Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Casino Royale, 2006

Production Company: Eon Productions
Distributors: Columbia Pictures
Producers: Michael Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis
Director: Martin Campbell
Cinematographer: Phil Meheux
Editors: Stuart Baird
Music: David Arnold
Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre), Judi Dench (M), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter), Giancarlo Giannini (Rene Mathis), Caterina Murino (Solange), Simon Abkarian (Alex Dimitrios), Isaach De Bankole (Steven Obanno), Jesper Christensen (Mr White)
Running Time: 144 mins.
Classification: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity.
Box Office: Domestic $167.4m / Worldwide $599m
Tagline: Daniel Craig is James Bond 007.
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Plot Britain, the present. After earning his ’00’ status and licence to kill in an ugly rest-room assassination, James Bond is directed by MI6 to follow the activities of a villain named Le Chiffre in Madagascar, Miami and the Bahamas. Having been foiled in his attempt to make millions on the stock markets following a faux-terrorist attack on a prototype airliner in Miami, Le Chiffre is tracked to a casino in Montenegro, where Bond is instructed to take him out financially. During a game of poker, monitored by fellow British agent Vesper Lynd, CIA agent Felix Leiter and local M16 contact Mathis, Bond drinks a poisoned martini and is only saved by an advanced medical kit in his Aston Martin and the timely assistance of Lynd. Bond wins the game but his position has been compromised by Mathis, who turns out to be a double agent, and the kidnapping of Lynd, which results in a short car chase and Bond being tortured while tied naked to a chair. Recovering near Lake Como and then Venice, Bond discovers that Lynd, with whom he has fallen in love, has been blackmailed to deliver the money he won in the poker game to Le Chiffre. A showdown takes place in a Venetian palazzo. Lynd drowns herself. The film closes with Bond tracking down über-villain Mr White, shooting him outside his lakeside villa (adapted from Clarke).

Film note The overarching aim behind the Bond franchise reboot Casino Royale, was to adapt Bond to a new, post-9/11 world. This involved removing or editing many of the formulaic aspects of previous adventures and a greater fidelity to the source material; something the Bond films had been unconcerned with since the 1960s. That said, in Licence to Kill (1989), Timothy Dalton played the character in a manner he believed faithful to Ian Fleming’s creation and was uncomfortable with the one-liners that had become a mainstay of the franchise. This portrayal was unpopular however, resulting in the lowest grossing Bond film to date (adjusted for inflation). Perhaps the time was simply not right. Following 9/11, many Hollywood films took a grim and serious turn, arguably reflecting a similar ambiance in the wider culture. Among these, several pop culture icons were reimagined as darker characters, in films such as Batman Begins (2005) and Sherlock Holmes (2009). Against this backdrop, the US seemed ready for a more deliberate, muscular and serious Bond. To facilitate this new seriousness, Casino Royale lost many of the more light-hearted features of the series, such as the characters Q and Moneypenny, and until the final scene, the theme music. Features that remained in the reboot, such as the Bond girl formula, were brought in line with this new approach.

Origins and influences The James Bond franchise has always had fairly little to say about the times in which they were made, besides perpetuating the status quo. Bond remains the masculine ideal, the Bond girls are the feminine ideal, and the villain usually reflects the enemies of Britain and the US at the time of any given production. Their heavily formulaic nature and emphasis on entertainment leaves little room for engagement with the contradictions of contemporary society. All this changes in Casino Royal. Of course the focus is still on audience entertainment and the enduring (yet successful) formulaic elements are still present but they are manipulated to reflect the modern world that Bond inhabits. Influence for these changes came from two cycles of Hollywood cinema that converged and created the environment for the film to be made.

