License Renewed

Salt Lake City Weekly | November 13, 2006
The stylized opening credits sequence is there, though the departure from Maurice Binder’s writhing silhouettes is more pronounced. There’s still a ruthless villain with odd character quirks, but instead of creating elaborate death machines he mocks the idea of them. And there’s an agent with a license to kill, only he’s remarkably short on pun-filled quips. It’s all just familiar enough, and yet it can’t help but make you wonder: What have they done to James Bond?

Once upon a time, those who ran valuable movie franchises never dared to rock the boat. They preached continuity and familiarity. But with recent screen vehicles for Batman and Superman literally erasing events from earlier films, it began to seem that studios were trusting in the idea of innovative storytelling as a means of overcoming franchise inertia. And if that meant pretending that some things never happened—or risking the wrath of continuity nerds by casting a blue-eyed actor—so be it.

Casino Royale joins the “franchise reboot” trend, and it proves more invigorating than any Bond adventure in years. Here we find Bond (Daniel Craig) freshly promoted to Double-0 status, though within a matter of days his reckless style already has M (Judi Dench) questioning her own judgment. Ostensibly on leave after nearly causing an international incident, Bond instead continues to follow the trail of a thwarted bomb-maker that leads to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of global terrorist organizations. And our man James is certain he can bring him down, whether it’s in a fistfight or at the poker table.

In a lot of little ways, director Martin Campbell (who directed Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond outing, GoldenEye) and a trio of screenwriters stay true to the formula that has survived for 40 years. The stunt sequences are few and far between, but impressive, including an early chase sequence energized by the human riccochets of the French urban martial arts form “parkour.” The plot hops from continent to continent, showing off locales in Africa, Italy and Montenegro. And what would Bond be without his women, most notably his slinky-but-smart associate Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). It’s not as though someone has taken 007 and dropped him into an E.M. Forster novel.

They have, however, dropped him into something with a more viscerally brutal edge. This Bond dishes out plenty of punishment, and he absorbs plenty, too. He’s battered, poisoned, shot with a nail gun, sliced and—in one memorably uncomfortable sequence—whacked repeatedly with a blunt instrument on a part of his anatomy that we’re accustomed to seeing him use for more pleasurable purposes. This Bond is a soldier, and the business of being a soldier is treated with a bloody sense of consequence.

But more to the point, this Bond is a person, not just a tuxedo holding a gun and swilling vodka martinis. Craig’s interpretation allows for Bond’s hubris to get the better of him at times—he’s alpha-male swagger taken to its sometimes self-defeating extreme. This Bond seduces not through suave come-ons but through sheer animal ferocity—and when the plot finds his icy demeanor melting a bit, there’s a surprisingly real sense of humanity bubbling beneath the genre trappings.

That’s not to say that Casino Royale avoids that most common of big-budget mishaps: over-stuffing. The film checks in at nearly two and a half hours, a fairly inexcusable case of bloating considering that nearly half an hour of that time is devoted to a single poker showdown (broken up by a couple of near-death experiences). Campbell and company don’t quite trust that they can abandon the Bond template completely, and the result is something that gets way too busy in its final hour.

Yet it does something unexpected: It makes a James Bond movie feel like more than an obligatory cash cow. By emphasizing Bond as a character rather than as a caricature, the makers of Casino Royale have delivered something that folds in the series’ history without being paralyzed by that history. What have they done to James Bond? They’ve allowed him to breathe again.


*** (three out of four stars)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen

Directed by Martin Campbell

Rated PG-13.

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