In a two part tale of money, love and vengeance, the overriding theme is trust
To this day, I think it's kind of telling that one of the clearest memories I have of watching Casino Royale in the cinema is seeing the stunning visage of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd dominate the big screen as she rises Daniel Craig's James Bond from his slumbers. Beautifully framed, it captures another kind of awakening, the beginning of Bond's shot at redemption; an opening into what he and we believe will be a comforting new world. We are as enraptured by Vesper's features as he is, making the film's eventual denouement that much harder to take, and giving Craig's first two Bondian ventures an emotional core that much of the famous series (with the exception of On Her Majesty's Secret Service) has so obviously lacked.
But the core of Casino Royale runs deeper than mere emotionalism. To these eyes, the look on Bond's face when he fails to revive Vesper near movie's end is emblematic of the entire picture. Since earning his legendary "00"-status, Bond has lived a dangerous and at times extremely painful lifestyle, but has nonetheless thrived on its many perks. In the midst of a series of near death experiences and narrow escapes, he has enjoyed the cars, suits and money that the alleged romanticism of the spy life provides; and it's no coincidence that the sequences that illustrate this, be they in the Bahamas, the titular casino or besides Lake Como, are the most beautifully photographed in the film, in a manner that recalls the more "trusting" and "carefree" era of the 1960s Bond movies. What's unfortunate is that the moment he believes he has surrendered all this danger for a truly "romantic" lifestyle (with Vesper), said lifestyle turns out to be as phony as everything that preceded it. When you are involved as deeply as he is, you cannot just "leave with whatever (you) have left"; and he doesn't realise the price of letting his guard down until it is too late. The very thing he has spent the whole film seeking to protect ends up in the hands of "the enemy", rendering all his efforts inconsequential.*
And he is not alone. Notice the movie's consistent use of the colour red – most notably in the eye of villain Le Chiffre (a creepy Mads Mikkelsen) and the last item of clothing Vesper wears, and probably the best "bloody iris" of them all – and then consider it in tandem with the behaviour of the main characters. Everyone, despite their composed facade, is tormented and uncertain in a world where filthy lives have filthy consequences. This trend successfully continues into the messier but ultimately more resonant Quantum Of Solace, providing a one-two knockout punch of powerful ambiguity. It's Daniel Craig in his very own Munich, and a more effective one at that.
At the time of its release, Casino Royale was also a knockout punch of a different kind. Many viewers, including this one, found it extremely refreshing to see the ridiculously over-the-top Die Another Day (a film more cartoonish than any of Roger Moore's Bonds, and that's saying something), followed by something more down to earth, bruising and in tandem with the early post-9/11 atmosphere in which Bond's not-so-distant cousin Jason Bourne thrived. Even if the film took on a little more than it could chew (the narrative was arguably too ambitious even for a two-and-a-half hour film), this was, along with From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and possibly Licence To Kill, as close to "art", let alone Ian Fleming's literature, as Bond could possibly get. The theme song (listen below) was the best in years, the set-pieces were memorable, and the "Bond Girl", if you can call her that, left an indelible impression.** Half the "tropes", such as Moneypenny and the outlandish gadgetry, may have been missing, but in every other way Royale offered everything you could want from a Bond film, and more. Even the self-aware references didn't interfere with the story; Bond genuinely doesn't "give a damn" about whether his martini's shaken or stirred, and considering the tension in the poker game, why should he?
In a way, however, the years have not been too kind to Casino Royale. Like Martin Scorsese's The Departed, the hyperactive nihilism and excessive use of cell phones feel very much like a product of the mid-noughties. Such trends were rendered meaningless in Quantum Of Solace, but alas, so too were its predecessor’s focus, structure and cinematography. In its place we got nonsense, inconsistency and ugliness.
Yet time has led me to believe that this is actually the point of the picture. Even though Craig's Bond has more presence and authority than before, his thirst for vengeance has left him less in control of himself; and the haphazard nature of both the action scenes and the story emphasize this. If Casino Royale is more of a "retro" Bond, Quantum Of Solace is more about looking forward. The true grit and sadism of the late noughties "Bond revolution" lies in Quantum Of Solace.
Where to start? Consider the genuine grunginess of our hero and his accomplice (in this case, Olga Kurylenko’s Camille) as they are forced to trudge through the desert and queue for a bus. Consider the fates of Giancarlo Gianni's Mathis and Gemma Arterton's Fields (her fate, written off by many as a cheap reference, is actually more upsetting than its "inspiration"), the corruption within the CIA (Jeffrey Wright's Felix Leiter is the Commissioner Gordon of these Bond films, the only "good cop" left), and, perhaps most significantly, the actions and fate of Mathieu Amalric's "villain" Dominic Greene. He's been written off as being too nerdy, yet look again. Coolly intimidating on the surface, vulnerable underneath; is he really that different from Le Chiffre? And he doesn't need a bloody eye.
Both Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace are movies about scattered pawns in a constant game of chance, a game which some are born, or determined, to handle better than others. There are no real winners or losers in this Bond world, a world where you need to watch your back at all times, because, as Judi Dench's M puts it, you never really know anybody. To be frank, I think the true message of these films can be summed up best by paraphrasing Jesper Christensen's Mr. White: Nothing, let alone money, is as valuable to anyone in this world as knowing who to trust.
* * * * **Not to mention making Casino Royale a slightly lesser cousin to Raiders Of The Lost Ark; consider what would have happened had Indy chosen not to chase the titular artefact.
**Some claim that Eva Green is underused, but I think they're missing the point; the more withdrawn Vesper appears, the more believable she is as the "complicated woman" she claims herself to be.