From 2003 onward, there were reports of instances of the British and the US governments using enhanced interrogation techniques in the so-called War on Terror. This created an environment that brought about a spy cycle in Hollywood cinema, a trend best exemplified by Salt (2010) and the Bourne film series (1988-ongoing), which are characterised by the distrust of spy agencies, corrupt capitalists, government secrets and themes of torture and paranoia. Another contemporaneous cycle was preoccupied with the origins of various popular culture icons. This cycle is closely linked with a separate superhero cycle that has been very apparent in Hollywood cinema throughout the twenty first century to date. The origins of a number of Marvel comic book superheroes have formed the basis for Spiderman (2002), Hulk (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Amazing Spiderman (2012). DC Comics caught onto the trend with Catwoman (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Green Lantern (2011) and Man of Steel (2013). These films all take great interest in the origins of their protagonists: Spiderman’s origin story has been told twice in a decade, and films with planned sequels have been discarded in order to refocus on the character’s origin, as with Superman Returns (2006) and Fantastic Four (2015). Other popular culture icons to receive similar treatment have been the Alien franchise with Prometheus (2012) and the Planet of the Apes franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Casino Royale slots comfortably into this trend, with one of its taglines exploiting this contemporary fascination with the origin story: “Everyone has a past. Every legend has a beginning. On November 17th, discover how James… became Bond”. This cycle is distinctive for the new seriousness brought to these interpretations. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US hardened and a fragile consensus was established that believed torture a necessity in the War on Terror. As a response, many popular culture icons were redrawn as anti-heroes willing to use extreme violence and, at times, torture. Bond is no exception with his ruthless and unrelenting attitude, and Casino Royale features the most realistically violent scenes of any film in the franchise.

This turn of world events and prevailing gloom echoes the environment that spawned the fabled Hollywood cycle of films noirs. In the 1940s, a darkening worldview was reflected in certain crime films made during World War II. Mass unemployment and identity crises faced soldiers returning from World War II, finding women occupying far more employment than during the pre-war period. These events brought about a famous cycle of hard-bitten crime films in which femme fatales manipulated men and, against traditional Hollywood conventions, refused to offer the reassurance of happy endings. After 9/11, the US returned to a prevailing pessimism and Hollywood followed suit once again. It is apparent that Casino Royale is heavily influenced by films noirs, particularly in the opening sequence where the portrayal of Vesper follows the noir stereotype of the femme fatale. She manipulates Bond and eventually leaves him emotionally broken, while having a sultry appearance and husky voice reminiscent of Lauren Bacall who played many such parts in the 1940s.

The Bond reboot was handled by someone uniquely qualified for the task, director Martin Campbell. Campbell had rebooted Bond before with Goldeneye (1995), which saw Pierce Brosnan taking on the mantle of the famous secret agent six years after Licence to Kill which at $285.1m profit is the lowest grossing Bond film yet. Campbell brought profits up to a far more successful $529.5m (both adjusted for inflation), almost double that of the preceding film. Asked once again to bring Bond up to date, Campbell went about the task as he had the first time around, adding a contemporary dimension and bringing the film into oblique but undeniable contact with current affairs and political events. Christopher Lindner notes that “A few years earlier, when Pierce Brosnan took over as Bond, a publicity release for GoldenEye (1995) had already raised the question of whether the series could maintain its appeal at a time when ‘the world has changed’ […] It’s commercial success suggests that audiences were convinced, and the next films – Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999) – proved equally popular” (249). Likewise, Casino Royale bested its predecessor, Die Another Day (2002), grossing $126.1m more than the latter (both adjusted for inflation). Campbell had repeated his feat of responding to contemporary trends and updating Bond.

Reshaping the Bond girl The depth to female characters in the Bond series has deepened gradually as the franchise has aged, not because the series is a great innovator in its portrayal of women but because Bond has always adapted to the status quo. Bond has always been and will likely remain a presentation of the masculine ideal, and the so-called Bond girls follow suit by representing the feminine ideal. However, the perception of the feminine ideal has altered considerably since Dr No. As the decades passed, the Bond girls became less submissive and more athletic, proficient in combat and professional, with many shown to have careers in the public sector.

