Bond Back on Top
Brian Doxtader and Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Brian: By 2002, the Bond franchise had stagnated. “Die Another Day,” while a commercial success, was a critical failure that never really caught fire with fans. In fact, with each passing Brosnan film, the series became increasingly lifeless, adding bigger stunts and crazier special effects at the expense of story. The Bond franchise was, for all intents and purposes, a lost cause.
Yet less than half a decade later, “Casino Royale,” the 21st film in the series, comes out firing on all cylinders. The franchise has been shaken, stirred and reinvented as hipper and tougher, while retaining the suave slickness that made it so appealing in the first place.
“Casino Royale” takes cues from the lesser-known Bond films, like Lazenby’s and Dalton’s interpretations, but pushes the thematic elements they introduced even further. The Bond of “Royale” is a different kind of Bond, a meaner, nastier, grittier Bond.
The big question heading into the film was whether or not Daniel Craig was the correct choice for the role. He’s not as attractive or suave as his predecessors, but he’s exactly right for this Bond.
What’s most amazing about Craig’s performance – which is surprisingly nuanced and lacking the aloofness that marred Brosnan’s later takes – is how fully he inhabits the character, taking a familiar and well-worn role and making it his own. In fact, “Casino Royale” may be the first Bond film that’s truly about Bond as a character.
“Casino Royale” takes great pleasure in inverting Bond conventions, though the hallmarks of the series are recognizable. There are beautiful women (most notably Vesper Lynn, played by Eva Green), incredible cars and great action sequences. The best action piece – a long romp through a construction site – comes early in the film, before it settles down into its main plot. What makes “Casino Royale” stand out is that there is no supervillain, no crazed, world-conquering dictator. Instead, there is a simple arms dealer, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), whose mental and physical duels with Bond take up most of the second act.
The biggest caveat with “Royale” is that, at 144 minutes, it’s simply too long. This is symptomatic of the franchise in general, as most Bond films run out of steam well before the final credits roll, though “Casino Royale” has more twists and turns than previous installments. The biggest question now is where the franchise heads from here.
Craig has proven that he can handle the material and positive notices indicate that audiences are ready for a darker, tougher Bond, but the franchise is problematic precisely because consistency is so hard to come by.
Bond appears to be back, and Craig appears to be here to stay, but it also appeared that way in 1995 for “GoldenEye,” which, as it happens, turned out to be the best of the Brosnan outings. The later Brosnan films started to feel like the cheesiest of the Roger Moore flicks, but “Casino Royale” thankfully jettisons all of that – no seven-foot tall characters, no invisible cars, no maniacal, comical villains – but retains the slickness and flavor of the series.
“Royale” is among the most serious films in the franchise, but it’s also one of the best, and also more fully captures the feel of Ian Fleming’s original novels than any of the films since “From Russia With Love.”
But the best compliment that can be paid to “Casino Royale” is that it’s not just a great Bond film – it’s a great film.
Rama: Never one to mince words, Judi Dench and her acerbic British tongue lashed 007 mercilessly over the last decade.
In 1995’s “GoldenEye,” Dench’s M – the demanding taskmaster atop England’s covert MI6 agency – drubs Pierce Brosnan’s Bond for being a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur … a relic of the Cold War.” Brosnan handled the insults and the role deftly, but always with the slightest tinge of deference – almost as if his Bond was accepting his role as M’s glorified lackey rather than her menacing equal.
“Casino Royale” is a different story. Dench wastes little time before launching into another tirade against newly-minted 007 Daniel Craig. Calling him a blunt instrument, a thug and egotistical in the same breath, she questions Bond’s promotion to 007 status.
With a sharp look from his unnaturally piercing blue eyes, Craig responds curtly.
“Well, I understand double-ohs have a very short life expectancy. So your mistake will be short-lived,” he says.
Dench has finally met her match.
Last August, Craig admitted to studying every prior Bond film three to four times in preparation for this role. What Craig’s meticulous research unearthed is fairly simple. Bond the man is far more interesting than Bond the icon.
Craig and director Martin Campbell have stripped Bond down to his essence in “Royale.” The film relies on character, not gadgets – a welcome divergence from Brosnan’s more vacuous misadventures. Campbell’s “GoldenEye” is the only film in recent memory to invest Bond with some emotion, along with an adversary worthy of his (and our) attention – Sean Bean’s 006.
Campbell has managed to resuscitate Bond a second time. With the 66-year-old back behind the camera, “Casino Royale” is a refreshing look at a character that’s been a part of the cinematic lexicon for over four decades. Campbell and his screenwriters made the wisest of decisions at the scriptwriting stage – they chose to reboot the franchise and reveal how “James became Bond,” the bold, fitting tagline for “Royale.”
“Royale” is still a Bond film and is not light on action. In true 007 fashion, the filmmakers enthrall the senses with a frenetic chase through a Madagascar construction site – easily among the most pulsating sequences in the franchise’s storied history.
With this film, Campbell has proven himself in the same league as Michael Bay in his ability to orchestrate a visceral thrill ride. But while Bay is myopic in composing his set pieces, Campbell fills out the rest of “Royale” with a rare dose of heart.
The film’s most affecting scene is also the quietest one. Fully clothed and tenderly embracing a shaking Eva Green, Craig sits with her in a shower as water washes over them both. Just minutes prior, he had brutally killed two Ugandan warlords, and here is Bond as we rarely see him – with warmth.
The initial exchange in “Royale” between Dench and Craig is a subtle one. But this one moment serves notice that the 007 mantle is safe once more. It will be resting on Craig’s stocky shoulders for as long as he wants to clutch Bond’s Walther PPK.
“Royale” is a triumphant return for Bond. Against all odds, Craig has proven he deserves a place near Connery – in the heart of the stylized gun barrel sequence that introduces each 007 adventure.