You'd think it unnecessary, as 007's trademarks by this point have been burned into our memory. We know the trained assassin's drink of choice, his preferred mode of transportation, and his willingness to invoke the hard-earned license to kill when dangerous situations arise.
But familiarity has bred contempt for a spy that hasn't ignited movie theaters since the Cold War concluded. A change was long overdue. When last we saw Bond -- played by Pierce Brosnan in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day -- the secret agent was racing across frozen ponds in invisible sports cars and windsurfing on waves created by a melting glacier. Realism isn't a quality we associate with Bond, yet these adventures had become too ridiculous for even 007's standards.
Casino Royale marks GoldenEye director Martin Campbell's return to Bond's world and performs a succinct Ctrl-Alt-Delete on the flailing series. It strips Bond of his recyclable traits and reinvents him for the next generation. Royale adapts Ian Fleming's first Bond novel of the same name as it shuttles the character back to square one.
But you don't care about that. You want to hear about new Bond, Daniel Craig, who has had to stomach a steady stream of negative press since Eon Productions tapped him to succeed Brosnan. The backlash against Craig's hiring was swift and violent. London reporters began calling the light-haired Layer Cake star James Blonde. The 5'11" Craig was deemed too short (he is the most vertically challenged 007) and too fragile. Rabid fans opposed to the casting launched a website where they critiqued everything from the actor's ears (too big) to his teeth (too white), and posted disparaging accounts from the film's set.
It's all for naught. The latest addition to her Majesty's secret service is the franchise's most physical James Bond. Judi Dench, once again playing exasperated MI6 superior M, describes Craig's character as a "blunt instrument," which nails the actor's steely presence. However, the hard-hitting and fast-running Craig also serves as a shot of pure adrenaline administered to the deteriorating series, one that has been in desperate need of rejuvenation for years.
Far from your father's Bond, Craig is vulnerable, mistake prone, arrogant to a fault, and often forced to race against the clock because he has been outwitted by his foes. He isn't suave (like Brosnan), sophisticated (like Roger Moore), cunning (like Timothy Dalton), or all of the above (like Sean Connery).
Craig's greatest asset seems to be his ability to take a beating. Since Royale recounts Bond's inaugural mission as a Double-O, the rookie spy lacks field experience, prompting the headstrong hero to plow into obvious traps and endure multiple strikes from worthy adversaries. In a welcome change, Craig actually allows cuts and scrapes to scar his chiseled face, a clear indicator that we're not in usual Bond territory. Not only did Brosnan never bruise, his hair rarely looked out of place.
The Royale plot is typical Bond fare, a convoluted smokescreen floated so the filmmakers could ship the spy to exotic locales. Early scenes set in Madagascar, the Bahamas, and Miami build to a high-stakes poker game, where Bond and abnormally sexy accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) must bleed terrorist supporter Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) of vital funds.
Stunt work on Royale will impress you the most. Campbell makes instant use of his younger Bond's athletic abilities. You'll understand in the first 10 minutes why Sebastien Foucan receives a "free-running stunts coordinator" credit.
What doesn't work is the requisite romance between Craig and Green. The film's final act hinges on the couple's devotion as it establishes Bond's eventual branding as a womanizer. But it's painfully obvious Campbell, Craig, and the three credited screenwriters (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade) could care less about Bond's heart, unless they're focused on stopping it... which actually happens in the film's most riveting scene.
Where does Craig fit in 007's lineage? It's too soon to tell, though Eon and Sony seem content to give the actor at least one more shot, as evidenced in Royale's final scene. Overall, this is a great start for the actor and a decent re-launching pad for a franchise that had slipped from lethal to ludicrous. Welcome back, Bond.
On a bridge over troubled waters.
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Director: Martin Campbell
Producer: Barbara Broccoli, Callum McDougall, Anthony Waye
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