James Bond is ruthless and unseasoned in Casino Royale, the latest installment in the long-lived film franchise, which returns Ian Fleming's British secret agent to the very beginning of his career. He makes critical errors, but learns and compensates; he earns his stripes, and in the process has his heart shattered. He also survives a torture scene that actually eclipses the memorable one in the first Lethal Weapon film.
Directed by Martin Campbell -- who shot GoldenEye, one of the better Pierce Brosnan installments in the series -- Casino Royale has been likened to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins as an attempt to reboot a flagging but still potentially lucrative cinematic commodity. After a preview screening on Tuesday night at the luxurious Ziegfield Theater, I'm convinced that it completely succeeds in doing so, even in ways I hadn't expected.
(Some of what follows might be construed as spoilers, so skip out now if you want to be surprised.)
The traditional pre-credit overture, presented in stark black and white, depicts the crucial first two kills that earned Bond his "Double-0" status. If he's conflicted about his duty, the remorse doesn't linger.
Daniel Craig, the new Bond, is blondish and rough hewn; he's not conventionally handsome, but his feral presence is commanding, and barely masked by a blank-slate countenance. This Bond's magnetism is born not from unquestionable command, but of its semblance. Craig's is also by far the most athletic Bond, though he's outstripped in that department by some of his targets -- notably in an early pursuit of a suspect who flees with a startling, simian grace. And at last, the deeper ramifications of a job that presupposes an ability to take human lives without remorse was investigated, at least somewhat.
As the film progressed, Craig's portrayal showed signs of developing along the lines of Sean Connery's Alpha Male take on the character, though edgier and not yet as comfortable. Add to that the hard-edged ferocity of Timothy Dalton's loose cannon account in his second Bond film, Licence to Kill, without the kitsch that ultimately overwhelmed him. Pierce Brosnan's urbanity and sex appeal go missing; so, thankfully, does the slapstick in which several of Roger Moore's Bond films were mired. The plot felt as canonical as the neglected On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but it was enacted with more grit than the noble but out-of-his-depth George Lazenby could muster.
Gadgetry is kept to a bare minimum, and serves quite effectively in the few times it surfaces (notably a powerful first-aid kit that barely keeps this Bond alive at one point). There's no sign of John Cleese, no Q Division at all, in fact. The one major link to earlier Bond films proved wise: Judi Dench, who played intelligence chief M in the Brosnan films, remained on board as a stern administrator shamed by Bond's fledgling excesses, who barely tolerates Bond's unpredictability and rule-breaking -- at least until he's proved himself to be the dependably deadly operative she firmly believed him capable of becoming.
Despite his physical tics, there's nothing especially flamboyant about Bond's first major nemesis, Le Chiffre, banker to the world's most dangerous jackals (portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen); in fact, he's a threatened victim himself at several points in the film. And French actress Eva Green held her own opposite Craig's Bond as Vesper Lynd, here a treasury agent sent along to keep tabs on Bond's gambling with several million pounds from Her Majesty's piggy bank. Lynd is established as easily the green secret agent's equal -- not a first for a Bond Girl, but certainly noteworthy -- and her ultimate fate is portrayed in a truly gripping manner.
Somewhat miraculously, Casino Royale presents a Bond faithful to Ian Fleming's creation, while simultaneously in tune with latter-day action films such as The Bourne Identity. David Arnold's score reveals attention fruitfully paid to John Barry's example. And despite expectations, "You Know My Name," Chris Cornell's title song, is actually pretty agreeable.
Slightly more than two-and-a-half hours later, I sympathized with something I overheard a viewer seated behind me at Tuesday night's preview screening say: This film hasn't even been released (it opens on Thursday), and already I'm hungry for the next installment.
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