A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 144 mins.
James Bond: Daniel Craig / Vesper Lynd: Eva Green / Le Chiffre: Mads Mikkelsen / M: Judi Dench / Mathis: Giancarlo Giannini
Directed by Martin Campbell / Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis / Based on the novel by Ian Fleming
When the Ian Fleming created his fictional secret British secret spy, Commander James Bond, I have doubts that he truly realized the scope, brevity, and popularity of his character. After a series of novels and short stories, twenty major – and official – feature films, as well as a tidal wave of comic books and computer games, it’s abundantly clear that this super double agent is among the most cherished and consistently popular figures in all of modern fiction. Nobody...does it better.
Fleming created his spy way, way back in 1952 while he was on vacation at his Jamaican estate called – yes – the Goldeneye. By the author’s own admission, Bond was named after an American ornithologist of the same name who was an expert on Caribbean birds. However, the true inspiration for 007 came from a real spy - Dušan Popov, a Serb double agent that worked for both the British and Germans. Popov was also widely considered a promiscuous playboy that flirted incessantly, so it’s no wonder where Bond got his womanizing ways from.
So, if Fleming was not an avid bird watcher, then perhaps one of the key fictional characters of the 20th Century would have never been created. Since Fleming liked birds and owned a copy of the real James Bond’s field guide, the fictional James Bond began to take shape. Why the name Bond? In Fleming’s own words, he wanted, “The simplest, dullest, and plainest sounding name" he could find. He wanted him to be "a neutral figure – an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.” Within no time Fleming’s agent would see the living daylights through a series of very successful novels and short stories. When Fleming died in 1964 the further adventures of Bond were still realized on the page, but like most popular books today, movie adaptations seemed inevitable.
Amazingly, there are now 21 films of James Bond’s adventures that have made it to the silver screen since Sean Connery made a splash as the character in 1962’s DR. NO. These films – produced by EON pictures – are considered Bond “canon” (there was one American film adaptation of Fleming’s first novel and there was also a largely forgettable big screen remake of the same book starring David Niven as 007). Up to now, five actors have played James Bond with varying degrees of success and popularity. The first was Connery (1962-1971), largely worshipped as as the cinematic James Bond. Then there was the vastly underrated George Lazenby who starred in one the best least seen Bond entries in 1969's ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. Then there was Roger Moore (1973-1985) - the Bond I grew up with - who I would consider a close second to Connery. Timothy Dalton (1987-1989) – not everyone’s favorite Bond, but somewhat close to Fleming’s vision of the role – came after Moore. Then, of course, came our most recent and – in my mind – most overrated of the Bonds, Pierce Brosnan, who made some respectable 007 adventures that started to veer a little of course into large scale spectacle more than they should have.
Now, meet the new James Bond: Daniel Craig. After seeing this newest version of CASINO ROYALE – BOND 21 and the first Bond picture since THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS to use a Fleming story for inspiration – I may be setting myself up for a lot of criticism by saying, unequivocally, that Craig just may be the best James Bond to hit the screen.
Now, okay, I am not saying that he is necessarily better that Sean Connery (some could construe that as being as sacrilegious as saying that THE PHANTOM MENACE is better than THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). Yet, I must make my delineation very clear here. Connery is the best movie James Bond. Daniel Craig is – by far – the best Ian Fleming James Bond to appear in a film. If one considers that Fleming’s original vision was to create an “anonymous blunt instrument” that was cold, detached, somewhat ruthless, and cunning, then Craig most certainly fits that bill better than Brosnan, Dalton, Moore, Lazenby, and – yes – even Connery.
The glorious aspect of CASINO ROYALE is that – like last year’s BATMAN BEGINS – it completely and spectacularly reboots an aging franchise that was slowing beginning to demonstrate a real lack of ingenuity and gusto. That is not to say that the last few Bond films were not financially successful and popular (the last Brosnan film was the highest grossing 007 film ever), but the franchise was starting to leave me feeling weary. Surely, the players behind the camera have not changed much. The producers are all the same (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara – son of Cubby – Broccoli). Two of the writers of this film wrote the last two Bond films (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with a script re-write by two time Oscar winner Paul Haggis). The director of the film (Michael Campbell) has also helmed a previous Bond film, Brosnan’s first one, GOLDENEYE. The people envisioning this new, retrofitted James Bond for the 21st Century are all – collectively, at least – veterans of the franchise. It a testament to their open-mindedness and willingness to be daring with something as cherished as Bond is to moviedom to completely reinterpret the character.
