Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Casino Royale’

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Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published every Wednesday and Friday, in which we plan on reviewing one movie a day. That makes things easier for us procrastinators! We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!

Casino Royale” (Released in 2006; watched by us on Sept. 14, 2020)

A spy film by Martin Campbell. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

This marathon has done me well for multiple reasons, dear reader. This is the life!

I get to hang out with my good friend Nitish (and my excellent editors), I get to have my ego occasionally inflated by people complimenting us, and I am given an actual practical excuse to procrastinate on my schoolwork. Yes, I absolutely have to use the Netflix now mom, the exam can wait.   

Though, perhaps the greatest thing about maintaining this column is that I am given the incentive to finally sit down and watch a bunch of movies that I, a reasonably well-adjusted American media consumer, should have seen a long time ago. Granted, there is still a long way to go before I can be fully indoctrinated into civilized film snobbery — I still need to see “Ghostbusters” one day — but I’ve made progress! Today, I saw my first James Bond movie. Congratulate me.

The 2006 version of “Casino Royale” follows James Bond (Agent 007) at the beginning of his spy career. He works to thwart the plans of Le Chiffre, a wealthy gambler who uses his massive earnings to fund terrorist organizations. The plan is to bankrupt the villain in a game of high-stakes poker, instead of just… shooting him. I assume there is a reason for that which I probably missed. But what follows is an intense undercover mission as Bond works — and eventually falls in love — with the femme fatale, Vesper Lynd. 

I have read somewhere (on Wikipedia) that “Casino Royale” was meant to depict Bond at his most inexperienced and vulnerable. In some respects, this does make sense. Numerous times throughout the story we see Bond’s cockiness get the better of him, but more interestingly, we see him lower his hardened persona more often, especially to Vesper. Naturally, this leads to tragedy.

The pressures of being a secret agent — and the responsibilities and stress that can put on somebody — appear to be a major theme throughout this particular story. I understood fully what pushed Bond to do a franchise unthinkable and actually resign from the secret service. And, sadly, I also understood the circumstances that pushed him back into that sort of life. One does not simply walk away from a life of espionage and murder. His license to kill appears to be as much a shackle as it is a freedom. I was surprised to find this element of tragedy in the iconic James Bond character, especially when a full lifetime’s worth of media has primed me to think of him as an infallible, suave womanizer with a penchant for snapping necks. It leads into the tightrope of power and vulnerability that has initially attracted me to the Doctor from “Doctor Who” or Sherlock Holmes from his original novels. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. 

“Casino Royale” was the most interesting to me when it explored the human weaknesses of its iconic character. But still, this is something I would like to have seen more of. 

Despite the movie clearly taking place at the beginning of James Bond’s on-screen journey, I found that easy to forget at points. He is just so competent, so sure of himself and so jaded for the majority of the runtime that it feels as though Bond has been around forever. On a meta-level, sure, that makes sense — Bond has been around practically forever for the moviegoer, there is a whole franchise that precedes him. But in the context of the story I felt we could have done more with that. 

I understand the general appeal of the character is that he is cool, collected and mysterious. I do not mean to necessarily undermine that. But still, is there not some compromise that could be met? I think if we focused more on the third act of “Casino Royale,” in which James Bond is retired, and maybe a little less on the first act (which mostly consists of Bond interrogating and chasing people who are not relevant for the rest of the story) then there would be more opportunity to see how the past looms over Bond, and how he might realistically struggle with adapting back to civilian life. 

Meh. These are just thoughts that I had. Overall, I did enjoy “Casino Royale” quite a bit and I am interested in seeing more. And do let me know, dear reader, if there are other movies that touch on my questions about the character in more detail — I am very curious! 

Nitish:

For most of the character’s storied history, James Bond was a bit of a joke. The movies were these enjoyable romps with plenty of liquor, high-octane action and casual objectification of women. The movies were fine, I suppose, but definitely not — what’s the word? — good. The liquor was ever-present, the action was this weird meld of cool set pieces and stunts so implausible that they were functionally slapstick humor and the women were reduced to nothing more than conquests for the ever-cool British spy. I mean seriously: The Wikipedia article on James Bond’s love interests is called “Bond girls,” and it includes such entries as Bond’s flame from Goldfinger named (and this is the ACTUAL name that they used in a real film!) “Pussy Galore.” So when the new millennium started, “James Bond” was in a sort of precarious position: If it didn’t adapt, I suspect that it would have faded into obscurity. The old model was just too campy, too sexist and too bad to maintain the mystique and allure of one of Britain’s most important pop culture exports. Moreover, Bond had a new competitor from across the pond for pop culture’s preeminent spy: Jason Bourne. The two Bourne movies that had been released by 2006, “The Bourne Identity” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” were well-done action films that didn’t have the same baggage that Bond films had to deal with. So James Bond was in fatal trouble, and there was no exploding watch to get him out of it. 

And then, Eon Productions decided to reboot the franchise with a new star, Daniel Craig. Gone were the flamboyant excesses of the 20th century; enter a gritty new version of Bond, flavored by his competitors like Bourne and the social milieu of the Global War on Terror. I don’t want to be coy, so I’ll just out and say it: It’s a much better version of Bond. The action is more grounded, but it still has flair. The plots are less ridiculous. Bond’s love interests are more than just love interests. 

I’ll start with the part that I found the coolest: the action. The chase right after the opening credits is likely the greatest foot chase in cinematic history, featuring Sebastien Foucan, one of the founders of freerunning. Bond and Mollaka, the bomb-maker who Foucan plays, turn a construction site into an incredibly high stakes game of tag, turning I-beams into jungle gyms, cranes hundreds of feet in the air into trampolines. The craziest stunt in this sequence is probably one of the craziest stunts ever put to film: A jump from a crane 140 feet in the air to another crane 120 feet in the air. The fact that the first Bond movie of the reboot started off with a foot chase is no accident: This new Bond is more pedestrian than previous iterations of the character, more physical. This is a world away from the ridiculous surfing scene from “Casino Royale”’s predecessor, “Die Another Day.” And it’s so much better. “Casino Royale” never quite manages to catch back up to its audacious opener in terms of thrills, but there are a few more well thought out set-pieces and fights that will keep your attention through the runtime. 

The villain Le Chiffre, played perfectly by the horrendously underrated Mads Mikkelsen, is again, far more realistic than his predecessors. Whereas previous Bond films involved super-lasers and nuclear missiles and all that nonsense, Le Chiffre’s villainous plot is to short stocks. I’m serious. To be perfectly honest, the plot is more of an excuse for Campbell to film some cool poker scenes and get his actors to chew up some great dialogue, but it still works pretty well. 

Lastly, the character work in this movie, shockingly, is pretty good. Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is an interesting figure, one who actually pushes Bond to a place of… emotional vulnerability? If you’ve watched a Bond film before “Casino Royale,” you might read that sentence and think that it’s a sign of the apocalypse. But it sort of works here! And while this movie probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, Vesper still is one of the best realized of Bond’s numerous love interests. And Daniel Craig plays off of Green’s strengths well, giving an emotional underbelly to the character that was sorely needed. 

So yeah! “Casino Royale” is an actually good James Bond movie, and it kicked off a new era of other actually good Bond movies. Or, well, sort of, but that’s a story for another time. I’d recommend you watch it, but I would still recommend one of the last three “Mission: Impossible” movies as superior popcorn entertainment. 

This article has been updated to reflect that Pussy Galore is James Bond’s love interest from the Goldfinger, not GoldenEye. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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