Monday, December 1, 2008

Casino Royale -- trust shaken, not stirred

Director: Martin Campbell, 2006.

What Batman Begins did for the Batman franchise, Casino Royale does for James Bond. This is a significant reboot and a terrific action movie to boot. Certainly one of the best in the Bond series, if not the best it is at least the longest.

Casino Royale is the first film with the new Bond, Daniel Craig. And a new James Bond this is, as evident from the opening prologue. Shot in grainy monochrome, it shows how Bond earned his "00" status, a status that requires two kills. Bond calmly waits for a double agent. When he confronts him, we see in flashback how Bond makes his first kill -- a violent and bloody fist-fight, ending in a drowning . . . or almoist. If the first kill was not easy, the second, a bullet to the head, was quite the opposite. Sin becomes simple when practiced.

From this prologue, Casino Royale moves to the most exciting opening action sequence in Bond history. It's Madagascar. Bond gets in a foot chase with a bad guy. Entering an under-construction building, both climb to the arm of the crane hundreds of feet up. And then leap to another crane! Unbelievable, yes . . . but it's James Bond so anything is possible. In this sequence Parkour is showcased, the free-running athletic sport. (For more on this, see the French movie District B-13, which starred one of the creators of this exciting sport.)

The plot for Casino Royale soon enough becomes clear. The main villain, Le Chiffre (Dane Mads Mikkelsen, previously seen as the pastor in Adam's Apples) loses a ton of money in a scam gone bad. But this is not his money. He is the financier to global terrorists. It is their money. They will not be happy if it is gone for good. So, he devises a high-stakes game of poker at Casino Royale in Montenegro, Czechoslovakia. The buy-in is $10M, and there are only ten seats. Since MI5 and the CIA want Le Chiffre, both buy-in. Of course, for the Brits, Bond is the man. But since it is his first mission as 007, and it is a lot of money, M (Judi Dench) sends an accountant with him to watch over him and the money. This accountant, however, is no fuddy duddy. She is Vesper Lynd (the French Eva Green putting on an Oxford accent), a beauty with brains.

While the poker itself is as dry as Bond's famous martini (named Vesper here, it must of course be shaken not stirred), the action more than makes up for this. Gone is Q; gone are the gadgets. In their place are technology and technicians at HQ. But back are the classic set-pieces in exotic locations, including the Bahamas, Venice, Miami and London. This is what we want in a Bond film. Few friends, many enemies, fast cars (even a classic Aston Martin), fist fights, it is an exciting entry for Craig.

Daniel Craig makes a terrific James Bond. Gone is the campy Bond of the Roger Moore era. The harder Pierce Brosnan-Bond is a segue to this 007. Here, Bond is tough as nails. He is a hairs-breadth away from being on the wrong side. Violent and brutal, the Craig-Bond shows that killing is dirty work. There is blood on the bodies, and there is blood on him. He cannot kill and walk away, clean and pristine. He needs to clean up, his hands, face and clothing. Gone, too, is the suave debonair Bond of the Sean Connery days. Where Connery had the twinkle in his eye and the line on his lips, Craig's Bond has the same quick line but the twinkle is replaced by a cold killer's glance from those "oh so blue" eyes. Handsome, yes. A ladies' man, perhaps. A man's Bond, certainly.

This is the James Bond that men come to watch, to dream of being. Living vicariously through his exploits, this is a hero who makes you squirm in your seat. And though he has the good looks of a Bond, he focuses on the job. There is little sex here. There are only two Bond babes. Even as Bond rolls on the floor with the first, Solange, he leaves her when he learns that what he wants is in Miami. Duty over delight.

The second babe is Vesper. With her it is different. She warms his cold heart and wins it. When she sees him kill two men with his hands, up close and personal, she goes into shock. Bond finds her sitting in a cold shower fully clothed. Uncharacteristically, he sits with her, sympathizing and comforting.

Bond's biggest issue is his trust. He trusts few people. He loves no one. He has an armor around his heart that would protect Fort Knox. He lets no one in. That is, until he falls for Vesper. He resigns and goes with her to Venice to plan a new life. But trust is a fragile thing, easily shaken. And once broken, difficult to rebuild. The finale in Venice is top-notch, Bond at its best.

Ethically, Bond stands for everything that Jesus speaks against. He is, in some sense, a Hollywood anti-type of Christ. Where Jesus says turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), Bond turns his other fist . . . into his enemy's cheek. Where Jesus says love your enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44), Bond hates his enemies and "prays" that he can destroy them. And where Jesus tells us to go the extra mile (Matt. 5:41), Bond does . . . but to stalk and kill not to serve .

Even the passion of Jesus is portrayed in some regard in Bond. Jesus, naked and vulnerable, was flogged mercilessly by the Roman soldiers (Matt. 27:26); a naked Bond is tortured with a whip (of sorts) by Le Chiffre. Whereas Jesus was silent before his tormentors (Isa. 53:7), Bond quips, even threatens, as he suffers. And as Jesus died and rose again, Bond flat-lines and is figuratively raised from the dead. Jesus was resurrected by the Father, his eternal love; Bond is raised by Vesper, his "eternal love."

While Casino Royale may leave us dreaming of living the life of James Bond, even if vicariously, perhaps we should reflect on his anti-type, Jesus Christ. He has already lived for us, so we in truth can live out his life, by allowing His Spirit to live in and through us. All that's missing is the line, "The name's Christ, Jesus Christ." Bye bye Bond, hello Jesus.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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