Both of Campbell’s Bond reboots can be credited with a radical reshaping of the portrayal of women in the franchise. The misogyny apparent in aspects of the series was significantly toned down in Goldeneye – the film introduced Judi Dench as M, head of MI6, a role previously only played by men. The film also took the opportunity to have Dench articulate that her character and the public had started to lose interest in Bond, calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war”. Additionally, in the past the character Moneypenny was relegated to simpering for Bond’s affection, but clearly this was finally deemed to not be socially acceptable, and the later incarnations of the character see her able to handle Bond more appropriately. She reprimands his flirtations, referencing how culture has evolved regarding gender equality: “you know this sort of behaviour could qualify as sexual harassment”, and assumes a more masculine role, breaking traditions by allowing him to walk ahead of her through the door: “no, I insist, you first”. Casino Royale develops the maturing portrayal of women from Campbell’s prior effort, aligning with the new seriousness. M is given a larger role in the plot and there was seen to be no need for a flirtatious secretary working at MI6 at all, although the character would return, albeit drastically altered, in Skyfall (2012).

Roald Dahl spoke in interview about being given specific guidelines determining Bond’s romances when writing You Only Live Twice (1967). There were to be three women Bond was to seduce: the first an ally, the second a henchwoman or mistress of the villain (both of whom would be killed), and the third, the main Bond girl (whom he would be romantically involved with when the credits rolled). This is the essence of the Bond girl formula. The first Bond girl has been cut from many more recent Bond films, thus her absence is not striking. Nevertheless, Casino Royale is the Bond film perhaps most aware of the formula, for it is among that rare few in the franchise to actively play on these conventions. The mistress of Le Chiffre’s (Mads Mikkelsen) henchman Alex Dimitrios (Simon Dimitrios), Solange (Caterina Mulino), having been seduced by Bond, is inevitably killed. This time the tradition is subverted. Rather than being killed in an action sequence or with a comic line, Solange is tortured and killed by Le Chiffre, leading to a grim reflection on this aspect of the formula. A close up of the body’s face with Bond in the background makes the scene uncomfortable, with the shot composition leaving no doubt that we are to judge Bond for the role he played in her death. While it is apparent that Bond has not been troubled by the death of women pertaining to the formula in previous films, this is perhaps the first time Bond has seemed so callous. But it is the main Bond girl, Vesper (Eva Green), who revises the Bond formula the most. As this is a prequel, and consequently Vesper technically the first main Bond girl, her “relationship with Bond in this film defines Bond’s relationships with women in the future” (Bouzereau 163). This explains Bond’s uncharacteristic behaviour of falling in love, something to happen in only one other film in the franchise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). As in that earlier film, Bond’s love has to die to make room for the Bond girls of future instalments, but it is testament to the greater seriousness of the reboot that his attitude to women is explained rather than assumed.

Casino Royale empowers women even more than Goldeneye, indeed more than any previous Bond film, however it achieves this in a different manner to Campbell’s previous work with the franchise. Women are empowered in Casino Royale through Bond’s masculinity being undermined. The most striking example is the torture scene, in which Le Chiffre literally attacks Bond’s manhood, during which he comments: “if you do not yield soon enough, there will be little left to identify you as a man”. Bond is also undermined through role reversal, finding himself objectified by the Bond girl. At their first meeting Vesper comments: “So as charming as you are Mr Bond, I’ll be keeping my eye on our Government’s money and off your perfectly formed arse”. This is a step forward from Goldeneye’s Moneypenny being just able to handle Bond, to female characters turning the camera lens around and making him the object of desire (or at least more so than in previous instalments). A scene in which Bond and Vesper lie together on a beach sees him shirtless and her clothed, something that would likely have been the other way around in a pre-reboot Bond film. The strongest indicator of this role reversal can be found in an earlier seaside sequence in which Bond emerges from the waves, which is highly reminiscent of the character Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the archetypal Bond girl’s entrance in the first Bond film, Dr No. However, Toby Miller claims: “From the first, Connery was the object of the gaze, posing in 1966 besuited for GQ and bare-cleavaged for Life” (238). With narrative choices that bestow more power and control upon the Bond girls – Vesper’s control of the money, having the choice as to whether Bond should be allowed to buy back into the poker tournament – one can observe dramatic shifting paradigms, allowing the Bond girls to be at his level. Bond himself is also given a more mature, modern character. While he still embodies the masculine ideal, this is an image that nowadays allows men to be sensitive; no previous Bond could stare intently into the eyes of that film’s Bond girl and say: “I have no armour left, you’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me… whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours”. While the changes to these archetypes are drastic, there is still clear evidence that Bond is the alpha male in any given situation, and a complete reversal, equalisation or subversion of gender roles is still a long way off.

