Casino Royale, Dec. 06


The Bond franchise, now on its 21st child, has undergone as many vicissitudes as a developing nation in its 42-year lifespan. It has ranged from the sublime and chilly and elegant (From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) to fun and silly and filled with the stale naughtiness of double entendres (Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice) to the dull, calcified cheese of the last 30 years. In all honesty, any Bond film starring Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, or Pierce Brosnan is little more than mildly entertaining hotel/airplane viewing. Stagnant, corny, and populated by dumb gadgets, dumber Bond girls, and racially questionable villains, these films were the heaving dinosaurs of the worst impulses of old Hollywood.

The Bond franchise had become irrelevant and made its scads of money on the international market as an also ran of product-placement diversion. Well, Casino Royale is the best possible surprise, a reboot par excellence, on the level of Batman Begins. For the first time, in far longer than I’ve been alive, a Bond film is sexy, vivid, human, and patient. To call it one of the best of the franchise almost does it a disservice. This may be the deepest Bond film ever, and to have such a soulful actioneer in 2006 leaves me ecstatic.

The plot, based on the first Ian Fleming novel, has been done several times. Bond goes against a gambler/international terrorism financier in a super-high stakes game in Montenegro. Action ensues. It is not the structure of Casino Royale that makes it so gripping as it is the execution.

First, the leads, specifically Brosnan’s replacement, Daniel Craig. Craig, a compact, chiseled actor, completely reinvigorates the role, making Bond a cocky, insecure, vaguely sadistic charmer. Craig is truly remarkable and carries the film throughout—there is the thrill of seeing a talented and serious actor launched into the stratosphere. Then there is Eva Green as Bond’s romantic opponent Vesper Lynd. Green, who announced herself (rather explicitly) in Bertolucci’s soft-core swan song The Dreamers, comes into her own as a genuine star. Sensual, strong, and delicate, Green is maybe the first Bond girl ever to have real gravitas and verve, and certainly the first to be remotely believable and appropriate in the 21st century.

Then there is the action. Refreshingly, this one has little or no CGI, jitter-cuts, or trick shots. The style and pace (the film clocks at 144 minutes) is decidedly classical, allowing scenes and characters to develop leisurely. As the new style of action films (i.e., more is more in all cases) has reduced the genre to the cinematic equivalent of a dank all-you-can-eat buffet, Casino Royale comes across as meal tickets to a five-star restaurant. The action centerpieces—a stunning foot chase through Madagascar (sorry, Point Break, you’ve been topped), a breakneck fistfight in the Miami airport runway, etc.—are stunning, visceral, and most importantly, believable.
Casino Royale not only redefines James Bond, but single-handedly illustrates the importance of plot, pacing, and aesthetic in popcorn entertainment. The only atrocious and unforgivable part of the film is the heinous theme song by Chris Cornell, which is arguable the most bloated and turgid Bond song ever. I know the film producers are rather traditional, but would it kill them to consider Scott Walker, Barry Adamson, or at least someone fun and cool like Beyonce for the song credit? Aside from that, Casino Royale is pretty much a clean sweep, the best pop-film of 2006. A