Thursday, 11 January 2007

CASINO ROYALE
Cert: 12A Duration: 144 minutes
DIRECTOR: Martin Campbell
WRITERS: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Paul Haggis (based on the novel by Ian Fleming)
CAST: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chifre), Judi Dench (M), Giancarlo Giannini (Mathis), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Lieter), Caterina Murino (Solange), Simon Abkarian (Alex Dimitrios), Isaach De Bankole (Steven Obanno), Jesper Christensen (Mr White), Ivana Mikicekiv (Valenka), Sebastien Foucan (Mollako) & Ludger Pistor (Mendel)

MI6 agent James Bond is assigned to beat an international arms dealer at poker...

It must be the most simplistic premise of any Bond film ever. Based on author Ian Fleming's debut Bond novel, Casino Royale is a stripped-down slice of espionage with the focus on a high-stakes card game (baccarat in the book, poker here). This is the film chosen to rethink Bond following the overblown excess of Die Another Day.

Daniel Craig steps into Pierce Brosnan's shoes, but gets the chance to do something no other Bond actor did: create the character. Craig's Bond has clear nods to Sean Connery's iconic turn, but even Connery appeared fully-formed in Dr No. Unlike the suave machismo of Connery, Craig presents us with a reckless "blunt instrument" who makes mistakes and pays the price.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (writers of every Bond film since 1995's Goldeneye) are joined by award-winning scribe Paul Haggis (Crash), and this triumverate do an effective job of translating the book's thin plot into 144 minutes. However, the film is choppy and uneven in tone (the monochrome prologue immediately jars with the colourful credits sequence), while action sequences are effective but often superfluous (particularly an airport dilemma). But once the film transfers to the titular casino for its mid-section, things settle and become involving, making good use of the actors and situation, before the flabby final 20 minutes in Venice.

While the script's pace and consistency is sometimes strained, it does contain some cracking dialogue and moments of sly humour (the "shaken or stirred?" line is worth the price of admission alone). But it's the characterisation that really works...

Judi Dench bridges the Brosnan/Craig era as M, but has something more substantial and interesting to say here. Not since the infamous "dinosaur of the Cold War" speech in Godeneye has M seemed so authoritative and joyous to watch.

Eva Green is wonderful as Vesper Lynd, one of the best Bond Girls of all time, particularly because she's treated as a believable person and not just a sex object. Her rapport with Craig is undeniable and her icy demeanour, hiding a tenderness, is charming to watch.

Mads Mikkelsen makes for a good villain, a realistic creation of quiet efficiency and, as we later discover, a streak of sadism. As Le Chifre, Mikkelsen is a magnetic presence and a more understandable villain for the series. The writers keep Le Chifre's asthma inhaler from the novel, but the inclusion of a defective tear duct (resulting in him crying blood) is a trite overcooked.

The supporting cast are all fine. The brilliant Giancarlo Giannini is a good Mathis (Bond's French contact), while Caterina Murino is sizzling hot as Solange (although her horseback entrance is quickly eclipsed by Bond's own muscled rise from the sea). Jeffrey Wright is good but underused as CIA Agent Felix Lieter, but will hopefully return in future installments.

But it's Daniel Craig who makes the film. His 007, despite what pessimistic internet campaigners said, is the most interesting and dangerous incarnation of the character. Ever. Craig's physicality is striking; he's the only Bond who would genuinely unsettle enemies. Roger Moore and Brosnan were particularly guilty of hiding behind gadgets when things got tough, but Craig's weapons of choice are his quick mind and quicker fists. There's no laser-watch or poison dart pen in sight...

But it's not only the physical aspect that Craig has down pat. We finally see beyond the glossy veneer of Bond's tuxedo and discover a tortured man at war with his own nature. Forget James Bond as indestructible super-spy, Craig's Bond is a brooding soul who feels pain and faces some gruelling fight sequences. There's also some emotional devastation that cuts even deeper than On Her Majesty's Secret Service's famous epilogue and provides the impetus for a spine-tingling final line...

Director Martin Campbell, who also reintroduced Bond to audiences with Goldeneye, impresses with his restraint and commitment to resetting the character. However, at times Casino Royale is underwhelming and, to be honest, nowhere near as exciting and thrilling as it thinks. The crane stunt sequence in Jamaica is impressive, the airport sequence adequate guff, and the flooding house sequence interesting, but there's not much else for people expecting a globetrotting rollercoaster ride.

In getting the tone and characters right, the film forgets to provide enough big-screen mayhem. A pivotal card game is enlivened by some fistifuffs mid-game, but long periods of the film are quite laborious and would have benefitted from more spectacle or espionage. Still, as readers of Fleming's book attest, the film is already more cinematic than you'd think possible given the source material.

Overall, this is a triumphant reboot for the character and a pleasing shake-up to the long-running franchise. In some ways it's a shame the film is restricted by Fleming's story, and the whole back-to-basics edict does mean Casino Royale doesn't always feel like a true "Bond Film" (even the iconic music is criminally absent until the end credits).

While it's riddled with flaws (bad credits sequence, terrible theme song, overlong), the successes more than make up for these problems -- particularly the crucial success of Daniel Craig.

A fine appetiser that leaves you hungry for the main course.
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