Brave new world The Bond franchise has often cast the contemporary enemies of Britain and the US as villains, and for a long time, the Cold War provided mainly Communist adversaries for Bond. At the time of the production of Casino Royale, Britain and the US were at war against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than a whole nation or political ideology. The world is also more politically sensitive now, and Hollywood rarely portrays any nation as villainous. One exception, however, was with Red Dawn (2012) in which originally China was to invade America, but was replaced with North Korea as the invading force before release. While this does show Hollywood portraying a nation negatively, it is towards an introverted country with few allies and a reputation for mistreating its citizens; more importantly it reveals Hollywood’s reluctance to insult a major country. With much of Hollywood’s revenue coming from overseas, this is not surprising – Casino Royale grossed over two thirds of its income from abroad.

The two Bond films since the reboot, Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall, also shy away from using a nation as an enemy, preferring individual businessmen or terrorists. This political sensitivity presents a problem for Casino Royale, as it clearly intends to comment on international politics in light of the 9/11 attacks, but cannot do so in a way that offends a nation significantly enough to damage ticket sales or generate controversy. This is apparent in an early sequence of the film, which finds Bond chasing an explosives expert on foot through a city in the fictional country of Nambutu. The country was most likely invented to avoid offending any nation, as it is implied that Nambutu harbours terrorists in ways similar to, say, Afghanistan or Pakistan. The action sequence itself has much to say about the situation: the explosives expert weaves through the environment, and it feels like a home field advantage in his favour, although he occasionally injures or kills a civilian. On the other hand, Bond smashes through the terrain and causes great destruction while ultimately fighting to protect the city. This is perhaps best expressed visually when, approaching a wall, the bomb maker leaps and slides through a gap, whereas Bond charges through the obstacle, destroying it. During the shootout at the Nambutu embassy, Bond only injures the soldiers, shooting pipes filled with gas to blind them or kicking them into each other, although, like the explosives expert, the army are shown to kill and injure several civilians. Even when making his escape by causing an explosion, the soldiers are all seen to rise, bloody but living, from the wreckage, although realising he cannot take him alive, Bond does finally kill the explosives expert. Looking through the man’s backpack, Bond finds a bomb which indicates that Bond was moral, justified and suitably calibrated in his actions. Bond’s work goes unrecognised and he is not praised as a hero, accentuating Casino Royale’s image as a Bond film of greater seriousness, and reflecting the modern world.

During the Cold War, when many feared that mutually assured destruction was the only safeguard against nuclear attack, Bond villains like the criminal organisation SPECTRE (who are revealed to be the organisation behind Le Chiffre in the following film in the series, Quantum of Solace) would hold the world to ransom or threaten to destroy it. During the 1980s when it was feared rampant consumerism was damaging the west; the villain would be an eccentric millionaire, if not the USSR. Post-reboot there is an evident change as SPECTRE finances terrorism rather than attempts world domination. This reflects the perceived threats to Britain and the US today, relating to contemporary threats such as terrorists and their financiers rather than nuclear annihilation.

In Casino Royale, the villain is a banker, reflecting growing concerns about the industry in the period before the economic recession and financial collapse. Bond is the new, contemporary masculine ideal, a strong anti-hero, but sensitive beneath his exterior rather than uncaring, and the Bond girl, with her new found centrality to the franchise, both figuratively and literally shocks his heart back to life.


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Written by Robert Tomas Gwynn (2014); edited by Charlotte Spencer (2015), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2014 Robert Tomas Gwynn/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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