This Kid's Got Alligator Blood
Casino Royale / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | November 17, 2006 | Comments ()
When it was announced a while back that Daniel Craig would be assuming the role of James Bond for Casino Royale, the 21st film1 following the exploits of Agent 007, the world kind of fell apart for a lot of people. Websites were started that made it their mission to remove Craig from the role, or possibly have him killed; the British press had a field day with the man; and the great debate raged on with new fervor: Who’s the best Bond? The misogynistic Sean Connery incarnation, or Roger Moore’s Action Grandpa? The technologically reliant Pierce Brosnan, or the one with George Lazenby? Or what about Timothy Dalton? The Internet is nothing if not clogged with people who have plenty of spare time to argue the finer points of the debate, but I remember what I felt when Craig’s name was announced: Not much of anything. I felt no particular excitement nor dread upon imagining Craig wearing a tux and drinking martinis and engaging in recklessly casual sex with a variety of exotic partners. What’s the big deal?, I thought at the time. He’d be as good as any. Well, I was right, and I was wrong. Right because James Bond is more than a fictional British spy from a few mid-century novels and an increasingly hollow series of films; he’s an entity completely unto himself, like gravity or Oprah. No one needs telling who James Bond is, or what he does, or how cool he is. Everyone knows that already, and if Lazenby couldn’t do away with 007, then Craig probably couldn’t do him much harm, either. But I was wrong because I underestimated the kind of sneering bravado Craig would bring to the role, turning Bond into an often contemptible rogue instead of a well-coiffed, bemused-looking killer. Craig’s Bond is still reeling from the flush of sudden promotion and the complexities of becoming a high-level hitman, and that emotional turmoil makes him the most human version of James Bond yet. All that to say: Casino Royale is more than a breath of fresh air into a 40-year-old film franchise; it’s a slick, intense, action-filled, compelling look at the amazing places that franchise might be headed.
Based on Bond creator Ian Fleming’s first novel in the series, Casino Royale is essentially a reboot of the story set in present day. The opening sequence details Bond’s first two kills, which earn him 00 Agent status, and it’s a stunning series of events. Director Martin Campbell, returning after giving Bond his last resurrection in 1995’s GoldenEye, shoots the sequence in gorgeous black and white, infusing Bond’s origin with a welcome touch of noir. Bond struggles with his first kill, and Craig’s face is an engaging mixture of revulsion and exhilaration in the moment. Soon enough, Campbell delivers with the shot of Bond through a gun barrel that segues into an overblown title sequence, complete with a theme song performed by an artist so random that there must have been some kind of bottle spinning or darts involved in the selection (this time it’s Chris Cornell). Bond soon finds himself in Madagascar, chasing down a bomb-maker in fantastic foot pursuit that has Bond and villain flying through buildings and over rooftops. It’s a frenetic, breathless set piece, and easily among the most hardcore things Bond has ever done.
The bomber is connected to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an international financier for terrorists and gloriously stereotypical in his villainous appearance: He’s got a scar over his mottled left eye and weeps blood when he’s nervous. Le Chiffre makes his money by shorting stocks and then creating natural disasters that end in a big payout. Bond’s superior at MI6, M (Judi Dench), explains this all to Bond in one of the film’s few concessions to its time period: Le Chiffre made a lot of cash shorting airline stocks before Sept. 11. However, if you’re looking for a broader picture of international relations, you won’t find them here. Like it or not, Bond is Bond, which means action is going to take precedence over political commentary.
From there on out, the plot only grows more convoluted, and it’s here that the script from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with help from Paul Haggis, begins to drag. Purvis and Wade also collaborated on The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, so Bond is hardly new ground for them. But the film, at a lumbering two-and-a-half hours, is simply too long. Bond flies off to the Bahamas then back to Miami while pursuing various leads, and the film can’t quite maintain the energy needed to keep moving. It’s nearly an hour before Bond travels to Montenegro and the story really gets going.
Bond goes to Montenegro to play in a high-stakes card game run by Le Chiffre, in hopes that he can win all of Le Chiffre’s operational cash in a legitimate game, thus providing Bond’s superiors with leverage to offer Le Chiffre protection. In a change from the novel and previous Bond films, baccarat has been changed to no-limit Texas hold ‘em, presumably because no one knows how to play baccarat anymore. Aiding Bond is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an accountant with MI6 and the beautiful woman you just know will melt Bond’s cold heart. Craig and Green create a believable onscreen chemistry, and some of their earlier interchanges crackle with an energy that borders on screwball, which just makes their inevitable descent into syrupy platitudes that much more disappointing.
Although the script needs tightening, the twists and turns it provides are entertaining enough to make up for the occasional drags. At one point, M expresses a desire to return to the simpler days of the Cold War, an impulse that subconsciously bleeds into the rest of the film’s relationships and manifests itself in a growing paranoia and mystery and Bond’s constant realizations that no one is above suspicion. Everything about Casino Royale feels inverted from what Bond became during the Brosnan years: Instead of a straightforward plot driven by explosions and car chases, Campbell offers a complex plot driven by, well, explosions and car chases. It may not seem like much, but every frame carries its own Bondian arrogance, as if it couldn’t be happier to be reinventing the series. This is nowhere clearer than the wonderful moment where a frazzled Bond orders a martini, only to have the bartender ask, “Shaken or stirred?” Bond snaps back, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
But better still are the moments that show a new side of the young Bond: He arrogantly gives his real name when asked, refusing to use a cover; he’s rash and impulsive, and his ego gets him in trouble more than once; and sometimes he’s just a bit of a tool, as in the scene when, after being mistaken for a valet, he drives a stranger’s car into a fence and then calmly walks away. Craig’s Bond exists happily on the edge of reason, making him the most dangerous Bond to date. His spiritual journey from punk agent to conflicted murderer to cold-blooded agent is the best thing to happen to Bond in years. I think I have a favorite now.
1. OK, fine, the 22nd if you count Never Say Never Again. Which I don’t.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.