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Casino Royale (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 November 2006
The big question, supposedly, is this: IS Daniel Craig James Bond? He’s a bit shorter than most of the actors who’ve played British agent 007, with the most rugged build of any Bond since when Connery was a pup; he’s blond while most Bonds had black hair (but Moore’s was brown); he’s more working class (like Connery) than aristocratic. And he’s himself: intensely masculine, tending toward brooding and poker-faced (appropriately enough here).

Eon Productions, who’ve been turning these out since “Dr. No” in 1962, have chosen to reset the clock. They finally landed the rights to the first Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” which has been in the hands of others almost since Ian Fleming wrote it in 1953. There was, of course, that big-scale flamboyant comedy of the 1960s with at least four James Bonds, and a TV production in the 1950s in which Bond was an American (and played by Barry Nelson). So now that they had Bond novel #1 and a new actor in the role, they have started over: “Casino Royale” is presented as the first assignment of James Bond as a double-oh agent.

Surprisingly, the movie opens in black and white, and just before Bond achieves double-oh status; to attain that, he has to have registered two “kills.” And we see him make them in these black and white scenes.

After the credits—not half as impressive as Maurice Binder’s for a lot of the earlier Bond films—Bond (Daniel Craig, as if you didn’t know) is in Madagascar keeping an eye on a guy in the crowd watching a mongoose fight a cobra. The target’s hand is tipped and he takes off running—in one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, on-foot chases in movie history. Down streets, through crowds, along hallways, through buildings, over walls, and then ALL over a building under construction, including both participants leaping back and forth between towering construction cranes, it’s a stuntman’s dream and an example of brilliant action editing. The guy Bond is chasing is Sebastien Foucan, an artist in the recently developed sport of “free running.” He was worth whatever he cost—trust me, you’ve never seen a chase like this.

It ends with Bond capturing the guy—and finding himself facing the guns of police. He shoots his quarry dead, blows up a gas tank and flees in the commotion. (This may have been intended to echo one of the most famously cold-blooded sequences in “Dr. No:”—the “you’ve had your six” scene.) Back in England, Bond’s boss M (the returning and welcome Judi Dench) has just had her ass chewed out for Bond’s world-spanning headlines—British agent kills unarmed man. (True but misleading—there were all those OTHER well-armed men.)
teShe tells him to watch it, buster, but this young Bond is full of himself and tenacious. He learns the ultimate target is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the banker for terrorists who gets rich off incidents such as 9/11. On his own, Bond traces (via cell phones) one of Le Chiffre’s contacts to the Bahamas. He has a brief fling with Solange (Caterina Murino), girlfriend of his quarry, Dimitrio (Simon Abkarian), but abandons her in a flash to follow Abkarian to Miami.

From a “Body Works” exhibition featuring human and animal bodies with their skins off, Bond skillfully follows Abkarian to the airport. He’s intent on blowing up the biggest passenger plane in the world, which is about to make its debut. This sets up another astonishing, action-packed, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it car chase and gun battle on the airport tarmac, punctuated with explosions.

But of course, Bond saves the day. M is still annoyed, since Bond was acting on his own, but this event enables her to give him his primary assignment. Le Chiffre, an inveterate gambler, was counting making the airliner company’s stock plummet after the explosion of the big plane. But since it didn’t happen, he’s lost over $100 million—of money given him by terrorists. And they want it back.

He intends to win it back in a VERY high-stakes poker game in Montenegro’s Casino Royale. Bond, known to be a good poker player himself, is sent to Montenegro in the company of Vesper Lynde (Eva Green), who’s handling the money for M and M16. She impresses Bond by being unimpressed by him.

Montenegro is played by picture-postcard, fairy-tale towns in the Czech Republic, quaint buildings painted in pastels, among tall green hills. And there’s Casino Royale, of course, which has attracted many of the world’s top poker players. Bond and Vesper make contact with Mathis (the very welcome Giancarlo Giannini), a suave, debonair Italian working for MI6. Things are set for a showdown—but even after it happens, the movie somewhat unexpectedly continues to a bittersweet conclusion.

