For once, there is truth in advertising: The credits proclaim Daniel Craig as “Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007,” and Craig comes closer to the author’s original conception of this exceptionally long-lived male fantasy figure than anyone since early Sean Connery. “Casino Royale” sees Bond recharged with fresh toughness and arrogance, along with balancing hints of sadism and humanity, just as the fabled series is reinvigorated by going back to basics. The Pierce Brosnan quartet set financial high-water marks for the franchise that may not be matched again, but public curiosity, lack of much high-octane action competition through the holiday season and the new film’s intrinsic excitement should nonetheless generate Bond-worthy revenue internationally.
Bond made his debut in “Casino Royale” when it was published in 1953, and while the novel was adapted the following year for American television (Barry Nelson played Bond) and in 1967 became a lame all-star spy send-up featuring Peter Sellers, David Niven and Woody Allen, it remained unavailable to the Eon producers until now.
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As refashioned for this 21st series installment, the novel’s focus on a high-stakes cards showdown doesn’t kick in for an hour. But Craig’s taking over as the sixth actor to officially portray the secret agent on the bigscreen (not including that first “Casino”) provides a plausible opportunity to examine the character’s promotion to double-0 status, which is neatly done in a brutal black-and-white prologue in which he notches his first two kills.
After the pic bleeds into color, Bond pursues a would-be suicide bomber in a madly acrobatic chase through an African construction site, at the end of which he happens to be filmed killing an apparently, if not in fact, unarmed man in images instantly disseminated on the Internet, to the enormous embarrassment of MI6. Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Bond.
Doubling the displeasure of his boss M (Judi Dench happily back for her fifth turn) by surreptitiously entering her flat, Bond ignores her reprimand by high-tailing it to the Bahamas, itself a nice throwback to the film series’ origins in “Dr. No.” Following a cell phone trail of potential terrorist bombers, Bond tracks one, then another in Miami, where an evening that begins at a “Bodyworks” exhibition ends with a high-speed tarmac battle in which the fate of the world’s biggest new jetliner hangs in the balance.
Even by this early juncture, the pic has emphatically announced its own personality. It’s comparatively low-tech, with the intense fights mostly conducted up close and personally, the killings accomplished by hand or gun, and without an invisible car in evidence; Bond is more of a lone wolf, Craig’s upper-body hunkiness and mildly squashed facial features giving him the air of a boxer; 007’s got a frequently remarked upon ego, which can cause him to recklessly overreach and botch things, and the limited witticisms function naturally within the characters’ interchanges.
As matters advance to the Continent, elements even more unusual in the Bond world of late, comprehensible plotting and palpable male-female frissons, move to the fore. Bond’s enemy is not a Mr. Evil type plotting world domination, but a financier of international terrorism, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who needs to make financial amends by winning a big-pot poker game at the casino in fictional Montenegro. Bond plans to break Le Chiffre for good at the gambling table, and to this end he is fronted $10 million delivered by a most alluring messenger, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), assigned to keep tabs on the coin.
Their initial meeting on board a Euro fast train fairly crackles with a sexual undercurrent as they perceptively size one another up. But Vesper intends to maintain a professional distance from her temporary colleague, whose contest of wills and luck with Le Chiffre in the hushed confines of a private gaming room is repeatedly interrupted during breaks by spasms of violence and attempts on Bond’s life.
Yarn does tend to go on a bit once it sails past the two-hour mark, but final stretch contains two indelible interludes crucial to defining this new incarnation of Bond. Constrained nude to a bottomed-out chair, Bond is tortured by Le Chiffre who repeatedly launches a hard-tipped rope upon his nemesis’ most sensitive area, and Craig once and for all claims the character as his own by virtue of the supreme defiance with which he taunts Le Chiffre even in vulnerable extremis. Later, the startling, tragic turn in Bond’s relationship with Vesper provides a measure of understanding for his rake-like tendencies down the line.
Script by series vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with Paul Haggis, hangs together reasonably well and is rewarded for its unaccustomed preoccupation with character by the attentiveness to same by director Martin Campbell, back after having helmed the first Brosnan entry, “GoldenEye,” 11 years ago. Dialogue requires Bond to acknowledge his mistakes and reflect on the soul-killing nature of his job, self-searching unimaginable in the more fanciful Bond universes inhabited by Brosnan and Roger Moore.
Shrewd and smart as well as gorgeous, Vesper Lynd is hardly the typical Bond girl (she never even appears in a bathing suit), and Green makes her an ideal match for Craig’s Bond. Danish star Mikkelsen proves a fine heavy, an imposing man with the memorable flaw of an injured eye that sometimes produces tears of blood. Giancarlo Giannini has a few understated scenes as a friendly contact in Montenegro, and while Jeffrey Wright has little to do as CIA man Felix Leiter, he does get off a couple of the film’s best lines, and one can hope he may figure more prominently in forthcoming installments. Sebastien Foucan does some eyebrow-raising “free running” stunts in the African chase.
“Casino Royale” is the first Bond in a while that’s not over-produced, and it’s better for it. Production values are all they need to be, and while the score by David Arnold, in his fourth Bond outing, is very good, the title song, “You Know My Name,” sung by Chris Cornell over disappointingly designed opening credits, is a dud.