Casino Royale, 2006
Casino Royale sets itself up on a strong foundation, with some genuine cinema in evidence. A pre-credits showdown in an office frames James Bond so far deep and left that he seems to have stolen into the frame the same way he did the bad guy’s office. The first big chase whisks the action forward after the obligatorily elaborate credits sequence. Never mind that Bond’s outfit reads more mall chic than it does typical Bondian macho-suave. It’s more important that right away the filmmaking reminds us that the rules of the game reject laws of physical possibility in favor of kinetic excitement. High-speed climbing and wall-to-wall base-jumping had it looking like the trailer for Spiderman 3 had spread its web into the feature presentation.
The visual language that allows for such abandon is a straightforward one, too self-aware to register as cliché, oftentimes strengthening the vibrato of the action with pristine informational clarity so that no viewer gets lost in the chase. If the heady hallucinations of Miami Vice evoked a French symbolist imagining gunfights, Casino Royale is the one-to-one street verbiage of hip-hop poets. Therefore, cases and cases of cash equal Big Baddie Business, war-torn country equals sinister dealings with guerillas, poker equals high stakes, and mongoose versus snake equals … well, no need for an excuse to have something as fun as mongoose versus snake in your movie. The simplicity provides readymade maneuverability, but can also get a little troubling, as an embassy quickly equals that pesky obstacle to justice known as international diplomacy, and the showdown therein possesses a discomfiting similarity to a Tarzan-like dynamic of Muscle-Bound Whitey versus Big Black Africans.
The point is that things get moving quickly. (And they stay in motion: Bond’s first encounter with Eva Green’s stock Bond Girl is shot on a train, the landscape rushing by as Craig and Green do their best to parlay some flirt-by-numbers dialogue into repartee.) The rush job picks up easy momentum because it gets going before any bland exposition has gotten in the way. The direct simplicity of the visual language, the lack of concern about too much plot, the general feel and swoop of the energetic bits of Casino Royale result from an understanding between audience and film in Bond’s house, and that is If that guy’s Bond, and Bond’s after that guy, Bond’s gotta get that guy. Okay, go. In other words, there are rules. Casino Royale earns its audience’s engagement, even though it probably doesn’t have to.
The contract between Bond movies and their audience is one that’s proven reliable. Besides strict application of complicated statistical analysis assuring the box office accountability of any Bond boy entering the fray anew, Bonds are of good stock, built on the solid foundation of a fiscally formidable franchise and the built-in publicity of guaranteed men’s magazine covers. James Bond takes all the risks; the movies about him avoid anything chancy. (Any bending of the rules is only in above-the-table fun – when Daniel Craig claims not to give a shit if his martini is shaken or stirred, his tongue is lodged so firmly in his cheek he can barely spit out the line.) This is all contingent upon one stipulation. The responsibility of Casino Royale is to be thrilling. Rapid tracking shots of pursuer and pursued racing up an unlikely incline get the job done, as do two swirling helicopter shots of resulting fisticuffs at the summit of the incline.
That said, Casino Royale takes a gamble, and it’s not Craig. After everything’s good and gotten going, we go to Montenegro and the ratcheting of the action goes south. For the first face-off with Villain Numero Uno, cardplay will replace gunplay as Bond takes on the Big Bad Guy, the bigwig who “serves as private banker” to the terrorists of the world, in an extended game of poker. Marathon poker game as centerpiece for freewheeling action movie? Deal me in. This inversion of logic and expectations might make for some provocative proceedings. Adding to the intrigue, there’s Jeffrey Wright, the most perplexing actor in America, lurking at the edge of the poker table the way he did so many of the compositions of Ali.
Suddenly, Casino Royale is redirecting its tracking-shot canvassing, head crunching, and self-propelling plot rapidity to a tabletop, focusing on tics of behavior (“tells,” unintentional betrayals of nervousness), card strategy, and wardrobe decisions. It’s not exactly structuralism among the destruction, but it’s an unbalancing act of reverse kaleidoscoping that rearranges the aesthetic of the action. If the pursuit went perverse, we might get to watch the action glide into real time as hands of cards transpired without edits. Despite the fact that things will be frayed at the edges by cute attempts at comic squabbling between Bond and his lady, would it be too much to ask that Casino Royale go formalist?
Yes. The action is chopped up rather than reveled in, excising most of the small stuff that might make watching poker an observational exercise in the way people play each other, which would be a nice cinematic corollary to Bond’s citation of the gambling adage about playing the man across you, not the cards in your hand. Most egregious is the superfluous play-by-play proffered by Giancarlo Giannini, explaining almost every card toss to Eva Green as an excuse to keep the audience in the know. This game narration is an unforgivable misstep in audience underestimation given the popularity of internet poker, celebrity poker, and an ESPN channel seemingly devoted to nothing but poker. The shots of Giannini explaining things to Green are in simplistic two-shot with no background, I’d bet because they were filmed after principal filming as a safeguard against studio worries about the clarity of the card game dealings.
Here Casino Royale loses grip on the advantages of its direct visual language. A bunch of chips can equal big risk and an ace can equal victory, but everything’s diffused by over-explanation (and, as usual, Wright is wasted in a minor role). Once the movie exits the casino, the clearcut cinematic parlance of the direction goes from direct to deflated. A torture scene takes place in a basement of four anonymous walls, a video game setting. Even the stuff that’s not computer-generated starts to look like it is. The possible dynamism of the torture scene should come from the unusual fact that we’re watching an iconic figure sitting naked in a bottomed-out chair, stripped of ego as well as clothing. But the principle that the scene organizes itself around is based on an assumption about the audience, rather than the simple agreement about action that structured the earlier scenes. Casino Royale decides that rather than give Bond a dressing down, it will champion his machismo. Much the same way it flirts with something structural in the poker centerpiece but shies away in time to be another bland Bond, it’s got enough going for it in the torture basement to be subversive, but cops out in favor of the conventional egoism earlier Bond movies were often parodying. By the time the scene has completely lost itself, and Craig is telling a joke to the villain about his nuts, it’s clear that Casino Royale will not recover from its miscalculations at the poker table. Maybe it’s time to deal Bond out.
Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Directed by Martin Campbell