This is more romantic than any other Bond film than “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Craig’s Bond is new to international intrigue and this life style, and new to women like Vesper Lynd. Somewhat to his surprise, he finds himself actually falling in love with her. And she with him.

But of course, there are those card games to deal with. In the novel, it was Chemin de Fer (Baccarat), but here, trendily, it’s Texas Hold Em, a particularly nerve-wracking poker variation. Then there’s the torture scene: a nude Bond is dropped into a chair whose wicker bottom has been cut away. Le Chiffre tortures Bond by slamming what hangs down with a thickly knotted rope. (In the book it was a carpet beater, but who beats carpets any more?)

There’s a climax set in Venice with a collapsing house, with some scenes set at beautiful Lake Como, George Clooney’s swimming pool.

Eon Productions is taking a big risk here. The four Pierce Brosnan Bond movies were the biggest grossers of the entire series; there’s always the chance, of course, that it was Brosnan AS Bond that was the selling point—and here they are, foisting a different Bond off on a perhaps skeptical public. Certainly Craig isn’t a suave, elegant type like Brosnan and Timothy Dalton, but he looks great in a swimming suit—there’s a shot cheekily aping the appearances of Ursula Andress and Halle Berry in their Bond outings. He’s not great with a quip like Connery and Moore—and in fact, has hardly any quips. There’s a slight effort to distance him from all the other Bonds; for example, when he orders a vodka martini, the waiter politely inquires, “shaken or stirred?” “Like I give a damn,” snaps Bond. But he also INVENTS a cocktail, which the more traditionalist Bonds of the past probably would never do.

Fleming always described Bond as having a somewhat cruel face (and looking like Hoagy Carmichael, but let that go), which Craig certainly has. He rarely smiles here, and when he’s not smiling, he’s a bit scary—which is okay. After all, he does have a license to kill. He’s very rugged; you can believe him in these action scenes, which are more extreme than those handed to any of the Bonds of the past (other than, perhaps, when they were on skis). Unlike other Bonds, Craig’s 007 is challenged MEDICALLY; he almost dies from poison. It’s a little hard to picture Craig’s Bond as a golf devotee, but he does look good—great, in fact—in a tux.

The production team has surrounded Craig with a good, if unfamiliar, cast. There’s a lot more to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd than there was to most of the Bond leading ladies before her; she has a past, she has secrets, she’s very sharp—and she’s completely unused to being around violence and death, much less participating in it.

Danish Mads Mikkelsen is an excellent Bond opponent. Most Bond movies of the past were variations on the plot of “Goldfinger,” with an international mastermind out to conquer the world, or something like that. Le Chiffre is just trying to win a lot of money so the terrorists he works for won’t kill him, but he’s a much more personal and direct menace than those of the past. Auric Goldfinger chuckled, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” as he strolled out of the room where the automatic laser beam was set to slice Connery up the middle. Here, Le Chiffre personally tortures Bond—because he HAS to. If he can’t get Bond to spill the beans, he’s dead. He’s also given one of the movie’s more quotable lines. When we first meet him, someone asks, “Do you believe in God, Mr. Le Chiffre?” “No,” he replies, “I believe in a reasonable rate of return.” Mikkelsen has a great, hard face; you can believe it when we learn that under pressure, Le Chiffre weeps blood.

Felix Leiter, Bond’s counterpart from the CIA, has ranged from older than Bond (Cec Linder) to younger (Rik Van Nutter) to his contemporary (Jack Lord, David Hedison). Here, Here, Leiter is black, like Bernie Casey in the non-series “Never Say Never Again,” played by the exceptional Jeffrey Wright. He doesn’t have a lot to do this time, but I strongly suspect he’ll return because, as the end titles always promise, “James Bond Will Be Back.”

But will Daniel Craig? After watching the film, I felt that I had indeed seen a James Bond movie. Not as many quips, to be sure; more personal action scenes, definitely; beautiful woman, gambling, elegant drinks, the hero in and out of a tux. Craig is the man in charge, and for me, even though I was pulling for Clive Owen, Daniel Craig fills James Bond’s shoes just fine.

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