review: casino royale
November 20, 2006
It’s not just a Bond movie, not just an action movie: it’s an honest to goodness movie movie. Yes, rescuing the franchise from the plains of camp is a whole new take on the iconic character, an origin story in the style of Batman Begins that gives British actor Daniel Craig free rein to show us just how cold, menacing, and ruthlessly efficient James Bond can be while deepening our conceptions of his vulnerabilities and uncertainties. While not entirely forsaking the series’ trademark formula of girls, gadgets, and improbably large explosions, Casino Royale begs you to take it seriously as it goes about spinning its tale of intrigue. And so we do.
Without demeaning Pierce Brosnan’s version of Bond, his was always more superman than man, traipsing around exotic locales with shirt strategically ripped and face cut just so: it screamed “hero,” but seldom were we meant to feel that our superspy was ever in any real danger. The brutal fight that opens Casino Royale immediately erases any memory of that fantasy, with Craig fighting for his life in gritty, washed-out black & white; he succeeds in his errand, of course, but that, his first kill, establishes this Bond as one unafraid, even eager for the unpleasant and dirty business of defending queen and country. Acutely uncomfortable scenes of torture and poisoning hammer the point home further: no “nice guy” could survive as 007, and James Bond is no nice guy.
He does, however, have a soft spot for women, in particular Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, a disarmingly attractive agent of the French Treasury. Ms. Green, best known for her role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, holds her own against Craig’s commanding presence in their many shared scenes, playing a character both powerful, as in her formidable exchange with Bond on their first meeting, and fragile, as when she lies, quietly weeping, under the jets of a hotel shower after a harrowing escape. Their relationship has subtlety, passion, and even tragedy, a far cry from Mr. Brosnan’s supremely assured seduction of Rosamund Pike in 2002′s Die Another Day, a dalliance that ended as carelessly as it began. No, Vesper means something to Bond, and I get the sense that their relationship will continue to influence the character going forward.
Also mezmerizing are Mr. Craig’s steel blue eyes, which radiate with alarming intensity that director Martin Campbell uses to quiet effect in the mostly thrilling high-stakes poker game that is the film’s dramatic centerpiece. Built, brief, and impeccably attired, he strides about with a touch of arrogance justified by how dangerous he seems. So too does the terrific Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre ooze the sort of squirmy desperation that any good Bond villain must, though (refreshingly) this one’s plans don’t quite stretch to the usual “world domination or bust.” Instead, he’s a mathematically-inclined banker to terrorists with an iron will and a serious bone to pick with Bond, whose meddling has cost him dearly. Frustratingly, however, the expected climactic confrontation never takes place, the action instead shifting to a “shocking” betrayal and lots of shooting in a collapsing building.
The action is, incidentally, first-rate as always, from the aforementioned opening to a kinetic chase through a construction zone to a stunningly choreographed multi-stage foiling of a terrorist plot in and around the Miami airport (jet fuel + bombs = a good time). With the best stunt people that money can buy, sitting back and watching it all unfold is a genuine pleasure, albeit one without the putative delights of car chase this time, sadly, as Bond’s custom Aston Martin DBS crashes in an eye-rollingly ridiculous fashion–seven full revolutions–seconds into a high-speed pursuit; the built-in defibrillator and weapons cache sure do come in handy, though.
Unifying the film is the work of editor Stuart Baird and cinematographer Phil Meheux, whose experiments with eccentric camera angles, quick cuts, and brilliant close-ups are consistently engaging even when the film drags a bit in its middle sections. Pacing is certainly a problem at times, admittedly, as the story progressing in fits and starts with action sequences liberally sprinkled throughout. The actors’ fine performances more than make up for any failings, though; this reborn Bond is full of surprises and ready to put its sometimes-embarassing past behind it. Now isn’t that nice?
–D. S. W.