Casino Royale (2006)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/16/06 00:13:06

"Nobody does it better."
5 stars (Awesome)

As promised, James Bond has returned.

It’s been four years since the last new 007 screen adventure - make that seven if you wish, as some of us do, to ignore “Die Another Day” - and that is too long a time for the average Bond fan. For a while, the growing years between films seemed to be fueled by chaos behind the scenes, until it was revealed that the series’ producers were taking some time to go back to the character’s roots. And so “Casino Royale,” the twenty-first “official” James Bond movie, would finally bring an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s very first James Bond novel to the MGM/UA series. More importantly, we would get a new actor in the legendary role, and the story would be an origin piece that tells of the superspy’s initial assignment.

This decision is not uncommon to EON Productions, the company behind the franchise; the series has repeatedly been viewed as having gone “off track,” which is then followed by a bit of serious revamping. The mediocre response to “The Man with the Golden Gun” sent producers looking to go bigger and better for “The Spy Who Loved Me.” “Moonraker,” which earned cries of “too much” after it shot Bond into outer space, was followed by “For Your Eyes Only,” which scaled back the gadgets and challenged Roger Moore to play up a darker angle of the character. When the series seemed lost forever following a mix of public apathy toward the Timothy Dalton years and financial and legal troubles at the studio, everything untangled just in time for a series resurrection with “Goldeneye,” which wound up being the best adventure film of the 1990s.

And now comes “Casino Royale,” which offers arguably the biggest revamp in the series’ history. It goes so far in its efforts to undo the Brosnan-era excesses that it goes back to the very roots of the character, to the heart of Fleming’s own work: a dark, brooding, lonely killer caught up in a world of cold violence. This is a gloominess seldom seen in the film series; only “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “Licence To Kill” match it, although it should be noted that while those two titles are wildly popular among diehard Bond fans (myself included), both continue to fail to gain the recognition among the general public.

To counter such a risk and ensure a more positive public reaction, the producers have brought back Martin Campbell, director of “Goldeneye,” to helm this latest entry. It’s a wise choice. In “Goldeneye,” Campbell effortlessly balanced slam-bang action sequences with a heavier emotional quotient, and with “Casino Royale,” Campbell repeats his success. This modern Bond may pack in the drama, but it also crackles with a collection of action set pieces truly worthy of a franchise known best for its action set pieces. In one scene, Bond chases a baddie across a construction site, climbing straight up I-beams and leaping across cranes along the way. In another, his efforts to trail a villain leads to his racing to stop a gas tanker from crashing into a grounded (but fully fueled) jumbo jet. And then there’s the action finale, which includes a brutal fight inside a Venetian house that’s sinking deeper into the canal, flooding with every punch.

As for that drama. Eager to maintain a sense of depth to the character and the story, the producers hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”) to polish the script from Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who in turn had remained closer to Fleming’s novel than almost any previous adaptation. The franchise tradition was to borrow the title and little else. But here, after years of original works, the return to Fleming is more than lip service; it’s full-fledged use of the source material.

This is not to say it’s a direct adaptation - it is, after all, updated to modern times, very loosely so at times - but it is an adaptation of the core of the work. The structure and tone remain despite the many changes and upgrades. In other words, yes, Bond fans, we really do get the torture scene of which Fleming was so fond. And yes, Bond’s hardened heart will bring him to growl “the bitch is dead” in one key moment.

If Bond movies reflect the times, then “Casino Royale” shows us in a dreary world indeed. “Die Another Day” made slight mention to being in a post-9/11 society, but only barely; “Casino Royale” uses the era as a central point. Our villain, Le Chiffre (beautifully played with cold menace by Danish star Mads Mikkelsen) is no longer an agent of SMERSH, but a banker for the world’s terrorists. Gone are the days of fictionalized bad guys like SPECTRE, groups that would hold the world ransom or other such nonsense. Le Chiffre is the face of a truer horror, borderless organizations bent on destruction and fear.

There is, of course, a James Bond bend to this idea: Le Chiffre’s plan is to get stinking rich by selling his stock in an airline he knows is about to become the victim of a terrorist attack. Still, knowing the reasons behind such a possible attack does not lessen its impact, and the filmmakers know this. They use our collective 9/11 anxiety to ramp up the tension in that airport scene, the one with 007 furiously trying to stop the baddie before he bombs the plane. Campbell gets this scene working on the surface as simply a brilliant action sequence - the stunts are amazing, the increasing tension timed to perfection - but allows our emotions to help another level boil underneath what we’re watching.

Ah, but this is only the beginning, for we haven’t even arrived at Casino Royale yet. And there is the heart of the story: Le Chiffre, having lost millions of his clients’ cash, has entered a high stakes poker game at the Montenegro resort, and Bond has been assigned the task of defeating him not with bullets but with cards. If Le Chiffre were to lose the game, his clients would be out to kill him, and he’d have no other choice but to seek asylum in England, where the government can learn much about the people whose money he handles.

