Review: Casino Royale

Posted on November 19, 2006


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It’s a big yes to the smashing new Bond movie, which restores double-oh seven from cartoony superhero to lethal spy.

NOV 19, 2006 – IF THERE’S ONE THING that’s been driving me quietly nuts about the publicity for Casino Royale, it’s the fervent assurances by the makers that they’ve gone “back to the basics,â€? which, of course, translates to having gone back to the spirit of Ian Fleming. Is there anyone who still sees Bond as Fleming’s creation? This isn’t about Bond-on-page versus Bond-on-screen, but given the mammoth popularity of the movie versions – it’s just one of the biggest film franchises in, oh, the whole freaking world – who even remembers a Bond who was not Connery or Moore or Brosnan, a Bond who did not have the best quip for every occasion, or one who did not bed the best girls, or one who did not perform the best stunts? It’s that Bond who looms over pop culture, the formula Bond who begins every outing with a bon mot to an adoring Moneypenny, then proceeds to a face-off with a starchy M, then hops along to a gadget-briefing session with an exasperated Q – punctuating these inevitable pit stops with bouts of breathtaking action. Each Bond entry is based on the previous one, which in turn owes its existence to the one before, and thus it all loops back to Dr. No, the movie. So I’ve been thinking, why aren’t they simply saying they’re going back to the Connery-era Bond? Why invoke Fleming, as if what we’re looking for is literary faithfulness, as if that would confer some sort of legitimacy and pedigree to what is essentially a crowd-pleasing action adventure?

But after seeing the movie, I think I know why: it’s because they wanted to associate their Bond with the dangerous spy created by Fleming, not the dapper superhero created by the films. Daniel Craig is awesome and he slips into the part in a way that makes you forget everyone who’s preceded him, but he’s the least conventionally-handsome of the Bonds – he looks like a cross between a low-rent boxer and Robert Shaw’s Neanderthal assassin in From Russia With Love – and I can’t recall a Bond so haunted, so unsure of himself, so much at the receiving end of beatings and knifings and just about every other form of torture (including one that’s as kinky as it is demented). Visually too, Casino Royale tries to distance itself from the other Bond movies. It’s goodbye to the flashing white dots and the gun-barrel opening, the eye-popping pre-credits action, the semi-naked babes during the song that plays over the credits. (Here, a Chris Cornell number – I can barely remember how it goes! – underscores some marvellously stylised animation, which looks like free-floating panels from a graphic novel.) The gorgeous Bond girl (Eva Green) doesn’t show up for almost half the film, the brassy Monty Norman riff hardly gets a workout, and the only gimmicky gadget that makes an appearance is a shocker in more ways than one.

And without the backup arsenal from Q, Craig’s Bond relies on something you rarely see the modern action hero use: his instinct. In a stunt sequence on an airport runway, the bad guy is driving away in a truck, and as the vehicle is about to pass under one of those aircraft boarding stairs, Bond runs up those steps and takes a leap into the black beyond – hoping to land on top of the truck, and barely pausing to think that if he misses, he’s going to end up in the morgue, or at least in an operating theatre for facial reconstruction surgery. It’s these instincts that drive him through the film, instincts that are sometimes right and sometimes horribly wrong – but that makes this Bond human, which is one thing you could never have accused, say, the impossibly together Brosnan of being. This isn’t the most suave, sophisticated killer in the world so much as a scruffy, working-class boy from a Ken Loach movie trying his damnedest to become the most suave, sophisticated killer in the world. We see this during a terrific moment where a wounded Bond is in the bathroom, trying to disinfect his cuts with what looks like whiskey; suddenly, he pours the stuff into a glass and drinks it up straight, staring long and hard into his reflection in the mirror, as if willing himself not to be a wuss. We’re witnessing the birth of Bond, James Bond, and Casino Royale is the first Bond movie that crosses over into the realm of myth, showcasing everything from his first cold-blooded killing to his first brush with the specifics of a vodka martini (which, for the record, is neither shaken nor stirred).

As the name indicates, Casino Royale is about money – the kind that funds terrorism – and as Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, playing a villain who, thanks to a bleeding eye, appears oddly vulnerable) has none of it, he organises a casino tournament. That’s when Bond steps in and sets off the proverbial good-versus-evil showdown. (Rather, the good-versus-evils showdown; there are a few too many shady characters, adding a few too many knots to the story.) And for all the exquisitely staged action – there’s a chase that defies, in equal measure, gravity and logic; the non-CGI nature of the stuntwork is possibly the most successful of the film’s attempts at going “back to the basicsâ€? – it’s equally thrilling to see Bond in a tuxedo, simply sitting still, trying to out-poker Le Chiffre along with some of the richest people in the world. Casino Royale brings back the kind of elegance we’ve rarely seen in a post-Connery Bond movie (and the kind we almost never see in today’s thrillers), the unhurried willingness to stop and stare at luxe happenings in luxe surroundings – and that’s what makes it feel less an action adventure than a spy drama from the sixties. (And at one stretch, it morphs unexpectedly into a romance from that era, replete with soaring violins and gondolas.) A part of me missed the Bond-isms we take for granted, like the cheap puns, but I have to admit they’d have sounded cheaper in this film, where even the humour is elegant, understated – like the revelation that there’s (gasp!) a man in M’s life, or the sight of Craig doing an Ursula Andress (or a Halle Berry) by coming out of the ocean in a swimsuit.

But don’t let these gags fool you. Casino Royale is thrilling and entertaining, yes, but in ways no Bond film has been. There’s a predictably outrageous, stunt-driven climax, but it’s also suffused with a surprising tenderness. Very little of the action is played for laughs, and though we know Bond isn’t going to die – like that’s ever going to happen! – he doesn’t live because of his enemies’ silliness. There’s none of that “let’s strap him to a table and leave the room so he can work his way outâ€? nonsense. If he survives, it’s because of chance. There’s a typically Bondian sideshow early on – in Madagascar; the globetrotting is still there – involving a snake and a mongoose, and it’s one of those things where both creatures are so evenly matched, either one could end up dead. It’s just a matter of plain, dumb luck. That’s the impression Craig leaves you with – that his job could result in his target ending up dead, and it could just as easily result in his ending up dead. We looked at the earlier Bonds, with their guns and gadgets and girls, and we said, “Lucky bastards!â€? We look at Craig, at the blood on his shirt and the sweat on his brow, and we say, “Poor bastard!â€? That’s the entirely unexpected dimension that Casino Royale brings to the table.

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: English