Movie Review: Casino Royale

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by Mark Greenberg

Green, Craig and Munro in the Bahamas

The overwhelmingly positive and excited reaction to Daniel Craig as the new James Bond in Casino Royale has me shaking my head. Most critics and fans alike seem to be embracing his more realistic, gritty approach, which has made Bond a more flawed mortal who makes mistakes. They even claim he’s the best Bond since Connery and more like Ian Fleming’s creation. I’m still shaking my head.


I remember the reaction 19 years ago when Timothy Dalton debuted as 007 in The Living Daylights. The reaction was virtually the same: the critics welcomed Dalton’s grittier, more dangerous incarnation after the light-weight Roger Moore years. However, by his 2nd outing, the more serious Licence to Kill, there seemed to be a universal condemnation of Dalton’s take on Bond, and Pierce Brosnan was welcomed  in his stead. The critics are as fickle a group as you’ll ever find, so a note to Daniel Craig: watch out!


The new film is based on the 1953 novel in which Ian Fleming introduced the world to agent 007. The filmmakers, in turn, have decided to re-introduce James Bond to us in the first faithful, yet updated, adaptation of that novel (it had previously been a live TV drama in 1954, and a spoof of the Bond series in 1967). We see how he earns his double-0 status, giving him a licence to kill, in a well-directed opening sequence. Strangely, though, in a glaring error in judgment, there is no traditional gun-barrel sequence and accompanying James Bond Theme to get our blood rushing; however, the opening credits by Daniel Kleinmen are a refreshing change from the cliché naked silhouettes, over which is a rousing theme song, “You Know My Name,” sung by Chris Cornell.


New 007 Daniel Craig’s physical prowess is quickly displayed in a dizzying foot-chase on the heels of a terrorist in Madagascar, and in another chase at Miami Airport to prevent a terrorist attack. In both sequences I was struck by the fact he looks much more like Jason Bourne than James Bond.


A short while later, Craig’s unsuitability in the role is no better demonstrated than in the arrival scene in the Bahamas, when a tourist mistakes him for the valet and tosses Bond his keys to park his Land Rover. No one would ever make that mistake with Connery, Moore, or even George Lazenby.


Daniel Craig is a wonderful actor in other movies, and he puts forth an honest, determined effort in the role (much the way Dalton did, in fact). It’s just that – and I’ve been harping on about this ever since he was named the new 007 -- he doesn’t look like James Bond. Let’s face it, there is a very good reason why Craig’s capability as 007 was so controversial: he looks like a boxer, or soccer player, not a suave, sophisticated, international playboy who happens to have a licence to kill.


Contrary to the literary Bond, the cinematic James Bond has never been a “blunt instrument” for the British government; he is a fantasy figure, a movie icon that has -- especially in the guise of Connery and Moore -- stirred the world’s imagination about what it is like to live the jet-set life. Bond goes to places most of us can only dream about; he dresses in suits most of us can only stare at in Saville Row windows; and he beds women that most of us never meet in real life. But not this Bond.


The producers missed a big opportunity to get an actress of worth to play Vesper Lynd, the woman Bond falls in love with. Instead, we get Eva Green, who lacks the exotic qualities of Ursula Andress or Diana Rigg. Like Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we needed an actress who we could believe Bond could fall in love with. Green wears too much eye makeup, and, more importantly, lacks the thespian skills to exhibit Vesper’s tragic, haunting character, thereby generating little in the way of chemistry with Craig. I truly believe the producers passed on names such as Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron in an effort to save money, and so that their new man would not be upstaged. And, frankly, I think Craig would have been upstaged by either of those two.


The other casting does not fare much better. Mads Mikkelsen does adequately as nemesis Le Chiffre, but brings nothing new to the table in movie villainy in the way, say, Alan Rickman did in the first Die Hard. (Although I did like the way he can shed a tear of blood.)  Italian beauty Caterina Munro, as the long-suffering wife of terrorist Dimitrios, delivers a suprisingly sympathetic performance in a small part. As Felix Leiter, Jeffrey Wright becomes the second African-American actor in the role (see Bernie Casey in Never Say Never Again), but he suffers the same underwritten fate as all of his predecessors. Veteran actor Giancarlo Giannini is the most interesting supporting player as enigmatic French agent Rene Mathis, and this film sets up his inevitable return in the next film. Judi Dench as M is the only person to return from the previous films and I found myself distracted by the continuity problem this created!


What did I like about the film? Well, the writing is very sharp, due in no small part to the fact that Purvis, Wade, and Haggis have based their script on the Ian Fleming novel. Because the book was centered primarily on a high-stakes Baccarat game, the screenwriters had to incorporate some original elements, which, for the most part work well. Gone – thankfully! -- are the juvenile double-entendres of the Brosnan films, and instead we are treated to characters that are more fleshed-out.


Director Martin Campbell keeps things moving well, especially the high-stakes game, which has been change to Poker for the film. Also, it was exciting to see the torture scene filmed almost word-for-word from the book, because it’s been so long since an original Fleming element has been brought to the screen. I admired Craig’s performance here, but lamented the fact Connery never had the chance to do that great scene. David Arnold returns with his best score since Tomorrow Never Dies, and the photography by Phil Meheux is both lush and gritty when called for.


James Bond has always been larger than life. He is tall, dark and enviously handsome (men want to look like him and women fantasize about sleeping with him); he knows the best foods and which wines accompany them.  There’s nothing wrong with putting him in more realistic, dangerous situations, but the man himself should be larger than life and have just the right quip to display how cool he is in those situations. Nobody did that better than Connery and Moore, and they remain the undisputed champions of the cinematic James Bond.



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