“In the beginning” films are all the rage at the moment. Batman Begins, X-Men et al delight in telling us how their heroes started in exciting and realistic ways. So why not revisit the beginning of that master spy, Mr Bond? Casino Royale does just that.
I loved Pierce Brosnan as 007. He was suave and sophisticated and gorgeous but at the same time, had in his eyes that look of cold killer. After Sean, he was the man born to play Bond. However while he was in the role, the scripts again went down that dangerous path to self-parody. Invisible cars? Ice castles? Really?
And the later Bond women were terrible; the distinct lack of chemistry between Brosnan and Halle Berry almost destroyed Die Another Day even without the insipid story. (Though the opening sequence of Bond’s capture and torture was good and really lifted expectations; they were just dashed later).
So Pierce was out. The producers wanted a new look and a new direction, to revitalise the series.
They found it.
Firstly, Daniel Craig. A character actor who doesn’t have the “strict” Hollywood style and looks more like he’d be at home in a bar fight than at a casino poker table. But that’s the point; Bond is not who he is by birth, he was made. And Craig plays that part perfectly. He becomes Bond by sheer force of will; he demands the audience respect him as this character, not by pleading, but by being so calm and confident you believe. This is a Bond not born to the elite aura that surrounds him; instead he is trained into it, and must become accustomed to it before he can perform his job. This is a Bond who bleeds; not just physically, but from the heart as well.
A black and white, violent, brilliant pre-credit sequence sets the tone for this film as Bond is promoted just in time for M to put his particular skills as “the best (poker) player in the service” to good use. The post-credit action scene through the African locale that begins the story sets Bond history as the first ever foot chase, though that describes the sequence loosely as death-defying acrobatics seem to be more the order of the day. But the sudden, violent end to that chase is the real surprise and we are reminded, once again, that Bond is a killer. However he must atone for his deeds and his rash judgement needs to be toned down, as a perturbed M scolds him: “take your ego out of the equation”.
As the story proceeds you sense Bond is learning, adapting and changing. His task to meet the villain in a high stakes poker game, his chances funded by the British government, brings him in contact with the girl. Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, is not your average Bond girl. Yes she’s beautiful, but there are brains (and not the “brains” of Denise Richards’ Dr Christmas Jones). She’s the accountant given the job of watching the money.
Bond and Vesper’s opening scene on the train is almost an action scene in itself where the thrust and parry of words are the weapons. Each seeks to find their opponent’s weak spot and come out victorious. Sure it’s not Shakespeare and the chemistry is a little forced (Craig runs acting rings around Green), but this is the best Bond scripting in years. Vesper has Bond’s number, and understands more about him than almost anyone. You easily understand how he could fall for her.
The story in itself is intriguing. There is no maniacal villain intent on world domination. Instead, you have a banker. He invests a lot of money, bad people’s money, in a scheme (with September 11 references) that Bond thwarts. The money is gone, and the bad people want it back. So the villain is being chased by other villains and you get a sense, in the background, that there are even more figures in the shadows pulling longer strings.
So the British Government wants this banker for his information. How to get him? Make him come to you, of course. The banker sets up the high stakes poker game in the hope of winning his money back and saving his arse. It’s Bond’s job to win instead, at which point the banker can be offered the protection of Her Majesty’s Government, in return for favours of course.
So the table is set, the hand is dealt, and the game begins. The actual Texas Hold’em game at the casino is just as full of tension as a blow-em-up action sequence; the players bluff and hold and bet and eye each other across the table and you’re never quite sure how it’s going to end. And when it does end, to surprise, it’s not the end after all.
This is the best Bond film for a long, long time. Maybe not the best ever but right up there. The gadgets are all real world stuff and believable; I don’t think I’ve ever seen text messaging used so much in a film. The story is strong and, in a surprising twist, the door is open for a direct sequel a Bond follows the strings and tracks down those shadowy figures in the background.
Finally, big kudos must go to Daniel Craig. He puts paid to those critics who saw him as miscast; he slips into the role like a new shoe – uncomfortable at first just like the character but worn and fitted by the end. When he appears on screen for the final moment, impeccably tailored, brandishing a submachinegun like he’s a country gentleman on a duck hunt and speaks those magic six words, we really believe. His name is Bond, James Bond; and he’s back.