Casino Royale (2006) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for strong violence, a scene of torture, sexual content, and nudity
Running Time: 144 min.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis (based loosely on the novel by Ian Fleming)
Review published November 19, 2006

In the film, James Bond (Craig, Munich) is shown just before obtaining his "00" status, his license to kill, which he is granted after two assassinations while in the line of duty.  His assignment leads him to Madagascar, but when things go awry, Bond breaks with MI6 to go off on his own to crack down on a ring of terrorists.  The investigation leads him to Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen, King Arthur), a notorious banker funding the terror operations, who has lost a small fortune due to Bond's meddling, but plans to make it back in a poker tournament.  Bond is commissioned to thwart Le Chiffre's success, with government accountant Vesper Lynd (Green, Kingdom of Heaven) to make sure all proceeds according to plan monetarily.  Together, they travel to Montenegro for the a tournament with the highest of stakes, both monetarily and politically, as it's difficult to tell who has the upper hand and who is bluffing, both at and away from the poker table.  

This isn't the first time that author Ian Fleming's debut Bond novel, "Casino Royale", has been made into a film, although it's the first official one, as the previous incarnations were a TV episode (of the mid-1950s show "Climax!") and a 1967 satire of the spy genre with David Niven.  This one is a serious big screen treatment, and one of the most serious of the Bond film's to date, as action, drama, and some strong violence take the forefront, while the tongue-in-cheek gags, double entendres, and wild gadgets are held to an absolute minimum.  It's a new era for James Bond, the debut of Daniel Craig in the starring role, and on nearly every level, it's a real step in the right direction for this hit-and-miss franchise, perhaps the best Bond film since the 1960s (some might say since Goldfinger, but I also have a fondness for On Her Majesty's Secret Service). 

There's usually some natural excitement attached whenever a new actor plays the decades old spy, although not always to raves.  Daniel Craig, a fine actor with a tough screen presence but little of that dashing, debonair style some might associate with the popular Bonds, Connery and Brosnan, has a daunting task o replacing Pierce, but the makers of Casino Royale do themselves a great deal of service by playing to Craig's strengths, rather than try to adapt Craig to the typical Bond style.  The result is a solid effort, so subdued at times that you almost forget it's James Bond, but with enough of the usual staples to keep the purists content.  It's a Bond film for those who don't usually like Bond films.

The continuity is a bit murky, as it does feature the same M (Dench, Pride & Prejudice), but it also "introduces" CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Wright, Lady in the Water), who has appeared on other Bond films, so perhaps it's best to think of this as a reboot (or perhaps more accurately, a retcon), rather than a prequel to the other entries.  It should be remembered that continuity has never been a priority for the series, as some actresses have played more than one role in different films, and the times always change while the agent remains about the same throughout.  Only die-hard series fans will find any of this distracting, as the film works just as well as a standalone spy adventure as it does an entry in Bond canon, delivering most of the goods anyone might expect while also offering a handful of new twists to keep it from being just another entertaining-but-forgettable entry.

Martin Campbell (The Legend of Zorro, Vertical Limit) returns as director of a 007 adventure, and this is his second time dealing with a new Bond, as well as a new direction for the series, with his last venture being Pierce Brosnan's debut, GoldenEye, arguably the best post-Connery Bond film (I'd give a nod to The Spy Who Loved Me).  Just as that entry catered to Brosnan's personality, so too does this to Craig, who explores the dark side of Bond, tapping into his maverick attitudes and aggressive pursuits.  Craig is in his element here, as menacing as any of the bad guys, tough as nails and embodying the ruggedness of Connery, once again being the kind of man that men want to be and women want to be with.  This seems in answer to the over-the-top style of Die Another Day which featured plenty of saucy dialogue, snarky humor, and outlandish villainy.  Casino Royale is still colorful, with some very impressive stunt pieces, but always maintains a dour note from beginning to end.

While Casino Royale is certainly top-notch 007, I do think that some critics are being too quick to proclaim this a great film.  While there is a bit more emphasis than previous endeavors on character development, the amount is still inordinately low, with most of the running time devoted to the action and poker than in any particularly deep or meaningful conversations.  Not that anyone would want a dialogue-heavy Bond film, but in this case, given the potential of an emotionally-charged climax that sees Bond trying to save a woman's life that he has great feelings for, the cold and calculating set-up just wasn't there to have a powerhouse payoff.  Yes, this is a darker, more brooding James Bond, but at the same time, the investment in his character is only superficial at best, and so is our involvement.  It's also the longest film in the series to date, at 144 minutes, which makes the lack of necessary development in the characters a bit disappointing given how much slack had been given to the overall length.

Overlooking the inherent flaws in the genre, Casino Royale is still a worthwhile viewing for franchise fans, hardcore and casual, and marks an interesting rebirth for the long-time action hero.  Craig proves he has what it takes to don the tuxedo (and the Speedo), and it does whet the appetite for more Bond adventures in the years to come.  If they can be of this caliber, we may see the dawn of another exciting era for the world's greatest spy of the film world.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo