'Brave’ isn’t a word one would – or could – normally use to describe a Bond film, neither is ‘complex’, ‘involving’, ‘moving’ or ‘believable’, yet all are absolutely needed to review Casino Royale. After four years of waiting, the latest entry in the world’s longest-running and most successful film series is an extraordinarily brave and wholly successful recasting of a mould which had lost its sharp edges and been left to turn out pleasant, enjoyable but unconvincing and formulaic nonsense, even at its best.
With Casino Royale, almost every tradition (or cliché) of the series has been cleverly and dazzlingly subverted to make an accomplished new drama thriller that succeeds on its own terms as well as claiming its place as the new, reset Bond.
The confidence of the film-makers in achieving this is clear from the start, as the familiar ‘gun barrel’ sequence is no longer a comforting pause but a shockingly relevant sub-story climax within the pre-credits sequence. Even this nests flashbacks within flashbacks, and the stunning animated title sequence neatly nods to the 60s whilst continuing the plot. Elsewhere, Bond doesn’t kill the villain, someone else does, and he not only sleeps with just the one girl, but that girl actually rebuffs his attentions in the most awful way possible.
There is humour, to be sure, and some neat lines à mort, but they sting as well as snap and are genuinely witty rather than flip. And the dialogue between Bond and Vesper Lynd as they spar and flirt aboard a high-speed train slicing across Europe is as grounded and warm in its way as you’d expect from any romantic drama. Which this is, of course, for make no mistake, whilst Casino Royale retains enough of the Bond formula to ensure you never forget what you’re watching, for much of the time that same formula makes its excuses and steps out for extended periods to give the characters and the actors time to breath and grow. Scenes take as long as they need to achieve this, a rarity in any action film, and as much is said with silence as with speech.
The script is thus quite easily the most truly sophisticated of any Bond film. A film-buff friend attributes this to Paul Haggis’s contribution. Regardless, its depiction of a wholly believable romance between Bond and Vesper is key, as it’s this that’s at the heart of this film; a man and woman who make a choice and accept the consequences. Much of this veracity is due to Eva Green, who is a revelation as Vesper Lynd, the girl from the Treasury who guards the stake money as closely as she guards her heart.
And what of Daniel Craig? Quite simply he destroys the ill-judged early comments completely. Utterly convincing through the fights and chases, yet never a superman – when he reaches the top of a mobile crane, having run up its jib, you’ll feel as tired as he looks – this electric actor also takes proceedings back to the surprisingly casual cruelty that characterised the first few Connery films, a cruelty not spared for himself through a script that gives him a little of Robert Carlyle’s Renaud – getting hurt for the hell of it. And when have you ever heard Bond scream in genuine pain? Or have his attempts to rescue the girl rebuffed in a uniquely awful manner?
Yet Craig does this whilst also bringing his own very clear and distinct tone to the part, moving easily between the toughness and softness and exuding magnetism throughout. And whereas Dalton ‘acted’, here Craig’s delivery is entirely natural. Craig and Green have a real chemistry is their scenes together, both the sparring ones and the tender ones. Certainly the shower scene – itself, very much not what one might imagine – has earned real praise from critics and fans.
If the action occasionally resembles recent films – The Bourne Identity and Mission: Impossible III are obvious examples – that is neither a surprise nor a problem. Not only is it impossible for a series like the Bonds to exist in a cultural vacuum, it’s unhealthy; the series has always survived by taking the best of other genre efforts and mixing them with the Bond essentials. Importantly, it’s also the one of the best-directed Bonds ever seen, and not just when it comes to the action – critic Matthew Bond points out that Martin Campbell knows when to take his foot off the gas. This is particularly notable since Campbell was also entrusted to shepherd Pierce Brosnan's introduction to the role in GoldenEye but showed far less assurance there.
For Eon to have taken such a risk and changed so much yet still to have produced a film which works so well is a real thrill.
This is the third time the Bond series has been reinvented with the stated aim of bringing a harder edge to the character. Of course this is in part a necessary reaction against the excesses that gradually drove the series away from its core concept, with Casino Royale representing the final iteration of a process that began – not wholly successfully – with Licence to Kill in 1987, although that, Timothy Dalton’s second and final appearance playing the role, was a case of too far too soon.
Even with Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal bracketing, with his debut and finale, two real-world paradigm shifts, moving the series beyond the Cold War in Goldeneye and showing surprisingly subtle references to a post-9/11 landscape in Die Another Day, the series has never has such an about-face.
And just as Goldeneye saw the end of a familiar and comforting family for the fictional “projectile”, as Bond refers to himself in Fleming’s short story The Living Daylights, with the departure of Lois Maxwell, Robert Brown and of course Desmond Llewellyn, so the decks are now swept clean once more with Samantha Bond, Colin Salmon and John Cleese nowhere to be seen. Indeed, it’s almot impossible to imagine the latter Daniel Craig’s world.
There is one final, delicious twist to this reinvention. Denied the Monty Norman theme at the start, the audience is rewarded at the final frame, when its use brilliantly crowns the film, bringing one pivotal character his worst-ever day at the hands of a man who needs no more reinvention, having arrived where he began. You know his name.
Posted 6 November 2010, based on a review posted on IMDB on 16 December 2006
Casino Royale Martin Campbell, 2006, UK