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Casino Royale   A-

MGM Pictures / Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis
Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian.

Review by Rob Vaux

A steaming plate of crow for any who doubted Daniel Craig's fitness to play 007. Fie upon those who spoke ill of him! A pox upon their house! They ignored the evidence in front of their eyes -- Craig's icy turn as the villain in Road to Perdition, his clinical, fastidious drug dealer in Layer Cake, the fact that he's a real actor instead of just a pleasing face -- and instead condemned him as the death of the James Bond franchise as we knew it. In that sense, I suppose they're right. Casino Royale is unlike any Bond film we've yet seen. The grittiness and harsher edge have been well publicized -- and indeed, can be seen gestating in Pierce Brosnan's valiant-but-doomed efforts to bring a dark side to the character -- but less apparent is how fundamental those changes are... and yet how utterly, perfectly Bond-like they still feel. How do the filmmakers accomplish this? Let us count the ways.

At the top of the list is Craig: not a conventionally handsome man, but someone who still looks good in a tux and (I am assured by several authoritative sources) can still make girls weak at the knees with those icy blue eyes. To that, he adds an enormous package of brooding angst, the kind no other Bond actor can approach. He removes 007 almost entirely from the adolescent fantasy life the films have so often portrayed, stripping him down to the character's essence. Bond was never a nice guy. He lived life with the understanding that he could die at any moment, and other people in his world existed as either exploitable assets or dangerous foes. Other Bonds found a few precious moments of that harsh truth -- even Roger Moore punctuated his idle playboy routine with the odd bit of nastiness -- but Craig gives himself over to the concept completely. We first see him beating a man to death in a filthy restroom, part of the assignment that earns him his "00" status. It segues into the famous gun-barrel opening, marked not by suave sophistication, but blood-spattered savagery.

From there, it becomes abundantly clear that this is no omnipotent superspy. He's a government bagman, making messy problems disappear in equally messy ways. Emotional detachment comes with the job, along with some surprisingly human frailties. He stumbles into situations rather than anticipating them, he finishes action scenes bleeding and traumatized, and there are times when -- like Fleming's original novels -- his survival depends on nothing more than pure dumb luck. Yet he's still Bond. He can still (to quote an earlier film) "light the fuse on any explosive situation," which director Martin Campbell transforms into a loaded array of terrific action sequences. He retains his ability to think on his feet, to adapt to any circumstance, and to attain his objective even when the world is shattering around him. His social charm is undiminished as well, highlighted by Craig's immense chemistry with Bond girl Eva Green, but also on full display during the high-stakes poker game at the film's title gambling parlor. It wouldn't be possible without Craig, balancing a coiffed facade with the unpleasant brutality lurking under the surface.

The film's principle threat fits this new pravda as well. The notion of death-ray satellites and global domination has long since passed into absurdity (with Austin Powers perhaps putting the final kibitz on it). In a post-9/11 world, we don't need our bad guys to be so overreaching; it's enough that they want to blow up an airport or two, or sell guns to some seriously evil people. Bond's nemesis this time around is Le Chiffre, played by Danish Slab O' Man Mads Mikkelson. As "bankroller to the world's terrorists," his power is more financial than megalomaniacal, lending him a modicum of real-world plausibility without diminishing his exotic flair. When Bond helps thwart one of his schemes, he finds himself holding the marker for a lot of scary folks. He intends to earn the money back at Casino Royale... but if Bond can beat him at the tables, he'll be shut down for good. As a fulcrum for mayhem, the concept is eminently dependable, yet it still centers things in a recognizable reality instead of the franchise's usual spy-fi fantasyland. Mikkelson, for his part, makes a solidly menacing presence without relinquishing that little twinkle in his eye -- that naughty bit of subversion that reminds us how much fun it is to be a Bond villain.

Against him, 007 has little more than his wits to rely upon. Q gadgets are nowhere to be seen in Casino Royale, apart from a few mundane knickknacks of a noticeably blasé caliber. And yet the film cannily places its finger on the recent troubles that this aspect of Bond mythology has had. We live in a world deluged with gadgets: iPods and BlackBerries and instant messaging available to any teenager with a credit card. In light of that, Bond has had to resort to increasingly outlandish devices to present a properly "impressive" image -- topped by the ludicrous invisible car foisted upon poor Brosnan in the last film. Casino Royale doesn't bother with all that foolishness... and yet cell phones and other workaday bits of technology still play a huge role in the plot ("It's amazing what you can do with Photoshop," one character quips). The effect retains a whiff of gee-whiz fun while still forcing Bond to rely on his brains and not some convenient bit of techno wizardry to succeed.

Finally, there are the Bond girls, who evolved from their arm-candy roots long ago and now arrive as equal players in the game. Casino Royale has a new spin on them too, starting with the opening credits (quietly free of the nude silhouettes which we've come to expect) and extending into one of the film's most rewarding performances. No, it's not Green's Vesper Lynd, whose beauty and rapport with Craig (as well as a strong narrative hook playing off of Bond's traditional misogyny) do pitched battle with her often-confounding accent. Nor is it Caterina Murino as the passive secondary love interest, or Serbian Amazon Ivana Milicevic having some wordless fun as Le Chiffre's principle heavy. No, this time, the prize goes to Judi Dench, who finally, gloriously, removes the gloves as Bond's perennially cranky superior M. Whether it's taking a midnight call with a 20-year-old stud muffin in bed beside her, or curtly inferring that there's a shallow grave in the deep woods waiting for Bond if he ever breaks her rules, Dame Judi personifies the hard-knocks philosophy upon which Casino Royale makes its name.

And what a name it is. Campbell has enjoyed middling success in the series before, but his work here is just the shot in the arm it needed. By exploring Bond's roots, he develops the character more than any other three films combined. Yet he doesn't skimp on the expected elements either, infusing them with a fresh sensibility while retaining the requisite glamour and excitement. The final third of the film meanders a tad, though the fault lies more with Fleming's novel (which indulged in interminable wandering before letting the climactic shoe drop) rather than any effort here. And even then, Craig's indomitable presence sets a standard that Sean Connery himself might envy. A franchise this old can't survive unless it shakes things up from time to time. Casino Royale rediscovers that knack after a prolonged absence, granting 007 a new lease on life and giving us the best Bond outing in decades.

Review published 11.17.2006.

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