James Bond gets a major makeover, and it’s not just because new leading man Daniel Craig is filling his shoes. Casino Royale is a revamping of the entire franchise, an attempt to stay close to the heart and soul of the original Ian Fleming novels. Bond still has a license to kill, but missing are some of the gadgets that prompted previous Bond movies into stylized fantasy action. Bond is now a serious bruiser. He inflicts pain, and he’s vulnerable to pain. Bond is now serious stuff.
An action scene in Africa is typical yet of a Bond movie. Craig as Agent 007 has to chase a suspect bomb-maker through a construction site that is exploited like an American Gladiator obstacle course. Obligatory it well is, it is also terrifically choreographed, photographed and edited with panache. Another explosive action scene also takes place at a Miami airport, and he’s momentarily more of a Die Hard hero than vulnerable agent.
These are the early days of Agent 007, but it’s clear that it’s establishing an entire new take on the character. Craig is a British actor whom has certainly impressed the critical community with “Layer Cake” (he played the lead in this entertaining down-and-dirty gangster movie) and “Munich” (subtle work as a member of an assassin team). Craig is a sturdy actor who brings greater depth and inner turmoil than any previous Bond actor. Not that Sean Connery has anything to worry about with his Bond legacy whose mystique remains untouched.
As for the convoluted plot, it comprises an entanglement of terrorism, the stock market and the interlink effects the two have on global economy. Villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) wants to cash in on the stock market following terrorist calamities. We know he’s a villain because he has tears of blood coming out of his eyes. As for the romance angle in “Casino Royale,” Bond is suckered in by government Treasury Official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “The Dreamers”). This is where this Bond entry exceeds all others, the passion, the verbal foreplay, the dynamics of trust, deceit, lust – Craig’s got game.
As spy partners, Lynd supplies Bond $10 million in cash to enter a high-stakes poker game that will be attended by Le Chiffre. Character actor Jeffrey Wright plays American CIA agent Felix Leiter (is this guy a future Oscar winner once he finds the perfect role, or what?). There are mano-to-mano fight intervals with henchmen, but mostly the poker game dominates the mid-section. (Perhaps Bond should study Matt Damon in “Rounders” to understand the art of the check-raise. Poker players can find fault in Bond’s strategy.)
The third act is dense with stunts as well as whopping acts of betrayal, as the casino money itself becomes a pursuit. Bond’s ballistic heroism in Venice, Italy where he literally brings a building down is a rip-roaring highlight.
The locations are definitely one of the film’s assets. There has never been a more luxurious and decadent ambiance for a Bond movie. And it’s not like Bond movies haven’t trekked over the exotic in the past as superficial Hollywood takes on exotic globe-trotting. When Craig’s 007 travels to the Bahamas, or Prague, or Lake Como, these feel like genuinely rich settings populated with real upscale people. Director Martin Campbell strips away the phoniness and artificiality. The final scene of the movie is a shocker. It is shocking because it reveals a side of Bond that we’ve never seen before – a sadist that adheres first to personal agenda, second to love of country. I hope the future filmmakers of the next installments let Craig hold onto his complexity.
144 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
JAMES BOND / ACTION FANS / WEEKEND THRILLS
Film Cousins: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969); “For Your Eyes Only” (1981); “Quantum of Solace” (2008); “Skyfall” (2012).