Rearview Mirror: “Casino Royale”

At 15, the 007 origin story holds up as the best Daniel Craig Bond movie, as well as one of the high points of mid-’00s action flicks.

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2021. I’m so happy you’re here.

It’s been a decade and a half since Daniel Craig first hit the screen as James Bond, the role he’s just departed. So, how does his first go-round as 007 hold up? In a word, just fine! In retrospect, Casino Royale is a fun action flick with stellar performances, best enjoyed with a dry martini and a smooth-brain-no-thoughts attitude.

Let’s back up. I was a tween when Casino Royale came out, but I was fairly familiar with Bond as a cultural institution. My boomer dad liked a lot of the Sean Connery movies, and we’d sometimes watch them together. I know I’d definitely seen Goldfinger, and while I didn’t at the time have the vocabulary to articulate what a character name like “Pussy Galore” meant (the nuances of backward-feminist camp are sometimes lost on children), I understood that this series was for adults, but that it wasn’t incredibly serious. 

The Austin Powerses did a pretty good job familiarizing me with the tropes of the genre—incompetent henchmen, ridiculous gadgets, girls in skimpy outfits, villains with One Weird Trait—and I think I even knew that there were novels, though I didn’t know anyone who’d read them. I knew “license to kill” was a thing, and I read enough celebrity news to know Casino Royale was the rare remake. There was already a Casino Royale Bond movie, but now, this was a new one. It would also be the first I’d see in theaters, having been too young for any of the Brosnan installments I saw advertised on bus stops and billboards. And it turned out to be an origin story. How convenient!

Recently, sitting down to revisit it for the first time in 15 years, I remembered thinking it was good, but more than that. I was surprised how many specific plot elements and details I could recall. It wasn’t a movie I’d thought about much, but I knew that there was a poker game, that the villain’s “tell” was a bleeding eye, that the tell was false, that the dastardly plot involved sabotaging an airplane to manipulate the stock market (essentially recreating the airline stock crash that followed 9/11), and I remembered Eva Green looking gorgeous in her eggplant gown, and Craig licking her fingers in the shower (that one I might have seen GIFed on Tumblr—it’s one of the better sexy moments in film history). 

I also vividly remembered Bond grabbing a glass and salt shaker to make himself throw up after ingesting poison, because ever since, I’ve wondered if that would work. Hopefully I’ll never have to find out. It’s a testament to the screenwriters how many of these details stuck in my mind. I watched the Mission Impossible movies during quarantine and couldn’t tell you half as many plot points from that series, or from the Bourne movies, which I also binged under lockdown. Why, then, was Casino Royale so fresh in my memory?

Sure, I could pick out moments where both the male and female gaze were employed. I could write about how it fetishizes guns but no more than the next action movie, how women are valuable until they’re disposable. But frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Two reasons, I think. Much like how we always remember the lyrics to our first favorite song or can still recite our childhood best friend’s phone number, early memories imprint deep in our lizard brains. Casino Royale was one of the first adult action movies I saw in theaters. It was essentially projected onto a blank slate in my mind, and I soaked it up like a sponge (pardon my mixed metaphors). I was just old enough to understand everything that was happening (it’s not a particularly complicated or subtle movie), but I still had to pay attention, I couldn’t let my mind wander. The other reason is that it’s just very skillfully done, with memorable characters, solid set pieces, and absolutely delicious performances. Each actor makes the most of every minute on screen, and the cinematography, after a brief black-and-white intro, rewards them with meaty close-ups and lingering moments. The fact that it all hinges on the sweet romance between Bond and Vesper Lynd probably doesn’t hurt, either. I’m not too proud to admit that I’m a girl who far prefers a love story to a shoot-out.

Revisiting it now, I felt that I got the most out of my viewing experience when I tried to recreate that somewhat childish sense of open-mindedness, when I turned off the critical part of my brain. Sure, I could pick out moments where both the male and female gaze were employed. I could write about how it fetishizes guns but no more than the next action movie, how women are valuable until they’re disposable, how the moments of winkiness (he invents his famous martini on the fly) work because Craig is so damn charming, the cultural implications of Bond calling his first love “the bitch” by the movie’s end, setting the stage for the womanizer we know he becomes. But frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

If a generation of men had their understanding of masculinity perverted by this franchise, it’s simply not my job to fix that. I am as much of a movie watcher as anyone else, and I took this movie at face value and I enjoyed it. The car went zoom real fast, and Bond? Bond wore a suit that was real sharp. There were more comedic elements than I’d remembered. Vesper and James are given the classic sitcom situation of pretending to be husband and wife before falling for each other for real, and even buy each other little outfits. In my version of this movie, they’d stay together, doing missions as a twosome, always bickering in and out of bed. But this is a boy movie for adults, so she betrays her country to save his life and martyrs herself tragically. Ah well, we can’t have everything we want.

I skipped Quantum of Solace but saw (and very much disliked) Skyfall. I didn’t bother with Spectre, but I might stream No Time To Die for funsies one of these nights. On the other hand, I might just put on my best slutty satin, pour myself a vodka, and watch Casino Royale again. I think I got all the details this time, but I confess I don’t know jack shit about poker. I’ll look for my deeper meanings there. Seems safer, and more fun. FL


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