Early in Casino Royale, the head of British Intelligence, M (Dame Judi Dench) makes an offhand comment about how her job used to be much more simple: "Christ, I miss the Cold War." Well, that makes two of us, lady -- and the good news is that Casino Royale, the latest film celebrating the adventures of double-0 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is a great, gripping throwback to the Cold War intrigue, action and brutality of the early, best Bond films; in fact, Casino Royale is hands down the best action film of 2006.
My understanding and appreciation of the Bond character can pretty much be summed up in one written phrase -- and, ironically, it's not one by Ian Fleming. George Orwell noted how "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." That, to, me, is Bond -- he may stand ready in a great-looking suit, but nonetheless -- and fortunately, Casino Royale seems to understand that. Bond is a tool, a thug, what M calls "... a blunt instrument," Her Majesty's Neckbreaker. At the beginning of Casino Royale -- in a black-and-white pre-credit sequence -- Bond isn't even a double-0 agent yet. He's working on earning his wings, explaining to a fellow intelligence officer that he's already killed a man on orders. "How did he die?" Craig, as Bond, answers with a weary predator's smile: "Badly."
Watching Casino Royale, it's hard to imagine any of the kerfuffle that came with Craig's casting. Then again, where you stood on that particular question was more a matter of taste than anything else: If you preferred the champagne elegance and caviar camp of Roger Moore and the later Brosnan Bonds, you were dead-set against it; if you liked the bourbon-dark moods and morals of the early Connery, or the sense of feral danger in Bond that Dalton occasionally hinted at and Brosnan also evoked, Craig seemed like a natural choice. Craig is a physical actor -- he's got the best "action run" since Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 -- and a physical presence, but he also can manage smaller moments, as well.
And, surprisingly, there are smaller moments in the script. The writing team for Casino Royale filled Bond-watchers and film buffs alike with concern: Neal Purvis and Robert Wade had written The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, while the script was to be re-written by Paul Haggis of Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers. World and Die were so over-the-top as to be unwatchable, with their invisible cars and super-human bad guys; Haggis's taste for high-minded moralizing has made seeing any film with his name on it a grim, joyless trudge to the theater.
It's impossible to tell how much of Purvis and Wade remains, and how much Haggis added or changed, though, as Casino Royale does something the Bond films haven't done in years: Literally, it goes by the book. Ian Fleming's writing will never be confused with high art, but something in it got close to pulp entertainment heaven, and Casino Royale is a great example of how that happens. Part of the pleasure of Casino Royale the film is the simple, plainly-expressed joy of seeing professionals at work on the screen, whether gambling, doing surveillance work, being stylish or killing another human being with their bare hands.
And I keep coming back to the action and violence in Casino Royale, but so does the film; directed by Martin Campbell (who also crafted the Brosnan-based relaunch film, GoldenEye), Casino Royale takes it's action nods from the Bourne films and their ilk, as opposed to, say, Spider-Man: Gravity is real, two people fighting can be shot in an inventive way, and killing and dying can happen in an eye blink, or take an astonishingly long and brutal time. But there are moments of glamour and elegance in between the power and the glory; Bond was the original frequent flyer, and the plot skips from continent to continent, granting our leads plenty of time for costume changes and cocktail chatter. There's also humor here -- some of it fresh from the gallows, but other moments delivered with a sharp, smart gleam in their eye; one of the film's running jokes is that you get to watch Bond become Bond. I can't explain it, but watch -- it's all there, and all well-handled.
Action films -- and action heroes -- are only as satisfactory as their nemesis (which explains much of the warm place GoldenEye has in my heart -- for all of the satellite nonsense of the plot, Sean Bean was a perfect Doppelganger to Brosnan's Bond). Here, the villain of the piece is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikklesen, dead-eyed and creepy), a sociopath money man for terrorists. You give him cash; he invests it with a high rate of return; you can access it at any time, but talk about killer withdrawal fees. Le Chiffre's favorite investment strategy is to short a company's stock and then make bad news happen; as the stock tumbles, he makes a killing. (This seems like an excellent argument for SEC reform, but what do I know?) When one of his plans goes awry thanks to Bond's efforts, though, Le Chiffre's out over a hundred million -- which he intends to, has to, make back by running, and winning, a high-stakes game of poker -- at Casino Royale. Bond's assignment is simple: Make the $10 million buy-in. Win the game. Break Le Chiffre's bank, and thereby break him.
Bond's money manager in this affair is Treasury department functionary Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). She holds the money, although in the outfits she's wearing, it's hard to tell where, exactly, she might have the space. Green is certainly glamorous; she is also, thankfully, essential to the plot and character of the material, in tune with the tone of it and not possessed of a name which lends itself to smug, silly jokes; the specter of supporting character -- or, rather, caricature - Bond women like Denise Richards' nuclear physicist Christmas Jones doesn't haunt Casino Royale.
Casino Royale is a bit long -- weighing in at 144 minutes, it could have been a touch trimmed; then again, complaining that a multi-million dollar film intended to reboot a 40-year old franchise over-focuses on character is a rare complaint. Welcome back, Mr. Bond; hope to see you again soon.
For a different take on Casino Royale, read Ryan Stewart's review.
Also, dive into our Seven Days of 007 coverage. ...