Not since Connery has a 007 been so, well, Bondian

Casino Royale

on November 17, 2006 by Wade Major
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Breaking in a new Bond is never an easy task, thanks to the inimitable Sean Connery and his original pitch-perfect incarnation of Ian Fleming's suave secret agent. It was a foreboding omen for all subsequent pretenders to the shaken Martini when audiences so resolutely rejected his intended heir, George Lazenby, and his otherwise serviceable turn as Bond in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, that Connery was called back into action just two years later for Diamonds Are Forever. Two years after that, the baton passed to Roger Moore, immensely popular in his own right as television's Simon Templar in The Saint, who scored the franchise's biggest box-office success with a simple philosophy that subsequent Bonds have treated as James Bond cinema gospel: no matter what, make absolutely no attempt to compete with Connery.

The unfortunate corollary to that maxim has been that failure to follow the Connery mold necessarily meant stepping, to varying degrees, into the Moore mold of a charming gentleman-assassin as opposed to Connery's well-tailored blue-collar killer. And that, for better or worse, is how both Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan would play the character in their respective turns, giving audiences a colorful variety of interpretations but none that actually approached what Fleming originally intended.

That was until Daniel Craig.

One certainly can't say for sure what Fleming or the late Albert Broccoli, who first brought the franchise to the screen, would have thought of Craig, but given how fiercely Broccoli's daughter Barbara fought for him, it's hard to resist the feeling that this rugged throwback to the Connery mold was inspired from on high.

While Fleming's Casino Royale has been adapted twice previously, it had remained until now the only Bond novel never adapted for the official MGM franchise, for which distribution duties are now being handled by Sony. Previous incarnations included an hour-long episode of television's Climax from 1954 in which Barry Nelson played Bond and Peter Lorre co-starred as criminal mastermind and ace card shark Le Chiffre, and the notoriously odd Val Guest-directed 1967 spoof that starred David Niven as Bond and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre (both of them overshadowed by costars Woody Allen and Peter Sellers, among others). While the new Casino is only marginally more faithful to the source material than its predecessors, it does resurrect the essence of what has been missing from the Bond franchise for at least two decades -- a foreboding and darkened sense of danger that at any moment someone may be horribly, brutally killed -- and the audience will be expected, against their natures, to laugh it off with a joke. The Connery films were enjoyable precisely because they were uncomfortable, because they captured the existential dilemma of being a spy, of getting one's kicks from being perpetually at death's door and helping others step through that door whenever and wherever necessary.

Substituting poker for baccarat and updating the backdrop from the Cold War to a post-9/11 world of terrorism, Casino Royale stars Craig as a newly promoted James Bond, a reckless sort unconcerned with the headaches that M (Judi Dench) will have to bear on his behalf. Fortunately for Bond, being equally skilled at assassination and cards make him the only choice to engage in a high-stakes face-off with the notorious black market financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen of the Pusher films) who has dangerously overextended himself with his clients. If Bond can win a fat enough chunk of Le Chiffre's fortune, Le Chiffre's angry clients will be only too happy to take care of him themselves. Or so the plan is supposed to go.

There are a lot of reasons to like Craig in the new Casino Royale, officially the franchise's 21st picture. Despite being the first blond Bond, he's arguably the best pure actor ever to play the part, and he is unquestionably the fittest, a quality that is vividly exploited with more lingering shots of chiseled pectorals, abdominals and biceps than nearly all previous 20 pictures combined. But Craig also has a coveted advantage over other post-Connery Bonds, for not only is Casino Royale the first film since 1983's Octopussy that's actually based on Fleming material, but by fashioning the story to make this his debut mission, Craig gets unprecedented latitude to do his own thing, freed from the “Bondage” of zippy one-liners, ostentatious gadgetry, corny double-entendres or any of the other formulaic trappings that have kept nearly three decades' worth of pictures from doing anything remotely daring or unpredictable.

That's not to say that Casino Royale won't please fans -- despite a finale that lingers a good 20 minutes too long, it's easily the best Bond film since 1981's For Your Eyes Only. But the gadgetry is sparse -- gizmo-wizard Q doesn't even appear -- and the dialogue rarely cute. One can probably credit screenwriter Paul Haggis -- suddenly the hottest man in Hollywood after penning two consecutive Best Picture winners (as well as the current Flags of Our Fathers ) -- for the more somber, sober tack. But credit also has to go to Craig who was rumored to have insisted on a more psychologically challenging take on the character.

Leering males need not worry -- the change in tone has not excised the obligatory Bond girls, with the very fetching Eva Green ( Kingdom of Heaven, The Dreamers ) well cast as Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress in the 1967 film), a brainy beauty whose job it is to look after money that the British government is supplying for the card game. Mikkelsen, too, is a sterling piece of casting, a perfect Fleming heavy much closer to the essence of the character than either Lorre or Welles. Ironically, the action and stunt sequences -- which have become the series' hallmarks over the years -- are scarcely the most impressive part of Casino Royale. As directed by the very skilled Martin Campbell -- returning to Bond duty for the first time since 1995's GoldenEye -- this is more about tension and suspense than thrills, with the card game emerging as the film's most riveting piece of filmmaking. But stunts there are, enough to wow and amaze even those who've grown jaded in this age of anything-goes-with-CGI-effects trickery, but at no point does the story feel like a mere wire frame for set pieces -- character and plot, for a change, are the operative concepts here.

Where Craig and company will take the character in future films remains to be seen -- Brosnan's initial foray was promising, too, but flatlined rather quickly in subsequent films. But the support that Sony has thrown behind the idea of a reinvented franchise is clearly not a one-time experiment. Should audiences respond as anticipated, it's entirely likely that the best is yet to come. Distributor: Sony
Cast: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen and Jeffrey Wright
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriters: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis
Producers: Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli
Genre: Action thriller
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity
Running time: 144 min.
Release date: November 17, 2006

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