Movie night last night was to go see Casino Royale, the new James Bond film with Daniel Craig as the new Bond, the producers having ousted Pierce Brosnan, the Bond of the 90s.
(John Scalzi wrote a nice eulogy for Brosnan’s time as Bond. One thing he doesn’t mention – but which I recall from the late 80s – is that Brosnan wanted to be the Bond to follow Roger Moore, but his contractual commitment to Remington Steele caused the producers to choose Timothy Dalton instead – to no small fan outcry.)
Honestly, the only two Bond films I’ve seen in the theater since the Roger Moore days were The Living Daylights (1987) and The World is Not Enough (1999), but I’ve enjoyed the Bondfests on SpikeTV so much the last couple of years that I was pretty enthusiastic about seeing the new one.
Bond uncovers an ongoing plot by the investor Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), who short-sells stocks whose companies he knows will be the target of terrorist attacks. Bond foils one such plot by one of Le Chiffre’s agents, forcing Le Chiffre to play at a $150M Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament at the Casino Royale to recoup his losses to pay back his investors (who are themselves not very nice men). Bond is accompanied by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a government accountant overseeing the funds used to enter Bond in the tournament.
Casino Royale is sort-of presented as Bond’s first mission: The film’s teaser shows him getting his first two kills to achieve double-0 status. The film is then broken into four parts: First, chasing a lone bomber in Madagascar, which leads him to a plot to destroy a prototype airplane in Miami. Then the casino sequence in Montenegro, and finally a concluding sequence in which Bond falls for Vesper in a big way. The running theme of the story is of Bond’s coldness towards others, and the emotional armor he employs to allow him to do his job.
Daniel Craig as Bond is not bad. Having seen previews of the film for weeks, he kept reminding me of someone. Finally, I realized who:
On the left, Daniel Craig. On the right, Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner: Similar heavy brows, similar shapes to their noses and mouths. On screen the resemblance is even more clear, I thought.
My main complaint about Craig’s performance is that he doesn’t have the sense of humor that previous actors have brought to the character. Many of my favorite Connery moments involve his expression of “oh dear, this is going reather badly for you, isn’t it?”, and while Roger Moore could admittedly be over-the-top, he still had a good comic sense when presented with good material. Craig really does come across as ruthless and humorless, and while it’s not true that he never smiles, it seems almost unconvincing when he does.
But maybe it’s the script’s fault: The story is brutal, almost unrelentingly so. Certainly with 40 years of history behind it, including some pretty ludicrous plot premises, there’s a lot to live up to, and Casino Royale almost self-consciously works to break with tradition. There are no gadgets, no Q, and very little witty banter. There’s plenty of action, though, and at times the film feels very much like From Russia With Love (one of my favorites).
But I think the film gets away from some of what makes Bond films fun: The series isn’t really about the glamour or the women; fundamentally, Bond is a consummate professional, but he also cares, because he’s not just a killer, his job is to protect his country and its citizens. He may keep people at arm’s length emotionally, but he’s more than just a “blunt instrument”, as M (Judi Dench) calls him at one point. I think the script tries to recreate Craig as a Bond who is less fun to watch than his predecessors.
All that said, the film is often a lot of fun, with some amazing action sequences: The pursuit of the bomber in Madagascar is fantastic, and the chase at the Miami airport is equally terrific, the latter feeling more like a Bond film than any other scene in the film. The Casino Royale sequence has many interesting elements, but kind of goes on too long, with too many twists and turns and diversions. And then the denouement is almost agonizing, because you know that any woman who Bond genuinely falls for is doomed (c.f. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The final shootout is actually not as strong as some earlier fights, although it’s not bad.
(Mean Gene writes about the film from a poker standpoint. I was pretty impressed with the level of detail of the mechanics of playing poker they worked into the film.)
The plot didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why Bond was in Madagascar to start with was unclear, and the trail leading up the chain of the conspirators was pretty thin, I thought. I didn’t see the point of going through with the whole poker tournament, either, from MI6’s standpoint. There never seemed to be much of a plan, and intent to follow up after the tournament was over. But strong motivation has not always been a big concern in the Bond films.
Overall I enjoyed the film, but I agree with Debbi who said afterwards that it didn’t feel like a Bond film. It may take another film or two for me to decide what I really think of Daniel Craig. Casino Royale was fun, but it had its flaws. I’ll be curious to see if they correct them in the next film, or if they continue to take the series in a new direction.