Casino Royale ****
2006, PG-13, 142 minutes
Starring Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (LeChiffre), Judi Dench (M), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter), Giancarlo Giannini (Mathis), Caterino Murino (Solange), Simon Abkarian (Alex Dimitrios) and Ivana Milicevic (Valenka). Written by Robert Wade, Neal Purvis and Paul Haggis. Produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Directed by Martin Campbell. Based on the novel by Ian Fleming.
Bond. James Bond. The two words that encapsulate machismo and epitmotize the very longing of what it means to be that suave, sophisticated secret agent with an overabundance of hi-tech gadgetry and sleek Aston Martins, coca butter babes at your every whim. Yet also two words that have belonged to one man, a man who started a cultural phenomenom back in the 1960’s and since has enveloped forty years of a rich, saturated history in film cinema. From the roughneck charisma of Sean Connery, to the flamboyant wittiness of Roger Moore and most recently the tongue-in-cheek escapism of Pierce Brosnan, the character of Bond, James Bond has left its stamp and in various, intangible ways.
Concieved by novelist Ian Fleming back in the 1950’s, as he ventured into married life, the character of Bond was birthed by a ruthlessness and flippancy, a chain-smoking, alcholicism-charged man’s man who mirrored Humphrey Bogart more than the sly shannigans that the character has been more accustomed to contemporarily. In Casino Royale, the first novel ever to feature the Bond character, Bond was a misogynistic, cold-hearted man born from the archtypes of the 50’s and the spy hardbacks of the time. In Dr. No, the first feature film centered around Bond, he was brought to life by a swaggering Scotsman in the form of Sean Connery, who helped bridge the callous figure and make him believable to general audiences.
Since then, he has appeared in over twenty films, numerous publications and various forms of international and intercontinental media, both satire and not. As of late, however, James Bond has devolved to the Hollywood standards of the modern archtypal “action hero”, deviating far from the ruthless assasian originated by Fleming and carried on by Connery, at least for a while. As the character progressed into self-parody with rotating actors for every generation, the core elemental basis of Bond seemed to have disolved away, leaving a clean-cut, Americanized, bread and buttered bastardization of Britain’s most dangerous secret agent. Forty years later, James Bond returns to cinemas, and for some, for the very first time, in the first literal adaptation of Fleming’s introductory novel.
Daniel Craig steps into the freshly pressed tuxedo as Bond, but unlike the previous incarnations, this Bond is exactly the type that Fleming imagined all those decades ago: the type of misogynistic, flippant asshole with a dangerous streak and a cold-hearted nature. The film opens, black-and-white, in Prague, as Bond dispatches two targets in the line of obtaining double-oh status. The scene is intercut with a brutual, senseless beating in a bathroom, showcasing Bond’s relentless and callousness. The other is almost witty in its efficiency; classic Bond in a nutshell. Following the lead of a terrorist bomber in Madagascar, Bond proceeds in a thrilling chase sequence (utilizing the highly-publicized sport parkour or free-running) in and out of a construction site, showcasing the true trademark of the picture: the genesis of Bond.
In the chase, Bond takes the short cuts his target bypasses, bashing through drywall and using brute force. This isn’t the refined Bond we are accustomed to … no, this is the Bond who isn’t quite yet familiar with agility and the fine art of subtlety … he just wants to get the job done. Here we glimpse a rougher, tougher 007 and it is thrilling in itself. When M (Judi Dench), the head of MI6, scolds Bond for being careless, he treats her more like a meddlesome aunt rather than the high-profile boss she really is. In his conversations with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the teasurary secretary assigned to help Bond in his assignment, the witty banter is contagious; at one moment, Bond even yells a “Shut up” in her face. Not exactly the sophisticated ladies’ man, quite?
The plot of the film takes us to the Casino Royale in Montengro, where Bond must participate in a poker game led by terrorist funder Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Le Chiffre is funding the “freedom fighters” of the world and helps using the funds garnered by his poker games as a “reasonable rate of return” and leverage for his business. Midway through the film, when Bond stops one of Le Chiffre’s desired targets, a prototype jumbo jet, from certain disaster, thus ruining a vital financial agreement, Le Chiffre is forced to earn back the considerable sum of money lost. This adds a desperate edge to Le Chiffre and along with the stakes at hand (and the millions of lives at stake), it adds a certain electricity to the poker scenes between Bond, Le Chiffre and others, and the eye contact just sells the magnitude of the situation — Craig has a particular magnetisim that grips you right in and never lets you go.
Casino Royale succeeds on almost every level. As general pop entertainment. As a thrilling, spy thriller. As a classic, hard-eged James Bond adaptation that mixes Ian Fleming’s pulp roots into a contemporary setting. The performances are stellar and the production values top-notch, the script is up-to-par and the direction is sublime. But what makes the movie so gripping is the connectivity of the characters and most importantly the connectivity we feel for Bond. Hard-edginess and masochism aside, Bond is a vulnerable, beatable entity who bleeds and hurts, not only physically but emotionally as well. When a waiter asks Bond how he wants his Vodka martini: shaken or stirred, Bond merely replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”. And a Bond who hardly gives a damn is a Bond we can all the more give a damn about.