Bond. James Bond. He just never goes away. Just when you think he has become stale, irrelevant or out of style he finds away back into your life. With “Casino Royale,” the Bond franchise is given a harder edge and a fresh start that should leave audiences both shaken and stirred.
It is clear from the opening, which is shot in a stark, grainy black and white that we are dealing with a very different Bond. This is a younger, meaner Bond, who is still rough around the edges, even a bit sloppy. This Bond isn't afraid to get his hands bloody and uses his physical dexterity and ingenuity over flashy gizmos.
“Casino Royale,” the first of Ian Fleming’s novels featuring 007, centers on Bond’s first mission as a double O agent. He must enter into a high stakes poker match to prevent a banker from funding terrorism groups.
Part of the fun of the Bond movies were their formula, but when the producers ran out of Fleming books to adapt, they had to start creating new missions for Bond. These original scripts were often Bond-by-the-numbers.
First, open with an extravagant action sequence. Next, head back to headquarters for some banter with the ever-elusive Ms. Moneypenny. Stop over to see the ever-sarcastic Q to pick up a few new gadgets.
Then it is time to meet the pre-requisite Bond girls, some good, others bad and an over-the-top villain. Throw in lots of over blown action sequences, plenty of bad double entendres that will inevitably lead to an abundance of sex.
Since this is the story of Bond’s beginning there is some divergence from the classic blueprint. There is no Moneypenny. No Q. No fancy gadgets. No double entendres. It seems having Fleming as a foundation again has given the filmmakers the chance to build a stronger film.
The Bond series long ago became too hung up on the next big action scene to include much spying. Much of the film’s first hour focuses on Bond using his wits to piece together and thwart a potential terrorist attack. The film has plenty of action, executed with tension and suspense by director Martin Campbell (“GoldenEye”), but never at the expense of the plot.
With the new start, comes a new actor, Daniel Craig (“Layer Cake”). There was an outcry when Craig was named Pierce Brosnan’s replacement. A blond haired, blue eyed Bond? Preposterous. It clearly says in the books that he has black hair. A blond Bond just wouldn’t be right. And so went the superficial debate.
But, the protesting was all for naught. Blond hair or not Craig looks the part. He is able to make the often vicious fight scenes believable, and still look slick in a tux. He is charming, but in an oddly casual way. Even the naysayers would be hard pressed to find fault in Craig’s performance.
Craig brings an intensity to the role that has been lacking because in the past Bond was a fairly one-dimensional character. However, this being Bond’s first mission, Craig has a character arc to play against that allows him to let a bit of vulnerability to seep past the cold façade.
Some things will never change though. There will always be Bond girls and over-the-top villains, but even those feel fresher this time around.
Mads Mikkelsen (“King Arthur”) as Le Chiffre gives an effectively understated performance. He is as cool and collected as Bond, but quietly sinister and calculating. When Mikkelsen finally let’s loose on Bond in a disturbing, darkly comic torture scene it is made all the more shocking by Mikkelsen restraint throughout the rest of the film.
As for the Bond girls, the “bad” girls are flat and uninteresting, but Eva Green (“Kingdom of Heaven”) as Vesper Lynd is a dynamic female counter to Bond.
Green is more than mere sex object. She is a strong, intelligent woman, who knows how to keep Bond in his place. Craig and Green’s first encounter is full of sexual tension, but on an intellectual level. The innuendo heavy dialogue of previous outings is replaced with snappy banter that wouldn’t be out of place in a screwball comedy.
That’s the other thing about this latest model, it is funny and not in a cheesy, self-aware way. The film has a cynical, black sense of humor that suits the overall darker tone of the film.
“Casino Royale” is perhaps a little overlong, and drags a bit towards the end, but it ranks among the best Bond movies. It is hard to say if the filmmakers will be able to sustain this new direction, but with Craig signed on to play Bond again, it will be fun to find out.