It’s back to basics for the Bond franchise with “Casino Royale,” simultaneously a prequel and an updating that introduces us to the British superspy at the beginning of his 007 career but relocates the event to the present. Just think of it as the espionage equivalent of what the WB did with a superhero in “Smallville.” In certain respects the remodeling job is welcome; but in others it may be a mite disappointing for die-hard fans. On the one hand, the picture is a solid action-adventure in the modern mold, with the requisite blend of derring-do, suspense, romance, villainy and gorgeous locations, and it’s expertly crafted in every respect. But it’s also just a little anonymous amidst so many similar films, and in particular it lacks the sense of tongue-in-cheek humor that marked the earlier Bond movies. (No outrageous gadgets or disappearing cars in sight.) Whether it will revive the series or help shut it down remains to be seen; but the prognosis looks good.
Of course, the picture also introduces a new Bond–Daniel Craig, who, as a result of the prequel character of the piece, takes a place at the head of the footsteps left successively (and with very different levels of success) by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan. Craig plays the part quite straight and serious. He doesn’t wink at the audience or plant his tongue firmly in cheek, and the off-the-cuff witticisms the character ordinarily tosses off are here at a minimum; in fact, you might see more of the dour Jason Bourne in him than of the cinema’s earlier, more ostentatiously flamboyant, Bond. That’s not to say that he isn’t impressive, in a stern, no-nonsense way, or that he–or his stand-in–doesn’t handle the physical aspects of the role, including numerous fights and chases, extremely well; only that he’s not nearly as much fun as some of his predecessors. (On the positive side, of course, he doesn’t slip into self-parody in the way that Moore, for example, certainly did.) Of course, many Bond fanciers will consider a portrayal closer in spirit to Fleming’s original a distinct plus. Those used to the previous screen incarnations, on the other hand, may not.
As to the plot, this isn’t the first time that the title has appeared on marquees, but in a very real sense it is the first that Ian Fleming’s book has actually reached the screen. The 1967 “Casino Royale” wasn’t part of the Bond franchise but a wildly flamboyant send-up with multiple directors and a host of actors playing “Bond”–among them Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. It was one of the great surrealistic follies of its age, and though it’s interesting from a historical standpoint, it remains a pretty bad movie. This time around, scripters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis have done a pretty fair job of respecting the overall shape of the book’s plot while re-booting it, as it were, for the modern age. Gone, of course, are the Cold War references and the whole SMERSH apparatus, replaced by a twenty-first century form of villainy: a shadowy bunch of highly-connected bad-guys who flourish by laundering money for dictators and terrorists and investing it to secure profit for both their unsavory customers and themselves.
Enter the neophyte Bond, just earning his license-to-kill double-O status, who uncovers the operation on his own after very publicly blowing the simple snatch of an African bomber (cue a great chase across construction sites and cranes, reminiscent of “District B13” and Tony Jaa but no less exhilarating for that) and being dressed down by a distressed M (the returning Judi Dench). Bond’s initiative puts MI6 onto a couple of fellows implicated in the operation–oily Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) and “banker” Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen)–and before long he’s looking into the former’s business by bedding his slinky girlfriend Solange (Caterina Murino), foiling the attempted destruction of a new-generation airliner at Miami airport (a long, well-staged action sequence) and being assigned to bring Le Chiffre to his financial knees by beating him in an international card tournament.
Bond, you see, is an expert poker player (in the book, the game was baccarat, but this version takes advantage of poker’s new-found popularity as a spectator sport), and, funded by the Brit treasury represented by pound-counting Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), he takes to the table against Le Chiffre. The game is an elaborate and prolonged set-piece that allows for some suspense and bon mots as well as more fistfights, a poisoning, the introduction of a cynical local agent (Giancarlo Giannini), a brief reversal, the intervention of CIA mainstay Felix Leiter (underused Jeffrey Wright), and a budding romance between Bond and Lynd–all very smoothly integrated, even if the actual strategies of play are never successfully clarified and the outcome, which seems clear, suddenly turns very muddy indeed.
That’s because as so often happens nowadays, the makers feel compelled to provide an over-the-top last act, with twists and turns galore, designed to take the breath away. But a bondage (pun intended) scene too reminiscent of the recent “Mission Impossible III” (though considerably more sadistic), a double-cross and a collapsing building episode that seems to take longer that the destruction of Pompeii, all culminating in a last triumphant moment for our hero (though one tinged with tragedy and regret), eventually take their toll as climax is piled upon climax. One recognies that all the gyrations and reversals are occurring to mold the Bond character into the more worldly, suspicious, fellow we know from “later” installments, particularly in terms of getting over-involved with women. But that doesn’t make them any more welcome. “Casino” rolls on for nearly two and a half hours, and by the 120 minute point you’ll begin to feel that whatever cards the makers still have up their sleeves might be better left unplayed.
Yet the picture remains an expert exercise in action-adventure of the modern sort, situated in gorgeous foreign locales and attractive sets (courtesy of production designer Peter Lamont, supervising art director Simon Lamont, and set decorators Lee Sandales and Simon Wakefield) expertly choreographed by director Martin Campbell and stunt coordinator Gary Powell and lovingly shot (by Phil Meheux). Craig’s steadiness at the center is complemented by the professionalism of Dench, Wright and Giannini, and Mikkelsen makes a good villain, even if he lacks the extravagance of a Goldfinger or a Blofeld (he has a vulnerable side both would have disdained). But though both Green and Murino are lovely, neither will displace earlier Bond girls from the crowded pantheon. It might also be noted that the title sequence, always a special part of a Bond picture, is here pretty unimpressive–a perfect example of an idea that’s probably better in concept than in execution–and the opening song by Chris Cornell is instantly forgettable.
If you go to “Casino Royale” expecting an old-fashioned Bond romp, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re willing to set aside preconceptions and accept a more standard-issue action-adventure of the new school, you’ll find it an expert, if overlong, example of the genre.