The 21st Bond film is also the first truly worthy spin through the Bond universe since Roger Moore’s goofy escapades of the late 70’s/early ’80s. I enjoyed the gravitas that Timothy Dalton brought to the role in his pair of outings, and the élan with which Pierce Brosnan went through 007’s paces from 1995’s Goldeneye to 2002’s Die Another Day. But as smooth and stalwart a Bond as Brosnan was, the franchise producers never handed the actor a vehicle equal to his stature. Indeed, Die Another Day may have come closest — a silly but exciting enough thrill ride, whose cheesy get-ups and entendres were somewhat compensated for by Halle Berry as an impossibly sexy spy who matched up well with Brosnan. With Casino Royale, the folks behind Bond bring in a new man: Daniel Craig. Like many others, I have admired Craig as an actor (Road to Perdition, Layer Cake) but felt unsure, even incredulous, of how he’d modify (read: tamper with) what gold-standard bearer Sean Connery, then Moore, Dalton and Brosnan had molded and perfected over forty-plus years. I was on my guard.
Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, together with Oscar winner Paul Haggis (Crash), reach back to Flemming’s first Bond novel, an origin story of sorts, to give us a glimpse of Bond when he was first promoted to “007” status in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The story offers an occasion to trace the shaping of the Bond persona into the one by which we associate him — the debonair spy and ladies’ man, who’d just as soon kill you as look at you. Casino Royale imagines Bond (or the pre-Bond) as an impulsive mercenary whose hot-headedness and ego compromise his ability to make cool, calculated judgments. Craig’s Bond shoots first, asks questions later. He’s prone to make decisions out of blind pride than shrewd tact, and he’s also the first Bond who isn’t afraid to show his softer side. Here, in other words, we find a complex, fully-rounded character, a romantic as attuned to his heart as to the mission at hand, and, as Anthony Lane in The New Yorker put it, the series’ “first proper bleeder.” This guy gets bruised and banged up enough in one movie to make up for twenty movies in which Bond escaped without a scratch and with his hair hardly out of place.
The plot of Casino Royale is (relative to many previous entries) refreshingly lean and coherent. It concerns a financier/broker of terrorist activities, named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Le Chiffre, a scarfaced, sourpussed gentleman-gambler whose bad eye leaks blood at the first sign of distress, invests his clients’ monies into operations, i.e. terrorist strikes, meant to sabotage the financial health of massive corporations. When one such operation doesn’t come off as planned and his clients are champing at the bit for the recovery of their investments, Le Chiffre decides to hold a high-stakes poker tournament at the swank titular casino-hotel in a bid to recover his clients’ fortunes. That’s when Bond charges in; as much as M (the always-regal Judi Dench) has her misgivings about the loose cannon Bond, she assigns him the mission of trumping Le Chiffre at the poker game and close down his terrorist racket. Sent to watch over the money, floated by the British treasury, to be staked in the game is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). She’s sinuous and beautiful enough to qualify as a Bond Girl, but exceeds the narrow limits of that role thanks to Green’s reserved, sensitive performance.
A good second-half portion of Casino Royale is taken up by the critical poker face-off with Le Chiffre. The proceedings are lengthy, but not without their share of breathless diversions. These include a headlong confrontation in a stairwell between Bond and some pissed-off terrorists, to another inside a grimy post-industrial torture chamber in which Bond’s manhood is threatened with mutilation (and after which the males in the audience won’t be able to shake away the thought of testicular pain for days afterward), to a mad dash to Bond’s Aston Martin where a conveniently placed defibrillator is all that stands between the spy and a rapid death-by-poisoned martini. That last scene is an amusing metaphor not only for how Casino Royale is the Bond people’s bid to jumpstart their franchise back to relevance, but also for Lynd’s literal and figurative reviving of Bond’s heart.
Sparks fly the instant Bond and Lynd meet, but their mutual attraction is communicated largely through the language of verbal jabs and mischievous asides that keep both of them on their toes. In terms of steaminess and sex, Casino Royale is pretty modest compared to most Bond films, and when Bond does get busy, it’s not motivated by momentary lust or sexual manipulation, but something far tougher to wriggle out of: Love. As scripted, the central romance between Bond and Lynd that takes over the film’s second half is handled shoddily and in too-broad strokes. Luckily, Craig and Green’s commitment to their roles and their on-screen chemistry compensates. Craig capably crosses a great deal of emotional territory, from the tough-guy posturings of a more traditional Bond to a genuinely human vulnerability, with almost no help from the script itself.
Casino Royale brings Goldeneye director Martin Cambell back into the fray. Campbell has a knack for creating crisp, adroit action sequences. In fact, the footchase that opens the film ranks as among the most exihilarating ever staged, as Bond pursues a terrorist through the pell-mell streets of a tumbledown Madagascar neighborhood. The chase blows through a construction site, then up the dizzying heights of a gantry where one delirious stunt after another is breathtakingly pulled off. Aided by vertiginous stuntwork and whipsmart editing, it’s also a fantastic introduction to Craig’s gangbusters take on Bond. Wisely, though, Campbell doesn’t try to top his opening, but keeps his action scenes thereafter limited to short bursts, while he takes up the issue of what do with a spy obstinately in love with an accountant, a woman compromised by her own mysterious past. Hard lessons lie ahead for this start-up Bond, chiefly among them: Trust no one and nothing, least of all the romantic flutterings of one’s own heart.
What stays with you, whether you’re a Bond fanatic or a casual viewer, is Daniel Craig himself. He has the chops to pull off a Bond at once in-your-face but also emotionally nuanced; his is the first Bond we relate to as a flawed, sympathetic human being, rather than as a cultural monolith. Craig plays Bond as a product of abandonment, of working-class anti-bourgeois anger, as a man driven to lonesomeness by a harsh upbringing and determined to use the system to take out his aggressions against it as much as to earn his keep. The question of whether Craig’s Bond is faithful to Flemming’s version isn’t as important as whether Craig can continue to offer us a Bond this compelling in future installments, in which the now-chastened and newly minted 007 becomes a character of diminishing emotional returns.
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Screenplay by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis
Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian, Isaach De Bankolé, Jesper Christiansen, Ivan Milicevic