The James Bond films have been around for over 40 years, which is amazing when you consider that none of them (since the Sean Connery era, at least) have been great. Sure, most of them have been fun and entertaining, but there are no masterpieces there. As I look over the list of Bond films from the past 25 years, I find that I can remember little of significance about any of them. What remains are only fragments: a few action scenes (Pierce Brosnan driving a tank in Goldeneye), some offbeat characters (Jaws from Moonraker), and a touch of sexuality (Halle Berry emerging from the ocean in Die Another Day). Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the plot was in any of them.
Perhaps part of the reason for this is that there has never been one directed by an A-list filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino has publicly expressed his desire to helm a Bond flick. Most producers would jump at that chance. Not the Bond producers, though. They politely pretended not to hear him. Then again, an A-list director would want to impose his personal vision on the project, and that might just be the death of the series. Perhaps it has endured for so long simply because no one ever tried radically retooling it.
When changes are made, they’re either slight or retro. Consider Casino Royale. To herald the arrival of Daniel Craig as Bond, the producers have eschewed some of the things that have characterized the series in recent years: over-reliance on high-tech gadgets, outlandish action sequences, Bond girls that look like they come out of Maxim magazine. Even the typically Freudian opening credits sequence has been replaced with a more stylized animated one with a playing card motif. In other words, they’ve returned to the same well that Connery dipped from. This is a leaner, meaner, edgier Bond than we’ve seen since Timothy Dalton briefly (and disastrously) stepped behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin.
The film opens with a black and white flashback, clueing us in to the fact that Casino Royale is a franchise reboot that takes the character back to his origins. We see Bond making his second kill, thereby entitling him to official “double-0” status. Then, as a full-fledged agent, he is assigned by M (Judi Dench) to track down a terrorist cell. In Madagascar, he keeps tabs on one particular terrorist, pursuing the guy in an insanely intense foot chase through a construction site. The twist of the chase is that Bond and his prey keep going up; they climb scaffolding, traverse wires, and jump from the top of one crane to another. It’s one of the most exhilarating scenes ever in a Bond picture.
The trail leads to the Bahamas, where Bond romances the wife of one suspect, and then to Montenegro. A man called Le Chiffre (the sinisterly-named Mads Mikkelsen) is the banker to a number of terrorist organizations, and he plans to raise some cash by holding a high-stakes poker tournament where players have to put in $10 million just to play. M fronts Bond the money to participate (and hopefully win so that the cash doesn’t go to terrorists). She also assigns another agent named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to watch over him. Actually, it is Bond who watches over her, as his attraction to her is instant.
So here’s the million dollar question: How is Daniel Craig as James Bond? I think he’s terrific. If they weren’t going to use Pierce Brosnan anymore, then it was a good decision to go a different way with the character. Craig is a talented actor who brings a much-needed sense of danger and recklessness to Bond. Given the shift in tone that Casino Royale takes, they cast the right guy. If you prefer the original Connery films, then this will take you back a little bit. Craig has the same kind of intensity that Connery had, yet he still brings his own unique touch to the character. They definitely got this one right.
Eva Green, on the other hand, makes for one of the most boring Bond girls ever. The actress, who also appeared in The Dreamers and Kingdom of Heaven, seems to sleepwalk through her admittedly underwritten role. Bond is supposed to be madly in love with Vesper, yet Green doesn’t give the woman any kind of magnetism to justify his deep emotions. You kind of understand why Bond became such a womanizer later on; he needed a woman who had some energy.
I’ve long struggled to follow the overly-complex plots of Bond movies. Casino Royale at times borders on the confusing, but it manages to be more coherent than other recent entries. It’s nice to have a villain who doesn’t hatch some complicated scheme to take over the world. (Another nice touch: Le Chiffre weeps blood. How cool is that?) The plot leads up to a satisfying final twist that puts Bond on the course for his future. Along the way, you also get some little moments that explain how Bond acquired his taste in cars and martinis. This stuff is sure to satisfy fans.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Casino Royale is waaaay too long. And yet, it never quite wears out its welcome. After 40 years, what’s another 150 minutes? I think the James Bond franchise has survived because it’s fun. For whatever its weaknesses (and there are a few), the series taps into something that keeps us coming back for more. Casino Royale maintains Bond on the same level quality-wise; it’s good but not the great film I keep waiting for. But with a back-to-basics attitude and Daniel Craig in the central role, I think it hints at the potential to get a Bond masterpiece in the not-so-distant future.
( out of four)
Casino Royale is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 24 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Casino Royale
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