Pierce Brosnan’s last appearance as the ubiquitous British spy James Bond occurred in 2002, when the actor appeared in the tricked-up Die Another Day, further elevating the series’ penchant for outlandish villains and bombastic action sequences to asinine levels. The producers must have been looking over their shoulders however, for that same year marked the appearance of a new entry in the spy/thriller genre; The Bourne Identity, featuring Matt Damon as a government agent with far more grit and plausibility than every Bond since Sean Connery. Damon’s Jason Bourne was a tortured soul, aware of his shortcomings, wary of his own colleagues and capable of unleashing single-minded, lethal violence on those who sought to destroy him. Flashes of complexity worthy of John LeCarrre mixed with more realistically portrayed villains and plausible storylines made the first Bourne film a box-office smash; an equally popular sequel came out in 2004 and the third film in the series is due out next year. Does this mean Bond audiences are defecting to a new hero?
Never fear; producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, (daughter and stepson of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli who bought the rights to the franchise over 40 years ago) have recruited 38 year-old British actor Daniel Craig, (Munich, Layer Cake) to provide a new take on an old hero, one much darker in temperament and motivation than any of his predecessors and remarkably similar to Damon’s portrayal of the alienated Bourne. Working from a script fashioned by veteran Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, (Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough) with an assist from Paul Haggis, (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) and directed by Martin Campbell, (Goldeneye) Casino Royale is a prequel, returning this venerable series to the caliber of its early entries and assuring audiences that Bond’s reincarnation is going to be very successful indeed.
Under the imperious guidance of a wonderfully acerbic “M”, (Judy Dench) Bond wanders from Uganda to the Caribbean to Montenegro to Venice in pursuit of Le Chiffre, a banker of sorts who caters to the financial needs of international terrorists. Equipped with a quietly disturbing “bleeding eye” and a penchant for high stakes poker, Chiffre stages a $100 million dollar high stakes poker tournament which allows the script to intersperse adrenalin-fueled action sequences, (an African chase sequence and a late-night car crash are two of the best examples) with those of the more sedate but equally tension-filled card game.
A credible female assistant, (Eva Green) who actually possesses a brain in addition to her more traditionally attractive feminine equipment keeps both Bond and the audience guessing while double agents and a quiet C.I. A. operative propel the various threads of the screenplay along smartly until the final plot twist, which neatly ties up story and positions Bond for his next assignment.
The most interesting aspect of Casino however, is the manner in which it plays against type; the women keep their clothes while Bond takes his off; he comes bare-chested out of the water on more than one occasion, (showing off Craine’s buffed-to-perfection physique to excellent advantage) and manages to get himself stripped naked for a particularly nasty bit of physical abuse which gains in intensity as the camera employs the power of suggestion more cleverly than one would expect under the circumstances. The film’s romance is real, not contrived; Bond bleeds, makes tactical mistakes, misreads the intentions of those he’s dealing with and generally comes across as convincingly human - - and thus more impressive when his simmering anger and physical training fuse in the mayhem at which he excels.
Despite its cloying opening titles and incomprehensibly muddled theme song, Casino Royale is fast-paced, lavish and without a shred of redeeming social value, making it about as perfect a serving of holiday escapism as audiences could hope for.
Welcome back, James; it’s good to have you on the prowl again.
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