James Bond comforts a bird with a wing down in "Casino Royale"
In 2004, Quentin Tarantino publicly suggested a remake of "Casino Royale". He also made it known that he was the director for the job. The heirs of Eon Productions, the original Bond movie company, did not deign to call on him, but did move quickly on the remake idea.
The success of the third Bond movie, 1964's "Goldfinger", had established the template: a series of "set pieces" (self-contained, sensational action sequences), the plot increasingly only a means of connecting the dots. This approach led quickly to a hardening of the series' arteries as the writers ran out of fresh ways to work within the producer-imposed strictures. No doubt Tarantino had hoped to ream out those sclerotic conventions.
Eon's chosen director, Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye"), with the producers, has substantially altered the world of 007 in taking him back to the beginning of his career.
In the gritty pre-title sequence establishing Bond's bonifides as a new double-O operative, Daniel Craig's Bond invites direct comparison to Sean Connery's portrayal in "Dr. No". The 38-year-old Craig displays the tough side of Bond we haven't seen since those early days.
The plot involves a high-powered banker for international terrorists, Le Chiffre, who makes a large stock market bet with his Ugandan clients' money. Though he has heavily stacked the deck in his favor, a wild card comes into play. He then stages a high stakes poker game in the country of Montenegro as a last-ditch chance to recover the funds. Bond is staked to this game in hopes of putting the financier out of business permanently.
The movie opens with back-to-back set pieces to demonstrate the athleticism of the new Bond (and it is impressive). These sequences more than equal previous credulity-straining standards of stuntwork. They also allow the middle of the film to concentrate more on plot and character.
There is no Miss Moneypenny nor Q, but the M of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, Judi Dench, has been retained in this "reboot" of the series. Since almost every possible change had been previously rung on the minor characters, eliminating them streamlines the movie.
That decision places greater scrutiny on the lead actor. Fortunately, Daniel Craig is up to the challenge. His canniness and intensity in the part make his Bond worth watching. His interpretation is fresh, and unshackled by previous incarnations. (more about Craig in Gary Chew's review of "Sylvia".)
Eva Green plays Vesper Lynd, a representative of the Treasury who becomes Bond's love interest. Both characters wear psychic armor and they spar probingly, setting the stage for a deeper romantic interest. Mads Mikkelsen, physically resembling a young Christopher Walken, is the ruthless and corrupt Le Chiffre. CIA agent Felix Leiter is played by Jeffrey Wright, who makes an understated but strong impression in the brief time allotted him. I hope he returns in future installments.
The Texas Hold 'Em match is a highlight and gives us the chance to enjoy Daniel Craig's close-up game.
Other elements of the production:
David Arnold's orchestral score ably supports the film's different moods. The title song, "You Know My Name", was co-written and performed by Chris Cornell of Seattle grunge band Soundgarden fame. It strikes me as no more than adequate and somewhat generic. This is a disappointment, considering that Cornell and Soundgarden know how to write a classic tune, e.g., "Black Hole Sun" (MP3) as covered by Steve and Eydie.
The fractal mathematics-informed title sequence could have been more effective if backed with an abstract-sounding tune in sync with the visuals; it is interesting and different from the silhouetted nudes of the past.
Gadgetry: these days, Bond is highly computer literate, and the job requires it. His new Aston Martin DBS reveals few of its features (Q isn't around to give us a briefing), but extrapolating from one heart-stopping sequence that occurs during an unscheduled intermission in the poker game, it must be loaded to the gills. The same scene provides the best tension-release laugh in the movie. Bond himself is armed only with a cell phone and a gun.
While a bit over-the-top in some of its extreme action scenes (in keeping with today's "xXx" standards), "Casino Royale" is an exciting new beginning for the Bond franchise. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino will get his shot at directing Bond another day.
Personal note: I saw my first Bond, "Thunderball", at age 12. Now that Pierce Brosnan has retired from the role, the movie Bond will be younger than I am from here on. Alas.
Showtimes at Yahoo Movies-Tulsa.
Copyright © 2006, Mike Ransom. All rights reserved.