This is not another entry into the past Bond canon and mythos. This is not so much BOND 21 as it’s the very first James Bond film in a new series of films. This is an origin story of who Bond is, how he got his 00 status (note to viewers: he has to get two field kills, in any manner possible), how he developed his ruthless skills as a spy, how he developed a curious disdain for members of the opposite sex for being only useful for all manners sexual, and – yes – it even goes out of its way to showcase how and where Bond got his first Aston Martin. CASINO ROYALE cheerfully and audaciously throws the entire series that has preceded it out the window and has started utterly anew and fresh. The makers are not messing with cinematic apple pie, metaphorically speaking. Rather, they're just adjusting the ingredients and how the recipe is put together.
Truth be told, there are a lot of Bond elements that purists will find missing. Firstly, and most crucially, there are no outrageously conceived gadgets. Instead, this new Bond uses guns, knives, and his prowess and muscle. There is no sarcastic and acerbic Q to create such toys or to mercilessly criticize Bond. The new Bond would never put up with Q’s bickering. There is also no Miss Moneypenny for Bond to flirt with. There are no fantastical action set pieces that border on pure make-believe and fantasy. There is plenty of action in this new Bond, but it’s more rough and viscerally frantic, chaotic, and bloody (which may be simultaneously an ode to both Fleming and to another new and enjoyable action/spy hero, Jason Bourne). There are no buxom lasses with IQ’s that could not match their show sizes for Bond to procreate with. The new Bond women have brains as well as assets and are more of a difficult catch for Bond’s pursuits. There are also no cartoonishly silly looking evil villains that want world domination and yearn to see Bond placed in an elaborate and exotic trap that they hope will lead to his satisfying death…like putting him into a pool of water with ill-tempered, mutated sea bass. Er…wait…wrong franchise.
The most crucial - and welcome - difference is Bond himself, and as played in a performance of raw, tenacious bravado, tenacity, and pure refined testosterone by Craig, this 00 agent is one fierce and ruthless killing machine. Craig – at least at first – may seem like an atypical choice. He’s not sexy, per se, like Connery’s charming spy. He dies not have the cheeky and sharp-tongued wit like Moore’s version. He’s not soft spoken and suave like Brosnan’s. Nope, Craig’s Bond is probably the closest approximation to what Fleming originally envisioned. With his chiseled, boxer-like physique, his world weary and battled hardened face, and his piercing and penetrating blue eyes, Craig is definitely not a fancy pants, pretty boy Bond. His Bond is much more concerned with taking out his victims first and lashing out with the sly and droll quips a distant second. He’s vicious, arrogant, reckless, and wickedly amoral, especially when it comes to having sex with married women (his self-professed favorite kind). This is the cinema’s most remorseless Bond, one who kills without thinking too much about it and does not give a damn when waiters ask him whether or not he wants his martinis shaken or stirred. He does not give a damn. This Bond is pure no-nonsense. He has a cruel and detached charisma, which kind of makes him that much more exciting and invigorating as a character.
CASINO ROYALE – aside from its revolutionary handling of it’s main attraction – also does an exemplary job of staying fairly faithful in tone and plot to the novel. ROYALE was Fleming’s first Bond novel and shows how Bond has completed the requirements for 00 status (this is presented in a nifty introductory black and white montage which subsequently converts to color for yet another inventive and catchy title sequence). His superior, M (one of the few staple Bond elements to reappear here, and still played by Judi Dench) seems convinced that Bond is not ready for the spy game just yet. Bond’s first real mission is to track down a financial subsidizer of terrorism in the world. The opening scenes of the film demonstrate Bond’s intelligence and sophistication as a detective, as he follows clues and hints to places like the Bahamas to Miami.