This is, of course, not a very action-packed premise, but it is oozing with old school espionage thrills. (Geoffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini play shadowy types that help elevate the film to becoming a delicious throwback yarn. Meanwhile, Bond himself has no gadgets at his disposal, save for cell phones, the internet, and a medical kit. The rest is on-the-fly spy survival.) It’s the story of government intelligence working to manipulate more indirectly. Bond being Bond, however, he prefers a more direct approach, and the screenplay finds the right balance of the two. While the cards fall (Texas hold-’em replaces baccarat as the game of choice, which may disappoint fans hoping the series would keep with tradition and away from current trends, yet it must be said that this replacement game does work better on screen, as there’s more to watch), Bond and Le Chiffre try to outwit each other, resulting in plenty of action away from the table, in between rounds. The poker action seen here is far more riveting than any card game has a right to be.

Alongside these scenes, we get a genuine love story. Vesper Lynd (the lovely Eva Green of “Kingdom of Heaven”) is the British agent working alongside Bond, a handler of sorts watching over his use of government money. They connect from the start, not because Bond is the smooth ladies’ man we’ve come to love (although he does use romance for his own advantage earlier in the picture), but because they have a sincere connection. As the days roll on, the two grow into a couple, and who knows, maybe Bond will go so far as to resign from the service once his task is over, happy to live the rest of his days with his new love? Then again, if that were true, we wouldn’t have a Bond franchise. Expect this relationship to be more complex than most of 007’s flings.

In fact, it’s this story that intends to show us how Bond became Bond. Not in a prequel kind of way, but in a bit of story unfolding that allows for great character depth often unseen in Bond movies. Although the Dalton and Brosnan eras aimed to get more personal with their leading men (I’m reminded of an exchange in “Goldeneye,” in which Bond tells Natalya his coldness keeps him alive, to which she replies, “No, it’s what keeps you alone”), it’s in “Casino Royale” that we hit the deepest core yet to the character, revealing to us exactly why he trusts no one and refuses to fall in love.

Yet the film wisely refuses to play the prequel card, understanding that the Bond franchise has little continuity anyway, and while you can read it as the reasons behind Bond’s other cinematic actions, it mainly plays instead purely as the story of a dark man turned darker. The script does supply a few self-referential gags throughout (usually involving his trademark vodka martinis, while one bit involving his trying on a tuxedo is particularly inspired), but it’s much more subdued than the back-to-square-one reboot might otherwise imply.

One genius move, however, in treating this like an origin tale: David Arnold’s excellent musical score offers up a trademark big, brassy soundtrack, yet, in the musical equivalent of a wink and a nod, refuses to include the James Bond theme (outside of a few very subtle notes here and there) until one key scene, when the familiar melody is finally let loose with a fury. Arnold has long been a key part of the series’ success, his music (he scored the last three Bond pictures) mixing tributes to the past with a welcoming of modern sounds. His work here is no exception, another top notch effort. And yes, the theme song, a lusty rocker penned by Arnold and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell, is one of the better Bond themes in recent memory.

And now, at last, it’s time to discuss Bond himself. As you probably already know, Daniel Craig, the longtime British television veteran best known to American audiences as the star of the gangster thriller “Layer Cake” and as a co-star in such titles as “Munich” and “Road to Perdition,” has replaced Pierce Brosnan as 007. The announcement split fans - some of them did not like the idea of a blonde Bond, while the more reasonable ones realized that Craig’s badass screen persona and wicked stare made him an excellent choice for a darker, broodier hero. In his debut performance as the world’s most famous secret agent, Craig proves his detractors wrong, easily delivering the suave charm and man-of-action ferocity the character requires. His ice blue eyes pierce the screen and overwhelm the audience, and as the film progresses, it becomes so very clear that we are witnessing the arrival of the next big movie star.

The role of Bond in “Casino Royale” requires more from Craig than previous Bond roles have demanded of their respective stars. It’s demanding both physically and emotionally. Here is a James Bond who goes through an incredible amount of pain, and not once does Craig cause us to doubt the realism of the moment, whether he’s struggling to undo the effects of a fast-action poison or racing at full speed - on foot! - to catch the bad guys. (Indeed, 007 seems to do more running here than in all the other Bond movies combined. That shows him as a true man of action: Baddie getting away? Better start sprinting!) Craig’s icy exterior is the perfect match for his character’s inner coldness; here is a Bond who, when asked how he’d like his martini, can actually get away with responding “Do I look like I give a damn?” Later, when the film warms up and Bond falls in love, Craig shows a 007 whose heart has melted. When he’s kidnapped and tortured, we see a sinister Bond, provoking his captors with cruel jokes and dirty laughs. James Bond is not a role often associated with intense, multifaceted performances, yet Craig delivers just that here.

If you’re asking me to rank Craig in relation to his predecessors, however, I can’t oblige. It’d be like asking a parent to name a favorite child. What I can say, however, is that Craig is more than worthy of the role, and the final scene of “Casino Royale” will leave every fan itching like mad in anticipation for the next Bond movie, to see more of Craig staring down that gun barrel.

So yes, James Bond has returned, in truest spirit. This is the Bond movie Bond fans (and non-fans, too) are bound to love, giving us everything we want out of a Bond movie, and more. As a thrilling mix of action, suspense, drama, emotion, “Casino Royale” ranks among the very best of Bonds, and among the very best movies of the year.

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