James Bond is back in top form with Casino Royale, a terrificfranchise reboot that introduces a new actor, Daniel Craig, in the role ofthe British agent and brings a more realistic, low-tech approach to a44-year-old franchise. The end result is a taut, character-driven espionagethriller that will silence the internet naysayer crowd while giving longtimefans plenty to cheer about.
Casino Royale opens with a terrific black-and-white sequence that showsBond earning his License to Kill. His first mission as a 00 agent takes himto Madagascar to spy on a terrorist named Mollaka. Things don’t quite go asplanned, resulting in an embarrassing global situation for the Britishgovernment.
This doesn’t stop Bond from independently furthering hisinvestigation to track down the rest of the terror cell. He follows a leadto the Bahamas and uncovers an aviation terrorist plot. The plot is foiledby 007, which brings him back into semi-good graces with his superior, M(Judi Dench), who has discovered that an international banker for terroristsnamed Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is now $100 million in the hole over thebotched attack.
To get the money back, Le Chiffre is playing in a high-stakes poker gamein Montenegro at Le Casino Royale. MI6 assigns 007 to play against LeChiffre, knowing that if he loses it will destroy his organization (if Bondloses, the British Government will have directly financed terrorism). Butthere are strings attached: M places Bond under the watchful eye of Treasuryagent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). At first skeptical of what value Vesper canprovide, Bond’s interest in her deepens as the marathon game proceeds withincreasing volumes of dirty tricks, violence and danger.
Being a fan of the 007 series, even I would have to admit thatthe recent entries, 1995′s wonderfully entertaining Goldeneye aside,were lacking truly memorable elements. Pierce Brosnanmade for a fine Bond, but iffy screenplays, weak villains andoverdependence on stunts and visual effects hampered both Tomorrow NeverDies and The World Is Not Enough and downright sunk 2002′s DieAnother Day.
As much of a creative dud as the latter was however, it did rake in close tohalf a billion dollars, an unqualified success that is worthy (from afinancial point of view) of the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.Fortunately, the producers thought otherwise and decided to give thefranchise a creative kick in the pants by making the next film an originfeature, getting a new actor to play Bond and place him into a morerealistic (read: post-9/11) world. And what better source material to usethan Fleming’s first James Bond novel, published in 1953? Creatively, thistype of thinking is commendable. Financially, it’s a gamble: why tinker withan economically sound and still-beloved franchise and risk alienating yourreliable fan base?
The only people who can answer those questions are producers Michael GWilson and Barbara Broccoli. I, however, am more than happy to report thattheir gamble has paid off handsomely. Casino Royale, expertly directed byMartin Campbell (Goldeneye) and smartly written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wadeand Crash director Paul Haggis, is an exciting, intense andsurprisingly involving espionage thriller that rarely misses a beat.
Using Fleming’s book as its source material and embodied in an outrightterrific performance by Daniel Craig (whom I never doubted would excel inthis role), the film presents Bond as an arrogant, rough around the edgesindividual who has yet to evolve into the tuxedo-wearing, Martini-swilling,double-entendre sprouting, ladies man/secret agent we all know and love.
This Bond, in this film, is fallible: he screws up, bruises, bleeds and makesthe mistake of falling in love. This is a different type of James Bond,darker, edgier and more human. Craig perfectly conveys all of this and more,taking one of the most familiar characters in cinema history and moving himin completely new and welcome directions.
Our hero isn’t the only one that gets a revamp. Le Chiffre (played with acool, menacing intensity by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), isn’t your typicalBond heavy out for global domination or to destroy the world with a deadlylaser. He’s merely a financier who is in very deep trouble with his clients.And as played by the beautiful Eva Green, Vesper is not your typical BondGirl. She’s a smart, calculating individual who proves to be James’ equal inmany ways. Dench, the sole holdover from the Brosnan series, excels again asM; Giancarlo Giannini is enjoyable as a local who helps 007, while JeffreyWright is low-key as CIA agent Felix Leiter.
If you are worried that Casino Royale is nothing more than a darkcharacter piece, rest assured that there are still plenty of old-school Bondbits (exciting action scenes, explosions, beautiful women and fast cars) tobe had. Not as much as before, but still enough and ones that work inservice of the story instead of detracting from it.
Whether or not future 007 instalments will continue the level of qualityfound in Casino Royale is anyone’s guess. For now, Bond fans shouldbe ecstatic that Martin Campbell and company got this one right and did soin a big, big way. The end credits once again promise that James Bond willreturn. For the first time in a long time, I am genuinely thrilled by thatprospect.