While Casino Royale has been labelled as being as necessary a rebooting of a franchise as Batman Begins was to Batman and Robin, I always thought that was somewhat unfair on the previous entry. Despite Die Another Day‘s excesses and cartoonish absurdities, I saw it as a celebration of Bond to mark the 20th film and the 40th anniversary, and it was therefore allowed to go a bit loopy. Clearly the producers thought a change of tact was in order, and it has certainly been a controversial process. From Pierce Brosnan’s pay disputes, dropping him altogether, the search for a new Bond, the eventual selection of Daniel Craig, taking the character back to his roots by using the original novel (an idea Quentin Tarantino had also proposed when he offered to make an R-rated Bond film with Brosnan)…the path to Bond 21 has been littered with bumps and knocks. So it’s pretty amazing that something so good came out at the end.
I never understood the whole brouhaha surrounding the choice of Craig as Bond, in that he’s been excellent in pretty much everything I’ve seen him in. That he has already achieved such an impressive bank of work demonstrated that he was to approach the character of James Bond with all the attention a role such as this requires. And he does absolute wonders, flitting from brutal coldness to lady charmer to razor wit with genuine ease. In terms of the Bonds that have gone before, you could perhaps say he’s most like Connery but it would be unfair to suggest that there’s an element of mimicry going on, as Craig’s Bond is his own and totally believable. He even displays character development – though that’s as much to do with the writing and this being the ‘genesis’ of the Bond character as much as anything.
Indeed, where the film genuinely succeeds is in how the Bond traditions are present and correct but they all have a logic and a purpose behind them that feels genuinely embedded in reality. Of course, there are the occasional flights of fancy but they still feel wholly grounded. Similarly, the dialogue rarely strays into Carry On… innuendo clangers, remaining snappy and sharp throughout.
In terms of the supporting cast, Judi Dench appears to relish the chance to put Bond in his place now he’s reverted back to a fresh-faced whipper-snapper of a 00 agent. She clearly doesn’t like Bond but there’s a mutual respect that their brief exchanges absolutely convey. Mads Mikkelsen is superb as Le Chiffre, who is more human than any of the pantomime villains that usually parade around their massive lairs. He’s certainly unpleasant but there’s a sense of tragedy behind his bleeding eye that make his scenes with Bond electrifyingly tense. But it’s Eva Green as Vesper Lynd who’s the biggest revelation. The dialogue between her and Craig sparks with wonderful zings and one-upmanship, and the sensitive relationship that develops between them provides the emotional core to the kind of film that rarely has one.
I’ve spent most of this review blabbing on about acting, dialogue and character development, yet I haven’t even touched on the action sequences that Bond films are best remembered for. It’s not to say they aren’t spectacular (the bathroom beating, the parkour chase, the airport bomb plot), but they seem somewhat muted compared to what are actually the film’s finest scenes – the actual poker game central to the plot (and its interruptions) and the perfectly-pitched torture scene, which balances the pain/humour element thanks to some great Bond quippery.
If there are flaws, they do little to upset the overall impression of the film. There’s a little bit of unnecessary jet-setting (Bond’s spur of the moment trip to Miami moves the plot along a fraction and has some good stunts, but seems more like an excuse to stick in a Richard Branson cameo and take a trip to Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworks exhibition) and there’s the odd dodgy CG backdrop. And despite having successfully rebooted the Bond franchise twice, I still don’t think Martin Campbell’s all that great a director. That this film looks and feels so radically different to GoldenEye either suggests he’s upped his game or just does what the writers, editors and producers tell him – maybe it’s just because he looks like Karl Pilkington.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the tone can be maintained to successive Bond films. But for now, Casino Royale has proved that Bond is as exciting now as ever. This isn’t just a great Bond film, but it’s a great film in it’s own right. The film’s good. Very good.