Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Casino Royale / **** (PG-13)

James Bond: Daniel Craig
Vesper Lynd: Eva Green
Le Chiffre: Mads Mikkelsen
Mathis: Giancarlo Giannini
M: Judi Dench
Felix Leiter: Jeffrey Wright

MGM presents a film directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Running time: 144 min. Rated PG-13 (for scenes of intense action violence, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity).

“Bond is back!”

Those three words form one of the most frequently used taglines in movie history. Not many other characters have been able to endure a franchise with entries well into double digits. At 21 and counting (plus a couple of non-franchise entries), it is hard to believe any one movie hero will ever surpass the success of everyone’s favorite British spy, James Bond. Perhaps this is due to the ever changing face of Bond himself.

Whenever the producers, the Broccoli family, feel the character is beginning to lose validity with audiences, they recast the role -- usually in a different direction. Original producer Albert Broccoli had to fight the studio to cast virtually unknown Scotsman Sean Connery as the super spy, but Connery’s cool delivery and suave charm grabbed audiences from the get go. The franchise gained more camp as it went along and after George Lazenby decided he didn’t want the fame after “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, Broccoli decided to capitalize on the one-liners with the casting of Roger Moore, star of TV’s “The Saint”, as Bond. When Moore had grown a little too long in the tooth, Broccoli tried to cast an actor who was all charm for the role, Pierce Brosnan. Conflicting contract obligations, however, meant Brosnan would have to wait for the next casting change. Instead Timothy Dalton was tapped for the task of toughening the character up, but the well-established camp of the series counteracted that attempt.

Now, we get Daniel Craig (“Layer Cake”) in his first appearance as Bond. And along with him comes a second attempt to toughen the character up and to evoke more of what can be found in Ian Fleming’s novels: a pained and dangerous man who kills people for a living. This time the tough approach takes. Even the film stock seems grainy in this update of Fleming’s seminal 007 novel. Gone are the one-liners, gadgets and super villains bent on world domination. This Bond is not always suave; he makes mistakes, and he’s a bit of a jerk. But it all boils down to the most intriguing portrayal of the super spy to reach the screen.

Of the Bond films up to now, “From Russia with Love” has always been my favorite; it’s also the previous Bond film “Casino Royale” comes closest to resembling. “From Russia with Love” was only the second in the series, and the producers had yet to come up with many of the franchise’s more obligatory signatures. The tech department wiz Q was first introduced in that film, but the gadgets were fairly simple and even practical. With this new film there are a couple of gadgets, but little is made of them beyond their practical use in the storyline and Q is never mentioned.

“Russia” was also the least campy film up until now. There are still a couple of jokes and innuendo dropped in here and there, but Craig is so serious it would be easy to miss his one-liners, which seem to be made in half seriousness anyway. Craig plays a severe Bond, who does lighten up a little as the film goes on thanks to the growing relationship he has with his colleague, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “Kingdom of Heaven”). They start out very catty, but their relationship matures in a way almost unfitting to the James Bond world. The direction of the characters might seem to get a little sappy if it weren’t for the harsh surroundings from which their relationship buds.

Of course, little is what it seems at first in James Bond’s world. Bond himself strikes his MI6 superior M (Judi Dench, the only returning cast member from previous Bonds) as a reckless rogue agent until it becomes apparent he truly is trying to do his job. There are role reversals of characters who seem to be friends but turn out to be enemies and enemies who help Bond to further their own agendas. Bond’s CIA counterpart Felix Leiter is also introduced. I say “introduced” in hopes that the CIA will play a larger role in the next Bond film, since the wonderful actor Jeffrey Wright (“Lady in the Water”) is underutilized in the role here.

Another similarity to “From Russia with Love” lies in the villain of “Casino Royale”. In “Russia” Bond’s biggest obstacle was an assassin played by Robert Shaw. The assassin was employed by a larger group known as SPECTRE, but that organization did not make much of an appearance in the story. Here, the primary villain is again merely a small fish who Bond’s people are interested in only for the information he can provide on a larger criminal organization. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, “King Arthur”) is a banker who holds money for terrorist organizations and guerrilla fighters. He is sponsored by an unnamed organization represented here by Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, “The Interpreter”), but it is Le Chiffre who is MI6 and the CIA’s main quarry.

The majority of the plot centers around not some train robbery of a nuclear warhead or conflict diamonds to build a giant superconducting ray gun but a high stakes game of poker where Le Chiffre is trying to win back terrorist money he lost in a stock scam Bond foiled. The film’s suspense is approached in much the same way as a gambling flick like “The Cincinnati Kid” or “The Hustler”. But it is well handled by veteran Bond director Martin Campbell (“Goldeneye”) and effective even after some spectacular action sequences that open the picture.

“Casino Royale” is not really a far cry from what audiences have come to expect from a James Bond picture, although there are times when it may seem as if it comes from different source material. Campbell has traded in garish visual effects-based action sequences for rough and tumble hand-to-hand combat, but retains the series’ criterion for innovation with its action. And it is sexy as hell. Craig may not have the debonair looks of Brosnan, but a quick homage to the first Bond film, “Dr. No”, finds him in a swimsuit that will make the ladies squirm in their seats. And, like his predecessors, he does clean up quite nicely in a tux.

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