WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Newly licensed to kill, British spy James Bond wastes no time in using his muscle to discover a plot to blow up a prototype aeroplane and his brain to work out that the mysterious ‘Le Chiffre’ is behind it. The only way he can reach the villain is through a high-stakes poker game, and to get into that he needs the money brought by combative treasury assistant Vesper Lynd.
There’s nothing quite like the James Bond franchise. Over the course of more than forty years the suave British secret agent has adapted, chameleon-like, to changing world realities, but has inevitably found himself going in and out of fashion: achingly hip one minute, a dinosaur the next. So when Pierce Brosnan’s ageing 007 was made to look foolish in Die Another Day (invisible cars? Madonna as a fencing coach?) and upstaged by Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne – ruthless, efficient, yet so anonymous even he doesn’t know who he is – it was time for new owners Sony to have a rethink.
Casino Royale begins with Bond (Daniel Craig) as a rookie, earning his ‘00’ stripes by quashing treachery in Prague before jetting off to Madagascar to chase down a free-running bomb-maker. When forced to kill the man in a messy embassy shootout, he is reprimanded severely by ‘M’ (Judi Dench), but he has information from the bomber’s phone that leads him to the Bahamas and, by seducing Solange, the wife of gambling thug Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), a plot to blow up a new airliner made by a company called Skyfleet. Coincidentally, shadowy blood-weeping figure Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), consummate poker player and banker for international terrorists, has stock options on Skyfleet, and when Bond prevents the bomb from going off at Miami Airport he is financially exposed, so he organises a multi-million dollar poker game in Montenegro. Bond buys into the game, but as the money is provided by the British Government he is accompanied by Treasury official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a beautiful and feisty woman troubled by Bond’s egotism. Her doubts appear well founded when Bond loses the initial investment of $10 million, but the spy is helped out by American player/CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and, despite the best efforts of Le Chiffre to poison him, Bond wins out. The victory is short-lived, however, when Vesper is kidnapped, leading to Bond’s own capture and torture by Le Chiffre; 007 is not to beaten by the villain, but he loses his heart to Vesper during recuperation – and possibly his judgement too.
Since Casino Royale takes Bond all the way back to being a new ‘00’-status spy, this can properly be thought of as a reboot; and ‘boot’ is an appropriate word, since Craig’s Bond instantly and bloodily puts the boot in like no other actor has done. This 007 is a physical beast, all muscle and icy determination, a man of few words because quipping doesn’t get the job done half as well as throwing the enemy into the stairwell (perhaps the most obvious Bourne borrowing). Bond’s brutality, coupled with the ditching of some of the franchise’s more tired tropes – there’s no Moneypenny, no Q, and a sarcastic snipe about the mixing of his vodka martini – is a breath of fresh air, and the use of the line ‘The name’s Bond: James Bond’ is very effective, a reiteration of the spy’s potency at the film’s conclusion. The relationship between James and Vesper also makes an interesting change, with Vesper (ably played by Green) probing Bond’s psyche to reveal some interesting truths and proving to be someone James can believably fall in love with (note that he leaves Solange unbedded). And whilst Bond’s globetrotting is present and correct, the action is always kept in focus by director Campbell, whether it be Bond’s thrilling parkour chase of Sebastien Foucan in Madagascar, the stunning crash of Bond’s Aston Martin or the climactic shootout in a crumbling building in Venice.
On the other hand, I have a feeling that those with the most positive impression of Casino Royale will be first-time viewers. For while Daniel Craig is excellent as a new type of Bond, and so different to Brosnan that he gets by on novelty value alone, on further inspection the film reveals various flaws, not the least of which being the loss of 007’s sense of humour. More striking, however, is the realisation that the plot has been constructed around the set-pieces rather than the other way round: yes, the free-running looks nice, but where is the logic in shinning upwards to escape? Are there not easier ways for a poker expert (albeit one with a massive ‘tell’) to make money than short-selling shares (or whatever he does: ‘Your puts have expired’ is hardly a clear explanation)? And while Venice looks lovely and the stunt/CGI work around the final shoot-out is very good, how come we’re suddenly in Venice? In fact, the Venice section highlights that the plot is really a two-part affair, with Le Chiffre a weak villain, disposed of in unsatisfactory fashion (and not by Bond) before the guys ‘behind’ him reveal themselves to have something on Vesper (though everything is only clarified post facto by M, suggesting some sloppy writing). And not that there’s anything wrong with this, but the scale of the story is actually rather small – no apocalyptic countdown here.
Watching Casino Royale again also brings to light the fact that at nearly two and a half hours, some of the sequences are stretched as far as they will go. The poker game, complete with hand-holding narration by Giancarlo Giannini’s shifty Mathis (Bond’s ‘contact’ in Montenegro), is a prime example: it feels as though the writers knew the card game lacked tension so threw in the Africans menacing Le Chiffre, then the heart-stopping poisoning sequence, purely for a change of pace – bizarrely, all parties come back to the table after both incidents showing no ill effects. It’s a shame, given how much time was spent on the poker table, that Felix Leiter walks on only to cough up money and walk off again. Also, whilst Bond’s convalescence has some nice touches to it, it does also contain the god-awful line about Bond being more of a man than any Vesper had met if he were just a ‘little finger and [a] smile.’ What does this even mean? I’m no tough guy but I think I could handle little-finger-plus-mouth Bond (assuming I wasn’t too freaked out by him). Finally, I know this is the reality of how films get made these days, but surely Sony didn’t pursue the rights to Bond simply to plaster its own products everywhere? It’s not just that Sony mobile phones and computers appear constantly, they actually drive the plot along; together with the Ford cars, the whatsisname suit and the clanging reference to Bond’s Omega watch, these placements become very distracting and destroy goodwill.
Nevertheless, for all its faults, and the fact that Bond is still immune to machine gun bullets (only once, they hit stone columns rather than railings here), Casino Royale is a bold, adrenalized response to Jason Bourne and possibly the only approach that makes 007 relevant in the 21st Century. It’s long, heavy and occasionally crass, but I’ll take that over a wrinkly raised eyebrow any day of the week.