He soon learns the real identity of his prey, Le Chiffre (the quietly menacing Mads Mikkelsen) who – through his own financial backer – is going to enter a very exclusive, winner take all, no limited Texas Hold ‘Em game at the famed Casino Royale in Montenegro. Of course, Bond is the best poker player at MI6, so M decides to get him bankrolled an in the game. To watch over him is an accountant named Vesper Lynd (played by the luminous and fetching French star Eva Green, who just may be the sexiest on-screen accountant in recent memory). Her and Bond have a nice meet cute. She introduces herself as "The Money,” to which Bond dryly retorts, “Yes, every penny.” Needless to say, Bond faces some nasty competition – and a few allies – at the game, where it soon becomes apparent that Le Chiffre will only loose to Bond over his dead body…literally.
CASINO ROYALE does have some familiar elements. This may be a more aggressive Bond film, but it still manages to have nicely placed bits of humor (Craig’s Bond is not a campy charlatan of verbal jabs like Moore's was, but he still manages to engage in some funny wordplay well placed one-liners. One is a real howler – and very self referential – where he tells Vesper Lynd that her alias at the poker game will be Stephanie Broadchest. Also, when he finally dishes out the character’s famous introductory line – which is incidentally the last line of the film - it’s a golden moment.
Aside from the film’s sense of humor (this is not a completely rigid and stone cold Bond), CASINO ROYALE arguably presents the most fleshed out, humanized, and vulnerable James Bonds since the 1960’s. The emotional arc the character goes through is broad, not to mention the physical one (this Bond is tortured by the villain in one sick scene in ways that you would never imagine any of the other Bond films going through). Craig's Bond is also not flawless and completely debonair. He makes mistakes and the consequences are sometimes dire (remember: he’s a new 00 agent). Bond gets thrown around a lot in the film and dishes out equal amounts of lethal force (previous Bonds barely broke a sweat in their films). After many moments of mayhem in CASINO ROYALE, Craig’s Bond looked like he just went the distance in an Ultimate Fighting title match up. He's often bruised, bloodied, and exhausted.
More importantly, his relationship with women is more delicately handled and sophisticated. Much has been mentioned about how Brosnan modernized Bond (plllleeeaase), but this new Bond meets his intellectual equal in Vesper Lynd. She is an unqualified babe, but she’s not that eager to jump into the sack with him. The film has the time to develop their cat and mouse relationship slowly and patiently. She fights off his charm and Bond needs to work overtime to win her over. This new approach to the female/Bond dynamic is kind of refreshing and intriguing. Vesper is not his sex toy that he will glibly forget in the morning. He actually grows to really love her and this all leads to a final act that – despite being a bit too dragged out for its own good – develops real, palpable tension and suspense, not to mention that it leaves Bond a very susceptible prey. Our personal buy-in and resonation with the character is CASINO ROYALE’s most noteworthy trait.
Daniel Craig and the people behind the camera have achieved nearly the impossible with CASINO ROYALE. They have taken a hallmark and essential character in the annals of cinematic history and have drastically and successfully reinvented him to starve off redundancy and stagnation in the 21st Century. Obviously, messing around with a persona as identifiable and as loved as James Bond may seem like a dubious task, but CASINO ROYALE is like a much needed punch to the gut of the franchise as a whole. Icons, no matter how cherished, are always ripe for reinterpretation and alteration, and Craig’s stirring ferocity and grizzled humanity that he brings to Bond proves that change is not only a good thing, but should be welcomed. Sure, some die-hard fans may miss Q, Miss Moneypenny, the dastardly super villains with henchmen named after killer sharks, and the gee-whiz spectacle of the Bond of old. Yet, many of them will find it hard to argue with CASINO ROYALE’s insistence on taking Bond more sternly and seriously. This new Bond is still flirtatious and smirky, but he has a license to kill and seems very keen on using it. With a 50-plus-year-old character that has a newfound and tightly coiled intensity and determination in the form of its new star - not to mention a faithfulness to author Ian Fleming’s original perception of the character - CASINO ROYALE is a wondrously entertaining and euphoric triumph. It deserves serious accolades for making something so old and familiar feel so new.
This is not the best Bond film in years, but in decades.