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Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell

review by Joshua Rainbird

Casino Royale is Daniel Craig's first outing as 007 and, whilst it retains Dame Judi Dench as the formidable M, it should be considered as a back-to-basics reboot of the whole series. Many of the trademark features are here: stylish locations; beautiful women; ugly villains and fast cars. However, when I was told that Craig was not a 'gadget Bond' I hoped that he would be cast as a spy who thinks on his feet and fights with his fists. I was not disappointed. Craig has managed to shrug off the need for gimmicks in favour of brute strength, but I might hasten to add, not ignorance. He's an ambitious, and sometimes clumsy assassin, quite unlike previous portrayals, with maybe the exception of From Russia With Love. Therefore a quick note of caution: the death and torture scenes in this movie are bloody and realistic, a welcome departure from the tired-looking fantasy-fests of Moonraker and Die Another Day. This is not a movie for younger audiences; it was wrong to certificate this as a 12A, it should be a 15!

At the beginning we find a naïve spy struggling to earn his 007 status: two kills are needed. The first is messy and brutal; the second is a neater dispatch of the almost ubiquitous talkative villain, shot in an atmospheric monochrome that not only enables the viewer to assume it's a flashback but also seamlessly launches into a startling opening credit sequence. Like a brilliantly coloured Matisse-collage Bond stalks his victims through a kaleidoscope of animated assassinations which bears the typical excellence of previous Bond-movie opening titles; it perfectly unites with Chris Cornell's rock theme adding to this Bond's polished, not suave, hard talent.

And Craig plays it with a lean and hungry look: a Bond whose shirts get bloodied and whose face gets cut. His solid physique is such that it can soak up the blows, you can believe this man's explosive strength could play the All Blacks' at their own game, and win, but even this is insufficient when faced by the dextrous free-running feats of Molakka, played by parkour founder Sebastien Foucan. This is by far the best part of the movie and even for hardened parkour fans the stunts are spectacular, even improving on the great HMS Belfast leap featured in Jump London. Furthermore, the scenes are aptly edited to create an action-packed story sequence, only mildly let-down by the ridiculous stunt extras who for some reason always want to intercept men with guns leaping around in dangerous places. Just get out of the way! So, with bulldog spirit we see Bond in hot pursuit, just falling short of the tic-tacs and cat-leaps needed to catch his quarry, until eventually he succumbs to hitching a lift instead because James Bond has always had more brains than brawn.

But even here there are changes. This new Bond has a razor-sharp mind that can outwit an accountant, not with the predictable puns that dogged Roger Moore or Connery's salvos of regurgitated trivia, Craig has a better ace up his sleeve - he uses logical deduction, with detailed observations that would shame Sherlock Holmes. He can read the 'tells' whilst maintaining his poker face. However, this does not mean he is cold and cerebral, rather that the humour is more subtly placed: during a difficult dinner he is counter-analysed by the cerebrally waspish Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and asked, "how was your lamb?" he replies quietly, "skewered, one sympathises." Transcending cheap gags doesn't mean you cannot flirt because the jokes are now his defence mechanism, weapons he uses to needle his torturers, and Craig delivers them with an almost pitiable audacity.

So what is Bond's flaw? It was said that Pierce Brosnan gave the character an edge of vulnerability. Craig has refined this. Whereas Brosnan's Bond was an old warhorse not quite ready to be put out to pasture, Craig is a young stallion who favours seasoned mares. He professes to sleep only with married women presumably to avoid messy commitments, a choice no doubt the emotionally detached M will encourage. Yet that's not his flaw. For the man has insight and knows his limitations. He just chooses to stretch them in pursuit of his goals. So he is prepared to gamble if he's been dealt a good hand and has tallied the odds, and when he meets the frigid Vesper, and melts her ice, he's prepared to fold, sacrificing everything, even the 007 status he has struggled to secure. Craig is a Bond who tries to keep his head when all about are losing theirs and like his Vodka Martinis - often he's shaken and occasionally stirred! He's a spy who's prepared to risk all on the turn of a card and lose. After all, like all gamblers, he believes he can always win it back later.

And so it is with the Bond franchise. They've shuffled the deck with Casino Royale and whilst the first two rounds were won, they tried to bluff their way through the latter half. On screen, trots a horse down a sun-kissed beach and the film takes a disappointing hiatus from which it never really recovers. The cinematography is as pretty as the girl with the all-too-familiar sweeping vistas of wealthy playgrounds in the sun but the formula shines through recreating already established routines. Craig emerges from the ocean in Ursula Andress' style and we are led through some clever, perhaps too clever, dialogue, ponderous love scenes, and introduced to arguably the dullest crime-boss, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), since Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) in For Your Eyes Only. Le Chiffre will only be remembered for his cliché villain's eye. Even Bond's heroic attempt to intercept a terrorist intent on destroying a plane seems pedestrian. I'm not saying that it isn't well thought out or cleverly executed but, except for the well-scripted torture scene, the latter half of the film was just a sum of all its standard parts, and it lacks gestalt - that unique Bond magic.

The casino scenes are torturously long involving seemingly meaningless close-ups of poker faces that felt like the director was using them to kill time. Thankfully someone had the wisdom to call for a few action breaks in between. And now that the bit of flirting with the now vulnerable Vesper has ended, a laboured slush of implausible romance sets in like an unshakeable loser's streak. Cue noble virtues and ignoble passions and one too many twists in the plot. "You don't trust anyone, do you Bond," says M hoping he has learnt his lesson, wouldn't it be better if he hasn't? And then it strolls towards a disappointing grand finale during which only the incongruously dramatic music carries any sense of tension as a small building collapses.

Overall, Casino Royale is a film of two halves, where the former far outshines the latter. The character of the new Bond, which is fresh and original, is firmly established in this movie; however, one couldn't help feeling they didn't go all in. So they've pensioned off Q, bravo, not even John Cleese's feet were big enough to fill Desmond Llewellyn's shoes. And those dreadful puns after a person is killed always seemed crass, but there were more cards in that deal that needed burning. Maybe there are more aces up the Bond franchise's sleeve but I'd like to see them revealing their hand rather than calling my bluff.
Casino Royale poster

Daniel Craig as James Bond 007

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