This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
If cliché has a name, it must be James Bond. This handsome secret agent who fights overly-ambitious super villains while employing ridiculously crafty gadgets and seducing beautiful women in his spare time has, for better or for worse, become an icon of popular entertainment since he first made his screen debut in 1962. In 2006, the traditional clichés were transcended by Casino Royale, which marked actor Daniel Craig’s first outing as the character. Based on the Ian Fleming novel that catapulted the series in the 1950s, its highly-engaging story and flesh-and-blood characters prove that even a James Bond movie can be a pathos-packed work of art.
Not only is Casino Royale a great example of what Steven Spielberg calls a “gourmet popcorn movie–” a mass entertainment piece that is also quite thought-provoking– but it is also a moving analysis of how romantic love can temporarily redeem a hardened heart, and of how trapped in sin a person can feel when he has gone past a so-called “point of no return.” Mr. Bond clearly has a soul that a life of violence and lust is slowly inhibiting him from feeling, which ultimately gives this sometimes fun film a tragic tone.
Many people know James Bond by a numerical name: 007. But how did he acquire this almost dehumanizing moniker? The opening scene of Casino Royale reveals the answer. As a novice field agent for the British Secret Service, James must assassinate two people in order to achieve “00” status, which gives him his license to kill in cold blood while tracking down world-threatening criminals.
Once he has earned his license to kill, he rashly abuses it, fatally shooting an African bomb-maker whom MI6 had tasked him with capturing. M, the fierce female leader of MI6, promptly chastises him harshly and threatens to remove his “00” status if he continues to use it without thinking. She tells him, “This may be too much for a blunt instrument to understand, but arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand-in-hand.” “So you want me to be half monk, half hitman,” he icily retorts.
James soon begins a new mission in the Bahamas and temporarily relaxes his license to kill, instead using his self-issued license to lust. Seducing a criminal’s wife in an effort to gain vital information about an upcoming evil plot, he ends up indirectly causing her demise at the hands of her husband’s superiors. While he does not express any verbal sadness over her death, there is a subtle pain and self-frustration evident in his piercing eyes as he stares at her corpse on the beach.
James soon comes into contact with another woman who will all-too-fleetingly shine light into his darkened soul: Vesper Lynd. A sort of “monetary agent” for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Vesper becomes James’s financial and emotional support as he tries to win an extremely high-stakes poker game with Le Chiffre, a sinister man who finances terrorists for a living. In one of the film’s best scenes, Vesper and James first meet each other on the train to Montenegro and immediately size each other up, taking turns making fairly accurate guesses about the other’s personality. Vesper seems to instantly understand James in a way that no one else ever has, and while James tries to suppress all caring emotions in the name of being a good hitman, he clearly feels something for Vesper beyond a mere physical lust.
James’s unexpected tender side is seen most clearly in a touching scene during which he comforts a troubled Vesper after a bloody encounter with Le Chiffre’s murderous superiors. There is blood on her hands from the fight that she cannot seem to wash off, and she is quite troubled emotionally and spiritually. James puts his arm around her and silently soaks in her pain, momentarily suggesting that he himself is troubled by all the metaphorical blood on his hands.
Having experienced his tender side, Vesper becomes puzzled about how James can go on living such a cold, lonely life as a government assassin. “You can switch off so easily, can’t you?” she observes. “It doesn’t bother you, killing those people?” He matter-of-factly replies, “Well, I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.” Vesper then comes back with some beautifully profound words:
“I don’t believe you. You’ve got a choice, you know. Just because you’ve done something doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.”
While James laughs off these sage words of advice, we would do well to apply them to our own lives. No matter how large or small, sins become easier to commit with repetition, and trying to resist them can seem pointless. After all, if we have already done something bad with relatively minimal consequences, what is the harm in doing it some more? But even when we feel we have gone past a certain “point of no return,” the choice to do the right thing shall never disappear. Vesper is trying to warn James that desensitization to sin can gradually lead to a desensitization of the soul, which is a fate we all must work hard to avoid.
James may have laughed off Vesper’s advice, but as he grows more and more in love with her, he begins to give it some serious thought. In fact, as he blissfully sails on the waters of Venice with her later in the film, he sends M an email announcing his resignation from MI6. For the first time in his whole life, he knows what it is like to love and be loved by someone immeasurably, and nothing else appears important or fulfilling. Romance has redeemed James Bond… but only temporarily.
The final scenes of Casino Royale are some of the most heartbreaking in movie history (or at least in spy movie history). In a few brief, horrific moments, James loses the euphoric trust he had in Vesper’s devotion to him, and then he loses her entirely. A life that momentarily seemed like it could indeed be beautiful has returned to the hell it has primarily been in this tortured, orphaned man’s life, and he promptly calls M to tell her that he will not actually be resigning from his occupation as a government-sanctioned killer.
We may not all be called to experience romance strictly speaking, but we are all called to experience the richness and fullness of love. As we glimpse James Bond’s scarred soul become temporarily redeemed by its mystical connection with Vesper’s, we are given hope that the dark spots in our own souls can be brightened by the glow of compassion and friendship. Casino Royale may not end happily, but it does not need to in order for us to feel its power. Like Vesper, it poses a compelling question: Can we have the courage and humility to reject a life of desensitizing vice and embrace one of love-fueled virtue? We can be like James and dodge this question with a laugh and witty remark, or we can face it head-on and feel the hope-harboring thrill of its challenge.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.