Oh yes. Now we're talking...
Oh, how I've waited for this day. Work commitments prevented me from attending any previews, but this Saturday, saturated with impatience, I finally found my way into a belated screening of Casino Royale. Ho ho! In a stark contrast to last Saturday night when my car was broken into and the stereo stolen, Mr. Bond just gave and gave and gave, and not once did he ask for anything in return. Well, he did insist on six quid for a ticket (I forgot my pass, d'oh!), but that's by the by. You can't really have escaped all things 007 in the last few weeks, as the pre-release hype has saturated the media like a jar of beetroot emptied over your best white shirt, but in case you've been holidaying in Darfur or something Casino Royale is the first "New Bond"; new lead, new style, new writing, new direction. Shiny.
It must have come as something of a shock to the Broccoli camp when The Bourne Identity showed up and quite unexpectedly redefined what everyone expected from a modern day spy movie; no stupid gadgets, no bloody invisible cars (oy, oy, oy...), no dodgy quips, and most certainly no evil mastermind with a quirky hideout in some exotic location. No doubt it was a bitter pill to swallow, but in throwing a covert spanner in James' works Jason Bourne has done everyone with a fondness for Bond-ness the biggest favour imaginable. Faced with the realisation that the franchise has essentially been peddling lunatic... well, shit since Connery left, and possibly even a while before that, the 007 posse has regrouped and formulated a new strategy.
The decision to go back to Fleming's first Bond novel, the only remaining book to so far have evaded treatment (Peter Sellers spoof aside), has proven a very wise choice indeed. In electing to break Bond down and build him back up from scratch, Broccoli's production team have chosen the best possible material, transposing the action into the present day while asking the audience to forget everything they've come to take for granted over the last 44 years. The basic plot remains the same as the source material; Bond, newly promoted to double-o status, is elected to take part in a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Monte Carlo, as set up by international arms financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Old Le Chiffre owes some very nasty types a lot of money you see, and with his latest deal long off the boil his lethal skills as a card sharp are his best shot at success. The only problem is that if Bond fails to play a blinder not only will MI6 miss their chance to uncover his opponent's dealings, but they will also have directly financed international terror organisations to the tune of $10,000,000.
Now that would be a bad thing indeed, and while Bond may be the best player the Service has to offer he is, unlike his previous incarnations, far from the perfect spy. Still a tad green around the gills and with an often unprofessional ego struggling to fit inside his head, the new James is far from the infallible hero of yesteryear who would sneak into a secret lair, shoot and/or duff up scores of henchmen, blow everything in sight up and walk out without a sullied hair on his head. Oh no. This Bond gets dirty and, more importantly, often beaten to within an inch of his life. Bond now bleeds, ladies and gentlemen, and he does so often because he is, get this, human. In keeping with this startling new ethos he also makes mistakes, which hardly sounds shattering outwith the context of the franchise, but to an empire built on indestructibility the slightest hint of doubt about our man's composure comes as something of an earthquake.
Keeping an eye on the money and the man is Treasury Accountant Vesper Lynd (the stunning Eva Green), tasked with signing off Bond's stake at the table and quite capable of pulling the plug on his antics any time she pleases. it's a rare position of power for a woman within the Bond world, but in keeping with the new approach green is given far more to do than just look pretty. It seems every successive movie has placed great emphasis on how much more of a "match" the latest eye candy will prove for our tuxedo-wearing lead, yet never has this promise been delivered on. And no, sticking a gun in Halle Berry's hand while she, yep, struts about in a bikini does not count as adding depth of character. Of course our man does finally win the icy heart of Lynd, but here the act of bedding some totty is not intended to reinforce some masculine stance so much as it is to lever away at Bond's frailty.
Just as James collects the physical scars of his recklessness at work so he finds himself indelibly marked in matters of the heart also. Much is made of Bond's infatuation with this woman who dares to bring him down a peg or two, and while it's actually one of the least successful elements of the movie it still offers far more of an insight as to how he evolves into the callous womaniser we have always been familiar with. Not since Dr. No way back in '62 have we seen him display such remorseless tendencies toward his targets either, as, like Fleming always portrayed in his novels, this time around our favourite agent is quite often a completely cold shit of a man who doesn't much mind sticking a bullet in a defenceless target when he can't be bothered reaching a more amicable settlement.
"But what of Bond himself?" you cry. I've deliberately been keeping that bit on ice since I'm more excited about Daniel Craig than anything else. Like James himself, Craig's performance is not perfect, but having always been ecstatic about his appointment in the first place I trust that this is by design rather than flaw. Craig has wisely left room to grow from the cockiness here to the next level of Bond's evolution, and with the ending left wide open to continue the story into the next movie if necessary I didn't doubt for a second that the lead has a firm arc for the character plotted neatly in his head. Daniel Craig is often spoken of as having "been around for a while but never peaked", while from all the evidence I've gathered watching his films I prefer to see him as a considered actor more concerned with learning his craft than rapidly climbing the escalator of commercial success. As he settles into his new role I guarantee this man will breathe new life into a franchise that has grown stale with complacency, and I offer you a guarantee, dear readers, that by the end of the next installment Craig will be ranked as at least an equal to Connery, if you don't already decide so on the evidence here.
Of course all is not perfect in the world of Casino Royale, and for every great stride forward there is a tiny little blemish to be addressed. Primarily director Martin Campbell, no stranger to the franchise having directed previous "re-invention" Goldeneye, could have been a bit more judicious in the editing department. At over two hours twenty there's enough fat around the edges to have trimmed a good ten per cent or so, and as thrilling a movie as it is you'll still be shifting in your seat a little toward the end. Also, despite both performances being excellent, Craig and Green never quite pull off the infatuation thing, and the sudden speed with which they go from mutual distrust and verbal sparring to doe-eyed adoration jars more than a little both in context and pace. As a centre piece to the whole shebang the poker game could also have done with cranking up the tension a little, which sounds like sacrilege given what happens to our hero halfway through, but remains the truth nonetheless. I would also offer a word on product placement, but I'll let you discover that particular gem for yourself. Anyone wanna buy a watch? Sony Ericsson phone?
These relatively minor niggles aside Casino Royale is a treat indeed. Infinitely more mature than at least sixteen of its predecessors, and frequently brutal to within an inch of its 12A certificate, here is a film that delivers exactly what it promises and, amazingly, succeeds in making you forget all that went before. Casino Royale is more than a lick of paint on a cracked ceiling: it's the removal of the upper floor and replacement with modern materials. The single biggest achievement I can think of is that upon leaving the cinema I immediately concluded that this is exactly what a Bond movie should have been like from the start. No daft gadgets, no insurmountable odds swiftly surmounted, no ludicrous skydiving stunts or jaunts into space and certainly no saving the globe from nuclear armageddon. Just a dude with a gun and his often fallible wits who struggles to stay alive while coming to terms with some difficult decisions. And a shit load of stuff blowing up, of course. Same different Bond again, please...
I award this movie 4 out of 5 Disko units.
Eva Green (Vesper Lynd)
Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre)