Bond’s sixth incarnation is a refreshing, if only too lengthy, change of pace.
Bond is back for a return to the beginning. Years ago, MGM ran out of the best Bond stories written by Bond creator Ian Flemming. The franchise’s level of quality since has been a seesaw. Strangely enough, the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, had never received proper theatrical treatment. It had been spoofed and made into a TV movie, but neither was considered an official part of the 20-film MGM movie series that began with Dr. No in 1962 and has become so beloved. Along with introducing Bond’s sixth incarnation in the series, Daniel Craig, the makers decided it was time to return to Flemming’s original 1953 novel as a means to reinvigorate the franchise.
There has been much debate as to whom the next Bond should be and also whether Brosnan should have been retained for another film or two. All that is out the window and the endless debates of who is the greatest Bond (It’s Connery, and anyone who disagrees is wrong) will continue with Craig now added to the mix. Without opening that bag of worms, I will say that Craig is excellent in Casino Royale. He’s a return to the more dangerous, more rough-around-the-edges Bond of the Connery era. He’s slick when he needs to be, but much less so than Brosnan. Then again, this is the story of Bond first becoming a “double 0,” so he’s rough because of his inexperience as well. He reaches his goals, but not as smoothly as we’re used to.
Casino Royale’s first big action sequence takes a cue from the parkour martial arts first seen (or little seen) in the movie Disctrict B13. It basically involves impressive physical theatrics employed using common urban settings such as the construction site of this chase sequence. Action-wise, it’s the Royale's best scene. For much of this telling, the action is toned down from the over-the-top, blockbuster nature of recent Bond films. More intrigue, more innuendos, less explosions. But director Martin Campell (Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye) can’t resist the temptation to head back to a major set piece here and there, even when it’s unadvisable or no longer fits with the plot.
Casino Royale’s biggest failing is that it is so uneven. When it sticks to Flemming’s writing, it’s generally strong and compelling. You are getting to know Bond all over again without the showiness. The moments where writers tried to “beef-up” the very talky and less action-oriented novel are pretty obvious. It’s not that they are bad per se, they just feel like part of a different movie.
Length is the other issue. Around the two-hour mark, Casino Royale feels as though it is nearing a very different, but fitting conclusion to the story. But then, it goes on, feeling close to ending multiple times. The film runs close to two and a half hours, and you most definitely will feel that length.
In the time between the last Bond film (Die Another Day) and this one, the fledgling MGM was bought by Sony. Sony marketing execs apparently took this opportunity as a chance to cram as much Sony product placement within the film as humanly possible. There are Sony cell phones, Sony Vaio laptops, Sony DVD players, Sony digital cameras and I’m sure a few more logoed trinkets I missed. It’s excessive and annoying.
Other than those, the usual Bond gadgets are not present. Q is not a part of this film and, although I’ve heard some complain about the lack of Bond's usual nifty toys, I didn’t mind it. This is a simpler take on Bond that explores his origin. I’m sure the toys will come in the next Craig Bond film.
Judi Dench returns as M, great as always. Eva Green (Dreamers) steps into the Bond-girl role with ease and gets more of a chance to explore a depth within her character than most of her prior ilk. She's beautiful and very invested in the part. Mads Mikkelson, whose real name sounds like a perfect Bond villain to me, plays the intensely evil Le Chiffre. He’s one of the most memorable Bond baddies in a while. Finally, the always excellent Jeffrey Wright adds a small supporting performance.
Casino Royale properly passes the torch and succeeds in re-invigorating the franchise. There are some bumps along the road and I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a classic within the series, but it works. Aside from some length issues, it is compelling to watch, even if many scenes are just Bond working on his poker face. Craig is a great and different choice for Bond. He looks different than any Bond that has come before him, yet still fits the part quite well. Connery fans will probably find themselves the biggest fan of his work. I’d wager that Craig was a Connery fan too.