Casino Royale (2006)

2006-11-17 (General release)

“Your file shows no kills,” observes the man sitting opposite James Bond (Daniel Craig), after hours in an office. The man, being an MI6 operative, believes he faces no immediate danger, because MI6 only sends double-O’s to kill agents gone wrong. 007s need two kills. Bond, he says, has none.

That situation is soon remedied in Casino Royale. Taking the long-lived film franchise back to the character’s start, the movie also updates the source, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, published in 1953. Grim, well-muscled, and darkly confident, this Bond is also — as you may have heard, blond and blue-eyed. These eyes appear in close-up at the close of the opening credits sequence and Chris Cornell’s song “You Know My Name,” as if daring you to resist his difference from previous incarnations.

You can guess how the office scene ends (and appreciate the stylish, aggressive cutting between it and a flashback to Bond’s “first kill”), but the film soon becomes bogged down in formula. Martin Campbell’s movie, like the others, showcases fabulous locations (the Bahamas, Venice, London, Montenegro), a dastardly, damaged villain (Le Chiffre, played by Mads Mikkelsen, complete with facial scar and an eye that weeps blood), and a beautiful, brainy Bond Girl, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). But as familiar as these pieces seem on paper, they are changed by Craig’s precise performance: by turns cocky and (for very brief instants) vulnerable, his Bond looks both exhausted and exhilarated by his perpetual machismo. He knows what he’s about. And he mostly likes it. He also brings a rawness that makes everyone around him look slightly less ordinary (Eva Green is frankly stunning here, like a second coming of Clara Bow).

Following his second kill, Bond appears in Madagascar, in hot pursuit of Le Chiffre. First, of course, he must deliver to expectations, the super-stunt that’s supposed to open every Bond film. This time, rather than soaring off a cliff in a vehicle, he shows off his extraordinary physicality. Determinedly un-slick and surprisingly fierce, he’s like a pitbull tearing after his target, a bombmaker named Mollaka (Sébastien Foucan, parkour artist extraordinaire). They roar through a construction site on foot, leaping on and off scaffolding, climbing up walls and flipping off ledges, brilliantly athletic. Bond chases Mollaka through the “Nambutu” Embassy, wreaking havoc and, as M (Judi Dench) describes it later, violating “the only inviolate rule of international relations.”

Yes, Bond’s a troublemaker, and he’s not especially smooth about it. When he returns to London following the Madagascar fiasco, he breaks into M’s apartment to meet her, earning a reprimand and a warning to keep in touch as he heads off again to find Le Cheffre. At last M becomes so frustrated with Bond’s gallivanting that she has a tracking device implanted in his arm with a mechanical gun: he barely flinches. Though she plainly admires his singular prowess, she’s also repeatedly astounded by his “bloody cheek”: “What the hell is he up to!?” she asks more than once.

He’s up to no good most of the time, twisting or ignoring rules to suit his needs. He kills one man amid a crowd of people, a brute-force act no one even notices; he wrecks an airport to prevent a bomb’s detonation, drawing M’s ire once more for his bull-in-a-china-shop approach (his sly not-quite-smirk as he completes his objective here indicates the pleasure he takes in killing those he deems villains). In the Bahamas, he emerges gloriously from the sea, a body as splendid as any of the bikinied girls who appeared in previous 007 installations. This point is underlined later when he’s stripped naked for a torture session, wherein his genitals are whomped by a large rope tied in knots: it certainly looks and sounds painful, but the camera pays special attention to Bond’s body, revealed like a specimen to be oohed and ahhed over.

Within the movie, the new Bond is also much admired. Women turn their heads to look as he walks by, men arch their eyebrows and note his seeming gluttony for punishment (he appears with his shirt off and his face banged and bloodied repeatedly). He beds the voluptuous Solange (Caterina Murino), partly to extract information and partly to demonstrate his devastating charisma (any woman is his if he wants her, especially a woman whose husband mistreats her). Observing her own attraction to ruffians, she sighs, “Why can’t nice guys be more like you?” He doesn’t miss a beat. “Then,” he says casually, “they’d be bad.” Their tryst leaves her open to terrible retribution, to which he responds with an equally devastating dispassion.

All this is warm-up for the big showdown with Le Chiffre, occasioned by a high-stakes poker game (in the novel, the game was baccarat). Here Bond is aided by the stunningly beautiful Vesper (a British treasury accountant), earnest CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), and dapper French agent Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), though Bond only becomes impatient when they restrict his style and more to the point, his self-appreciation. (A telling moment has Vesper providing Bond with a tailored tux, which he dons and admires in the mirror, as if realizing just how brilliant he looks.) Though this Bond is surely cunning and occasionally elegant, he is not slick or even very ironic, providing the franchise with a much needed shot of raw energy.

But despite such details of characterization (augmented also by Craig’s forceful subtlety), the movie gets hung up in its plot, which spends too much time on the poker game (“You never play your hand,” Bond notes predictably, “you play the man across from you”) and a montagey condensation of Bond and Vesper’s inevitable romance (“You think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits,” she challenges him, and so he pursues her meaningfully). Such generic diversions detract from Craig’s strengths, based in deft gestures, nuanced glances, and the deadpan delivery of the occasional joke. (Asked whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred, Bond looks annoyed: “Do I look like I give a damn?”)

The new Bond is fast, ruthless, and usually self-satisfied, a combination calculated to appeal to a new generation of fans. He understands loss, but focuses on revenge instead of grief. He’s a hard body in a hard new world. “It doesn’t bother you, killing these people?” asks Vesper. “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did,” he notes dryly. Right. He’s also a hard-ass.

RATING 6 / 10