“Reboot” is the word reviewers have been using to describe the latest Bond film, and it’s hard to avoid because that’s what Casino Royale is: a shakeup of the tired Bond formula that still uses much of the same programming. You get the sense of the filmmaker’s dilemma; how do you scrub away what’s built up during 44 years of the 007 franchise and still deliver what people expect? The results are mixed but welcome. This movie is not Moonraker. Casino Royale follows what Ian Fleming actually wrote more closely than any James Bond film since For Your Eyes Only.
The villainous Le Chiffre, a financer of international terrorism, makes money for his clients by betting on the stocks of companies that are about to be hit with terrorism. After 007 thwarts a terror attack in Miami, Le Chiffre needs desperately to recover the money that’s been lost. He owes it to a group of murderous African thugs, and they mean business. He intends to win back the money at a high stakes tournament of Texas Hold’em poker held at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond, being the best player in the service, is given the mission of stopping Le Chiffre at the poker table. Helping Bond is MI6’s Vesper Lynd, the beautiful accountant assigned to look after the large sum of Her Majesty’s money that’s staking Bond’s hand, and Mathis, the local contact in Montenegro. Mathis is played by Giancarlo Giannini, whose main job it seems is to provide a running commentary on the action for us simpletons in the audience. “There’s 24 million in the pot already” or “If Bond loses this hand…” ect. It’s another in a long line of thankless supporting roles for the once great Giannini.
Eva Green makes a fine Bond girl—Vesper is both stunningly beautiful and smart for a change. Vesper Lynd and James Bond size each other up immediately and accurately when they first meet on a train to Montenegro. It’s one of several non-action scenes that work surprisingly well. The two share moments of tenderness and introspection that are rare in a Bond film. After James dispatches a couple of goons in a bloody, how-hard-it-is-to-kill-a-man fashion reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, Vesper is distraught and disgusted with their grisly work. James finds her fully clothed and weeping in the hotel room’s shower. With uncharacteristic sensitivity, Bond asks if she is cold, turns up the hot water, and joins her as the camera slowly pulls away from the humbled, prostrate couple as if they were Adam and Eve after the Fall. The movie’s last slow-moving act is a character-driven love story, and if you don’t know it by now, you should: any woman that Bond loves deeply is not long for this world.
Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre finally does away with the traditional Bond super villain, a staple of 007 movies since day one. “World domination. Same old scheme, eh Dr. No?” the hero chides the bad doctor in the series’ very first entry. Le Chiffre’s scheme is suitably evil but much smaller-scaled (by Bond standards that is; international terrorism is still big stuff). He’s also not the worst villain on the international stage. There are other meaner, more powerful players that can make him sweat; they even put his life in jeopardy and threaten to hack off his girl’s arm with a machete. Le Chiffre still has enough odd quirks that would make him feel at home in an Austin Powers movie, like an asthmatic inhaler and an eye that sheds tears of blood. “It’s nothing sinister,” he explains. “Just an abnormality of the tear duct.”
Which brings us to James Bond himself. Daniel Craig gives the most interesting performance as Bond since George Lazenby in On Her Majesties Secret Service, and of course Sean Connery before him. (I’m omitting the 1954 television production of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson, which I haven’t seen.) Craig is more thuggish than either Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore. He’s the kind of Bond that will strangle you with his bare hands and then hide your body, bloodying his suit in the process. But while the character’s two-fisted animalism is played up, his debonair air is played down. Brosnan and Moore had the latter; Connery had both. One wonders if the filmmaker’s cognizance of Craig’s brutishness prompted them to delay putting Craig in a tux until halfway through the movie. He looks slightly uncomfortable in a monkey suit.
The out for Craig’s lack of suavity is that he’s in the process of becoming the Bond we all know; it’s baby steps for James as he dons his first dinner jacket or sips his first vodka martini. (With this last, he first has to realize that he likes martinis, then a certain kind, and finally he gives the drink a name: a Vesper.) Bond isn’t there yet, though. After one nasty fight scene he runs back to the gambling table and orders his soon-to-be-signature drink, and the bartender asks, “Shaken or stirred, Sir?” “Do I look like a man who gives a damn?” Bond growls. Casino Royale is a movie about identity—about becoming who you really are. As both Vesper and M tell Bond on different occasions, “I knew you would because you are you.”
Casino Royale has more beefcake than cheesecake. Craig’s muscular physique gets the spotlight; he’s buff and cut. Ursula Andress rose like Aphrodite from the sea in an iconic scene from Dr. No 44 years ago; the mirror is Craig rising from the waves today. When Le Chiffre and his henchmen torture 007 by strapping him naked to a bottomless wicker chair that leaves his nether regions exposed to a heavy knotted rope, and Le Chiffre remarks “You have taken very good care of your body, Mr. Bond,” I heard the woman in the seat beside me say, “Mmm hmm, yes you have.”
Overlong action sequences mar Casino Royale. Many of them feel tacked on; I could almost hear the producers over director Martin Campbell’s shoulder telling him that he needed X number of chases or shootouts. The extended opening chase around, through, and on top of a Ugandan construction site wreaks havoc and establishes 007’s superhuman strength and endurance, but it feels like a Jackie Chan movie without Jackie Chan; a truck chase across Miami International’s tarmac owes too much to Raiders of the Lost Ark; the climactic scuffle and shootout in a slowly sinking Venetian building only made me wonder about the depth of the water in Venice. The smaller action scenes work better and are more smoothly integrated into the main story, which is equally interested in mythologizing and humanizing the character. This Bond suffers. He gets kicked, beaten, poisoned and tortured and finally has to recover in a hospital. And of course, he falls in love.
In his review of Casino Royale, Sean Burns distinguishes between action scenes that are “ludicrous” and action scenes that are “implausible.” I’m with Burns in preferring the merely implausible, and wishing the filmmakers had nixed the most outlandish set pieces and focused even more on character and on smaller-scaled moments of suspense—and perhaps even followed their retro preference to its logical but financially unwise end and made a period movie set in the 1950s. Still, this Bond is a step in the right direction, and for the first time since I was a kid, I’m looking forward to the next one.