At one point in CASINO ROYALE, the 21st official entry in the Bond franchise, the villain of the piece (Mads Mikkelsen) sets to work torturing 007 with little more than a rattan chair and a length of rope. The simple things, he opines, are the most effective. And so it is with this new take on the cinematic Bond. Where other contemporary action films raise the stakes with special effects that are all flash and no dazzle, this installment, like its star, Daniel Craig, carries the action with its smarts and its sinewy agility.
Based on the 1953 Ian Fleming book that started the series, the film carries the taut zeitgeist of those times, as in paranoia, while being set very much in the present. Gone are the cartoonish plots and most of the whiz-bang gizmos, though he does get to keep the Aston-Martin. This Bond doesn’t need them. From the first scene, showing how he earned the 00 designation and the license to kill, to the first chase scene done on foot as an extended acrobatic exercise over buildings, and hanging precariously from cranes very, very high in the air, as he doggedly pursues a bad guy, this Bond is focused, efficient, never stymied for long in pursuit of his goal, and mesmerizing while he’s doing it. Unfortunately, this particular goal, while achieved, turns into a public relations nightmare for the British government, causing M (Judi Dench who plays starchy but with a soft spot for her bad boy) to long for the Cold War when an agent who botched a job did the decent thing and defected. Times being what they are, she sends Bond off on a vacation instead to think about the mess he’s made. And Bond, being who he is, continues pursuing that ci-mentioned villain, a banker to terrorists with patent-leather hair, the personality of an iceberg, and an unfortunate tendency to shed tears of blood that have nothing to do with sentiment of any kind.
The venues are the classic Bond locales: Venice, Madagascar, The Bahamas, and Montenegro, where all the intrigue leads to a high-stakes poker game at the eponymous casino with Bond facing off against the banker, who would like Bond dead, and the banker’s unhappy clients who would like him dead. The script is crackling with an unusually logical, if convoluted, plot, lots of suspense and neat twists, and direction that keeps everything racing along without losing the audience in the rush. While special effects aren’t the draw here, there are more than a few that are more than just eye-popping, they actually advance the story. Or at least underscore it.
Craig with his tightly-coiled intensity and rampant charisma injects a welcome dose of serious testosterone back into the franchise, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Sean Connery days. This Bond isn’t just suave, he’s also got a chip on his shoulder, an uber-warrior still just a scooch rough around the spy edges, which Craig exploits to the fullest, creating the most fully realized Bond ever, guarded, cynical, but also susceptible to the charms of Vesper (Eva Green), the stunning accountant, of all things, sent to keep an eye on all that gambling money, who can match him in smarts, cynicism, and barbed ripostes. Their first meeting, where the conversation is each summing the other up with remarkable and clear-eyed accuracy starts the sexual tension off with a, you will pardon the expression, bang, and leads to the first believable, even sweet, love story in the Bond opus.
CASINO ROYALE doesn’t just work as a Bond film. It doesn’t just work as an action film. It works as a first-rate piece of filmmaking that elevates the popcorn flick into something that works on an emotional level as well.