Friday, November 10, 2006

Review - Casino Royale

"I'll have a vodka martini” says the man in the tuxedo as he takes a seat at the bar. "Shaken or stirred?” the barman asks; "Do I look like I give a damn?” comes the brusque reply.

Yes, Bond is back but this time he's a little different. After Pierce Brosnan's tenure as everybody's favourite spy ended on a sour note - with 2002's abysmal Die Another Day - the powers that be have brought in a different type of actor to play the role, and they've promised us a different type of Bond. This film will be grittier and more realistic, we have been told, a Bond film which favours character over spectacle, a film in which the leading man has to rely on his wits rather than a set of handy gadgets. Statements like this indicate a desire to breathe new life into a franchise which sorely needed some freshening up.

In order to achieve this overhaul the producers have decided to take Bond back to his roots. Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, and this adaptation details the character's uneasy early steps into the dangerous world of espionage. Played to great effect by Daniel Craig, Bond starts the film as an arrogant loose cannon - causing M (Judi Dench) to wonder if she made a mistake promoting him - and he ends the film as the Bond we know so well: cool, controlled, deadly. The film could easily have been titled Bond Begins.

In truth, despite all the claims of this being a new type of Bond film it doesn't risk straying too far from the tried-and-tested template. We still get a fistful of gorgeously shot far-flung locations to drool over (Prague, The Bahamas and Venice, among others), and of course there's a few gorgeously shot women on hand to necessitate a little more drooling (Eva Green and Catarina Murino). The huge explosions and spectacular stunts are all present and correct, and the film's screenplay still offers the occasional patch of muddy plotting alongside a few cheesy one-liners. But there is a different feel to it all this time around; it seems to take place in the real world, with a few flesh-and-blood characters, and the frequent acts of violence appear to carry some genuine weight. Casino Royale was never going to match the stripped-down vérité style of, say, The Bourne Supremacy, but it's still the most engaging and thrilling Bond film in years.

The plot this time is on a smaller scale too: no dreams of world domination here, just the endless pursuit of cold, hard cash. After making a botched attempt to capture an arms dealer in Africa, Bond goes against orders to track down Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker to the world's terrorists who has unwisely been gambling with his clients' funds. When Bond's intervention in a terrorist attack causes Le Chiffre to lose a serious amount of money, he organises a high-stakes poker game at the titular casino where he believes his card skills will easily raise the cash he needs to appease his angry customers. As the best poker player MI6 has at their disposal, Bond is instructed to take part in the game and take all of this dirty money; but M has him on a tight leash after a few too many irresponsible acts, and they send accountant Vesper Lynd (Green) along to keep an eye on him. Inevitably, the initially frosty relationship between Bond and Lynd soon melts into something considerably warmer, and their deepening connection forces him to make some tough decisions when Le Chiffre decides that getting her is the best way to get Bond.

Of course, the main focus of attention with every Bond film is on the man in the title role, and this focus has been intensified prior to Casino Royale's release with many hardcore fans protesting against the choice of Daniel Craig. Their fears were unfounded. Craig is probably the best actor to have taken on the role so far, and his excellent display here makes him the most impressive Bond since the heyday of Sean Connery. What's great about this performance is the way it develops over the course of the film; we see the rough edges and the inexperienced mistakes gradually fall by the wayside as Bond grows from a reckless hothead into a slick killer. Craig also brings a welcome amount of depth to the role, shading in Bond's personality in a deft and convincing way. A telling scene occurs just after he has dispatched two assailants in a frantic and bloody fistfight; he seems shaken as he stands alone in front of his bathroom mirror, needing a stiff drink to compose himself before he emerges looking as sharp as ever. Bond may kill in cold blood, but Craig always reminds us that he's only human.

The film is pretty well cast across the board. Mikkelsen has been one of the most consistent actors in Europe for years and he plays Le Chiffre in a brisk and contained manner. The villain has the usual physical deformity (a scarred eye which actually cries blood, no less) but Mikkelsen doesn't let him become a caricature, and there's a chilling efficiency about his dark deeds. After a shaky start, Eva Green seems to grow into the role of Vesper as her relationship with Craig develops, and she's ultimately a more effective Bond girl than most. Many fine actors pop up in smaller roles, some little more than cameos, but their presence is pleasing all the same; Jeffrey Wright is Felix Leiter, Giancarlo Giannini plays one of Bond's contacts, and Judi Dench offers typically excellent support as M. The film wisely dispenses with the likes of Q and Moneypenny as well - this Bond doesn't seem to have time for such distractions.
Casino Royale has been directed by Martin Campbell, and the decision to give him the reins is as important to the film's success as the choice of Craig. Campbell is an old hand at this kind of thing (he directed Goldeneye, the best of the Brosnan Bonds) and his direction here is everything it needs to be: professional, clear and with a keen eye for the spectacular. Campbell presides over two action sequences in the first half which are among the best of the series - a thrilling Parkour-inspired chase through a building site which is later topped by a gripping airport sequence with a great punch line - and he keeps the pace lively and sharp throughout, while also ensuring we can see everything that's taking place in a given scene, no matter how hectic things get. Casino Royale also lets us really feel the impact of Bond's actions, and the violence, from the inspired black-and-white opening sequence onwards, has a satisfyingly raw edge to it. Of course, Casino Royale also gives us the most notorious scene from Fleming's book, in which a naked Bond is tortured in a very specific and painful way, and the film really makes us feel as if our hero might be in danger of losing his double-oh's.
Casino Royale isn't a great film by any means. It suffers from a baggy midsection in which the misjudged length of time devoted to the central card game threatens to slow it to a standstill, and it also appears a little lopsided with the majority of the film's high points occurring in its first half (the Venice-set climax seems a little flat by comparison). There are other flaws too, but many of them are the kind of quibbles which are pretty much inherent to this franchise - like the odd dodgy plot development and the cheesy love scenes - and most are forgivable when the film is this enjoyable. Casino Royale is a refreshing change of pace after the recent, bloated Bond films - movies which seemed more concerned with their blockbuster status than staying true to the character's unique qualities - and in Daniel Craig it gives us a perfect embodiment of the man dreamed up by Ian Fleming so many years ago. For that, we should be thankful.