After the debacle that was “Die Another Day” (and it really was), the cinematic fate of Ian Fleming’s spymaster was uncertain. Where do you go, after such a thing? Perhaps it would be better to put it rest, or scrap it all and start from scratch.
Fortunately, for us, they opted for the latter route – for the most part. And, that’s one of the things that niggles at me. They didn’t go far enough, in rebooting the character. They did make significant strides, that much is certain, in bringing the character back to his roots both film and literature-wise – and, as far as the character himself is concerned, they succeeded. But, the world around him is the problem. Bond is the closest he’s been to Fleming’s writing since Connery (or, some would argue, Dalton). He’s morose. And, he is a professional killer, with all of the pock-marks and emotional coldness that such a profession would require. Daniel Craig does a superb turn, here. But, the antagonist still owns a yacht, and a physical deformity (“Nothing serious.”). There are still gadgets – while they don’t play as big a role in the plot as they have in the past, they’re still there. Thankfully, however, Campbell does his best to bring a sense of immediacy and freshness to these tropes. Whether he’s succeeded or not I haven’t been able to decide, yet.
I’ve never really thought much of Campbell, as a director – he’s a journeyman, really. He’s certainly technically competent, and he can lay out an action sequence with a good deal more understanding of the essentials of geography and all of that kind of thing than more than a few contemporary directors. But, at the end of the day, there’s nothing particularly idiosyncratic about his work – both inside the Bond series and out – and, there’s always a general air that he’s part of a studio stable, much like Terrence Young, although I enjoy his films quite a bit, as well. That isn’t to say that the series should be auteur-driven, but the mark of an author on a work is never a bad thing.
“Casino Royale” is a book with very little action – it’s a taut pot-boiler of a thriller, but the tensest moments occur at the card table. It marks a strange divide between itself and the other installments in Fleming’s series, and the contrasts between itself and Live and Let Die kind of mark the masterfully orchestrated spy-fiction/two-fisted Sapper pulp fiction dichotomy that the series would always go back and forth on throughout its run. It’s much more internally driven, and Bond reacts more often than he acts. This film being part of the Eon franchise, that’s not the case here – the film is bookended by two grand set-pieces, and between them are three more. While for the most part these are aptly staged, for a film that’s trying as hard as it is to bring the character back to his human basics, they – and in particular a sequence upon a crane – can reach ridiculous extremes.
What is interesting is the (dis)use of the traditional Bond theme – Campbell uses small snippets of it, throughout the film. But, we never hear it in full until the last shot – as Bond stands over the crippled Mr. White, and offers that immortal line, “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” The character has come full circle, and the message (of the moment and the entire film, really) is clear – James Bond is back. Accept no imitations, and that includes Pierce Brosnan. Or, alternately – as the promotional ads put it – James really has become Bond.