just have some maniacal bad guy trying to rule the world, blow it up, or hold it ransom. Bond’s antagonists were getting more comic with each passing entry anyway; I’m surprised Two-Face wasn’t in there. No, the point is, it had to be real. It had to mix Bourne’s grit with Bond’s strategic sophistication. It had to get down and dirty.
I didn’t know prior to seeing Casino Royale how much of a reboot it was going to be for the franchise. In retrospect, it makes sense; if you want to re-imagine the character, go back to the source. Considering that the only adaptation of Fleming’s original book was a flippant, almost proto-Austin Powers outing, the time had come to make CR respectable, to install it in the canonical universe, and not let it stay in the land of parody or slight influence in name only. What is noticeable to any fan of Timothy Dalton’s interpretation is that Craig is doing the same thing. From the writers’ perspective, to make a prequel of Bond is to return him to thuggishness; an unpolished diamond, an unsophisticated murder tool. Dalton was in the wrong place at the wrong time (ahead of it even). The yuppies and decadence of the 1980s didn’t need this Bond, they didn’t deserve this Bond. But, in a post-9/11 world, influenced by the globetrotting political intrigue of the Bourne series, Craig had free reign to make his 007 a violent, spontaneous anti-hero. Craig plays him less like “the man with a plan” and more like “the man affected by the plan.”
If viewers had any doubt about him, Daniel Craig solidified himself in that first black-and-white sequence of CR. The creation of the gun barrel sequence being incorporated into the narrative, and not just a signifying check off the Bond checklist, proved exhilarating. Fans want to let their imaginations run wild with their favorite characters’ pasts. What prequels almost always get wrong is how they devolve into gap-filling and forget about the excitement of surprise. I don’t want something I know already to be destroyed in my imagination by committing it to the screen, or worse, having two characters talk about it. I want to be surprised by Craig, and I was, in the moment he gets his double-O status and creates one of the most indelible, graphical visuals in all of cinema. At that point, I knew I was in safe hands.
Casino Royale is not a perfect movie. It’s overlong; it’s got one or two endings too many. For all of its grounding in reality, it still can’t help some of the series’ extraordinary flourishes. For one, its big bad, Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, cries blood. Ridiculous but satisfactorily explained. It holds the viewer’s hand during the card games; I actually laughed out loud in the theater when they cut to Giancarlo Giannini explaining to Eva Green (and the audience) the stakes, who had a better hand, and what Bond needed to win. And, the organization’s conspiracy is murky, especially in the last third of the film. A jump in logic about Giannini’s loyalty is confusing, even throwaway.
But, CR nails the beginning and the ending. Craig nails the attractive, pure sex of a dangerous agent. His comic bickering with Vesper, which transitions into psychoanalysis of each other’s hangups is actually a great example of how to do exposition effectively. The action scenes are well shot with Campbell’s direction. The dialogue is snappy, and several line deliveries are memorable (“Skewered”). The music is excellent, including an open title song from Chris Cornell (Best Male Vocalist, Greg Sahadachny’s Childhood 1994-2000). It also delivers on conventions: a new (old) drink & a new Bond girl, while giving Craig his own world to put a stamp on.
Casino Royale boils down to a showcase for a new Bond. Yes, we’re getting a return to Fleming’s novel, the origin point for a whole franchise. But, the story takes a backseat to Daniel Craig. It’s almost allowing us to view him in a cage before setting him free in the wild. We can see how he relates to M (holdover from Brosnan’s years and a major highlight, Judi Dench), see how he handles the action, see how he looks in a tux, see how he moves (like a goddamn panther on the prowl), see how he unveils the real bad guys, etc. There’s emotional complexity behind Craig’s eyes that we haven’t seen in the series in a long, long time. His journey from thug, to Vesper’s ball of clay to mold, to the hardened, focused, emotionally numb agent is a fertile landscape for virtuoso acting. And, boy oh boy, does Craig deliver.
Greg Sahadachny is a filmmaker and podcaster from Maryland. He works for an undisclosed international media company, so, in many ways, he’s just like James Bond…minus the guns, gadgets, charm and good-looking tailored clothes. He hosts The Debatable Podcast, available on iTunes and tumblr: http://debatablepodcast.
First Bond Movie: Dr. No
Favorite Bond: Daniel Craig (could be what’s recent is the wavelength I’m on, but damn if they haven’t gotten Bond right in my eyes now)
Favorite Bond Girl: Xenia Onatopp (danger orgasms!)
How I discovered #Bond_age_: From the grand twitter web of overlap and retweets