When critics say that Daniel Craig is the best bond since Sean Connery and closest to Ian Fleming’s literary creation, are they reacting to minor changes in the Bond formula? After all, any Bond film made now has to take into account the MI series and the Bourne films, particularly the latter, which seem to have changed action movies forever? And isn’t it time anyone making a Bond movie was influenced by Quentin Tarantino? Or take into account the newfound love for dark movies among both critics and audiences? Now, unlike in the sixties, everyone loves grey; black and white is passé.
But the counter-argument is powerful. For 21 official films – Dr No was made in 1962 – and through five Bonds, the franchise remained, at least in its essentials, largely the same. Bond is suave, intelligent, handsome and lethal. Except in the case of Roger Moore, who made Bond silly instead of lethal. He was a delight in his own way, but he played himself instead of Bond. But in the early years of the franchise, it was Connery who enthralled audiences worldwide with his cool smile and smooth talking ways. He was Bond, in all his glory, and those who came after found it hard to replace him. That was the story for all actors who stepped into the Bond shoes.
For me growing up in the 90s, the Bond movies were campy and outdated. Having never witnessed the paranoia of the Cold War, Bond movies seemed to be like a Mediterranean cruise. And Bond always won. And you always knew it. Like the Bard says, the rub always lies in the how.
Golden Eye was the first Bond movie of my time. It reprises all the clichés, the out-of-the-world opening sequence, the two Bond girls, the amazing stunt sequences, the gadgets, the BMW, the globe-trotting, and the megalomaniac villain who is out to destroy the world. It smelled like euphoria. But every Bond movie made after that was a disappointment. I wasn’t sure if I had become big or the movies small. But it just wasn’t the same anymore.
It isn’t the same with Casino Royale too. Bond has been, perhaps, forever changed. First of all, he gets real. Then he gets vulnerable and falls in love. He gets beaten up, stabbed and tortured. He has scars on his face, and through the course of a night in a club, his shirt is repeatedly drenched in blood, some of which is his.
The changes begin right from the opening sequence. Instead of the gravity-defying stunt sequence, we see Bond making his first two killings and earning the 007 status. What could have been the opening sequence comes a little later as Bond chases a Black runner through the streets of Madagascar in what must be one of the best Bond chases ever. But this one is on foot.
Later in the movie, there is a car chase. The villains have the Bond girl, played by the dignified, virginal Eva Green. Bond is chasing them in his Aston Martin. Classic Bond scenario. The first Bond chase was in a boat in From Russia, With Love, I think. None of them has ended in an accident. So director Martin Campbell (Golden Eye, Zorro) end this chase in one.
He also does away with Money Penny, the adoring secretary to M, and Q, the gadget maker. The famous score doesn’t make an appearance in its entirety till the closing credits. “The name is Bond, James Bond,” is said again only at the end. Ironically, someone else says it before Bond in the movie.
Craig is outstanding in a couple of scenes. In one he is washing away his wounds in front of a hotel room mirror. In another, he almost dies in his favourite car of a cardiac arrest. He plays Bond as a spy instead of a superhero. This is the how-it-all-began story and so all that makes sense.
As the movie unfolded, I realised that Campbell had based the entire movie on the novel. In my teens, I had thought of that as a very boring novel. But that is believed to be Fleming’s best writing. The loyal adaptation works in some cases, and even when it should not work, it does. Like when Bond drinks poison. Everyone in the theatre knows Bond cannot die. But that scene is one of the best of the sort made since Connery beat to death a large spidery creature put in his bed in Dr No. (Wasn’t it?)
Another new thing is the torture sequence adapted from the novel. Bond is stripped bare and tortured in a way that makes Goldfinger look like a wuss. Bond also falls in love, for the last time, with the Eva Green character. He falls, falls hard and learns his lesson. Trust no one.
But again was it so hard to do this? It really wasn’t. But what cannot be explained is how hard it was to reinvent Bond. To make him real, vulnerable, and dark. To put fear, pain and loss in his eyes. That is what is different in this Bond movie. That is why you shouldn’t miss it.
It’s not about how good the movie is. It is about how good it opens up the series for the movies to come.