Casino Royale (2006)

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 12/05/06 09:32:36

"The Scent and the smoke and the sweat"
5 stars (Awesome)

Here’s the opening paragraph of Fleming’s first Bond book, “Casino Royale.” “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Doesn’t sound like a scene from a Pierce Brosnan movie, does it?

When Ian Fleming’s fifth James Bond novel, “From Russia, With Love,” was published in 1957, a perceptive Brit book reviewer for The Spectator wrote, “At least neither Mr. Fleming nor his hero shares the twentieth-century characteristic vice of cant. They are both carnivorous to the back-teeth and like their meat well hung.” Overlooking the highly unfortunate and accidental double entendre, does that sound like a description of Roger Moore?

My point is simply that the Bond films, as much fun as they’ve been for 44 years, have never been as gritty as Fleming’s books, especially the early ones. There’s a cynical bitterness to these stories caused by the knowledge that it isn’t just gambling that brings about soul-erosion. “The gale of the world” is a phrase Fleming used to describe the way we are buffeted by fate.

The new film version of “Casino Royale” comes closer to catching the tired weltschmertz of espionage Fleming introduced into the world of letters in 1953 than has any Bond film before it. But more than just a somewhat more realistic spy tale grafted on to a rousing action adventure-love story, it’s a film that explores the serious topic of how we become the people we turn out to be.

The movie opens with a black and white flashback showing us how Bond acquired the two kills necessary to become a double-O agent in British Intelligence. We see that the first one was hard, physically and emotionally. The second, not so much.

Despite misgivings, M (a returning Judi Dench)—the real head of MI6 is apparently called “C,” and Fleming always referred to his mother as “M”—promotes Bond, who is soon sent to Montenegro to join a high stakes Texas Hold ‘Em game with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Le Chiffre is banker to the world’s terrorists who has been losing their money through a series of bad investments. He should have been buying stock in Halliburton. Anyway, he now needs to win a tenth of a billion dollars to repay his clients before they send him on a lonely voyage up Le Crique Merde.

Accompanying Bond is a representative of the Brit Treasury, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Notice how the name of a traditional Bond film character is kidded when Bond meets Vesper for the first time. They parley with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), Her Majesty’s man on the spot.

The film contains three brilliant action sequences, any one of which would do as the climax to most thrillers, and the extended scene over the card table as Bond and American agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) attempt to break La Chiffre, who needs to win over one hundred million dollars to set right his clients’ books.

Surely you know by now that top drawer character actor Daniel Craig is making his debut as 007 in this movie and, yes, he is terrific. He’s easily the best Bond since Sean Connery in “From Russia, With Love,” and he’s something Bond is and Connery never quite was—scary.

The Eon Productions team is back in full force. Producers Barbara Broccoli and her husband Michael Wilson, who turns up in a cameo as the Police Chief of Montenegro, have brought on board Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby”) to work with Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. The music is provided by David Arnold and the film is edited brilliantly by Stuart Baird. Martin Campbell (“Goldeneye”) directs with a sure hand.

It’s a grand entertainment if that’s all you want it to be, but it also gives you much to ponder on the nature of becoming human. Or what sometimes passes for human. I think “Casino Royale” is one of the best films of the year.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.