Betting On Bond 

Casino Royale gambles with Daniel Craig

Wednesday, Nov 15 2006

Among its other merits, the latest James Bond picture, Casino Royale, offers a handy lesson in current global economics. In this 21st official screen outing for Ian Fleming’s evergreen MI6 agent, the cars are as fast as ever and the women even faster, but the villain du jour isn’t a Dr. Evil–type mastermind hell-bent on world domination. Instead, he’s merely a wealthy private banker called Le Chiffre, who believes firmly in equal-opportunity lending, especially where international terrorists are concerned. And just how much money does the newly cash-poor Le Chiffre (played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, with a nifty ocular scar that bleeds bright-red tears) need in order to keep his operation solvent? Why, a mere $150 million, which he intends to pocket from a winner-take-all poker tournament at the titular Montenegran gambling parlor. A sum, I feel compelled to note, that’s a fair bit less than the cost of making and marketing a James Bond movie. These days, it seems, anarchy comes cheap; it’s entertainment that’s expensive.

A more modestly scaled bad guy isn’t the only surprise Casino Royale has up its tuxedoed sleeve. Borrowing its title and its inspiration from the first of Fleming’s Bond novels (previously the basis for 1967’s lamentable Bond parody movie of the same name), it gives us a wet-behind-the-ears super spy who’s only just graduated to coveted 00 status, who doesn’t much know the difference between a shaken and stirred martini let alone care, and who doesn’t get behind the wheel of an Aston Martin until a third of the way through the picture. (Until then, it’s — egads! — a Ford rental car for him.) This is meant to be a less elegant, more rough-and-tumble Bond than we’re accustomed to — Bond before he becomes “Bond, James Bond.” So it’s only fitting that longtime series producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have selected a new actor for the role, though unless you’ve been on permanent vacation from the Internet, you already know that the choice of Daniel Craig — the shortest, blondest actor ever to play Bond — isn’t to the liking of some die-hard fans.

As it turns out, everything that seems “wrong” about Craig (who was last seen as one half of the oddball jailhouse romance between Truman Capote and convicted killer Perry Smith in Douglas McGrath’s superb Infamous) is exactly what makes him right for this incarnation of Bond. Built like a scrum-half and possessing the granitic countenance of a nightclub bouncer, Craig is brusque and bullish, and when he squeezes his stocky physique into a tailored dinner jacket, he seems very much Fleming’s orphan from the wrong side of the tracks trying (with only partial success) to conceal his hardscrabble past. And though this Bond disposes of his enemies as quickly and mercilessly as any 00 agent must, he doesn’t laugh off his kills with a wink and a pithy one-liner. It’s certainly the most sober read on the role since Timothy Dalton played Bond for a two-picture stint in the late 1980s, but also the most human and vulnerable 007 since George Lazenby wept over the body of his assassinated bride in the final frames of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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To that end, Craig is very well paired with the strapping French siren Eva Green (The Dreamers), whose by-the-book Treasury officer Vesper Lynd is probably the most complex creation in the “Bond girl” canon — neither the submissive flirt or ball-busting vixen of Bond adventures old nor the extreme sportswoman (Michelle Yeoh, Halle Berry) of more recent vintage, but rather a smart, sexy, independent-minded femme whose relationship with Bond is based on something deeper than the exchange of mutually seductive charms. Meeting on a train, they chew on some terrifically punchy dialogue (courtesy, one assumes, of Crash and Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis, who receives co-screenplay credit alongside regular series writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) that’s like the smart, double-entendre-laden lingo prospective lovers used to bat around in literate Hollywood romantic comedies. And when he comforts her following a frightening shootout in a hotel stairwell, it’s tender and affecting in a way we don’t expect from a James Bond movie.

Of course, we don’t really go to Bond movies for the dialogue and the romance. We go for the action, and on that front Casino Royale delivers — if, like everything else about the picture, in a refreshingly downsized way. When the New Zealand–born director Martin Campbell last sat at the helm of a Bond movie, on 1995’s Goldeneye, he had Pierce Brosnan tear through the streets of St. Petersburg in a Russian army tank. Here, he keeps things considerably more spartan, beginning with an exhilarating foot chase, as Bond pursues a terror suspect (French “free running” champion Sébastien Foucan) through a Madagascar construction site, that’s a ballet of gravity-defying acrobatics, as if Spider-Man were fleeing from Fred Astaire. An opening like that is hard to follow, but Campbell keeps things moving at a clip, bringing a different sort of tension to the casino scenes, which could have stopped the movie dead in its tracks but instead play out like a sweeps-week episode of Celebrity Poker Showdown in which one of the celebrities happens to be Osama bin Laden’s personal financial planner. If he wins, we all lose.

Like Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever) and John Glen (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy) before him, Campbell is an ideal director for Bond because he doesn’t try to impose a personal style on the proceedings. (He may not even have one, but that’s another matter.) After all, new casting and updated gadgetry aside, Bond remains the most unrepentantly old-fashioned of Hollywood movie franchises, in large part due to the storied unwillingness of Broccoli and Wilson to tinker with their proven formula, despite the expressed desires of Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino to try their hand at the series. But Broccoli and Wilson have dug in their heels and, following a brief fallow period in the early 1990s, time has proven them right. As of the last episode, Die Another Day, Bond was as popular and profitable as ever, and I suspect Casino Royale will continue the trend. For what’s appealing about Bond is precisely its unhip classicism — its promise of clean, crisp excitement delivered without the interference of whiplash-inducing camera pyrotechnics, attention-deficient editing patterns, gratuitous color tinting and/or ear-splitting rock ballads. To be sure, the series has occasionally spun out into the stratosphere (quite literally in the case of 1979’s Moonraker) and needed to be reset. But Casino Royale does that ably, and when it’s all over, you can take renewed pleasure in that famous end-credits guarantee: “James Bond Will Return.”

CASINO ROYALE | Directed by MARTIN CAMPBELL | Written by NEAL PURVIS, ROBERT WADE and PAUL HAGGIS, based on the novel by IAN FLEMING | Produced by MICHAEL G. WILSON and BARBARA BROCCOLI | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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