Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Casino Royal

Posted By on Wed, Nov 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

After all these years, is there anything left in James Bond? The poor guy's been worshipped, copied, vilified, analyzed and parodied arguably more than any other character in movie history. Mike Meyers wasn't exactly satirizing Bond with the Austin Powers series, but that Goldmember is more of a household name than Ian Fleming's unironically evil forebear Goldfinger tells you something about how little currency the franchise holds nowadays. When there's more buzz surrounding Halle Berry's appearance in a candy-orange bikini than there is about your leading man — the still-suave but 50-something Pierce Brosnan — it's time for a tune-up.

Enter Daniel Craig. The sinewy blond has been skulking around weird little British movies for years, but nothing about him says Bond — at least not the Bond stereotype we've come to know and mock. There's the hair, for one thing, and his face — a little smashed up, with a blunt nose and sunken eyes — doesn't have a trace of the self-satisfied smirk that's graced even the worst actors to don the super-spy's tux. Craig looks like he came from a broken home; in fact, he looks like the one who broke the home, probably with his bare hands. He's the first-ever rough-trade Bond. And it turns out that's exactly what this on-the-verge-of-irrelevant series needed.

For all the hype surrounding Craig's "controversial" casting, it will come as a surprise to some that Casino Royale delivers all the old 007 goods, namely white-sand beaches, martinis and exotic goddesses in bikinis. But it adds to that formula a few things any decent post-9/11, post-Bourne Supremacy thriller should have. International terrorism is now a prerequisite for the spy genre — as Judi Dench's wonderfully exasperated M puts it, "Christ, I miss the Cold War" — and the film adequately updates Fleming's original '50s novel to a world where the CIA, the British Secret Service and dozens of un-PC bad guys battle a vast and seemingly unwinnable war. (Following the reductive shorthand of so many other recent spy flicks, Casino Royale treats Africa as the new Soviet Union.)

The other big change is in the action. Where it might have been laughable to have Brosnan leaping from 100-foot-high scaffolding or using human hostages as bullet shields, the new film dumps Craig into one massive stunt sequence after another without him blinking an eye. Over the course of two Zorro movies and one other Bond film (GoldenEye), director Martin Campbell has evolved into a fantastic choreographer of controlled chaos. The first three set pieces don't give you a chance to catch your breath — or even your bearings — as Campbell reminds you of what was once good about the films of John Woo (balletic gun play), John Cameron (high-speed foot chases) and even Steven Spielberg (unnecessary crane shots).

But the ace up the film's sleeve is Craig's foil, Eva Green, playing Vesper Lynd, the British accountant assigned to bankroll Bond's escapades. Calling her a Bond Girl would be an oversimplification. Vulnerable, voluptuous and armed only with quick wit, her Vesper is everything Bond isn't, and she allows the audience access to the character just when he's at his most steely and closed-off. She also allows us sexual access to Bond: For once, a 007 film seems less like a game of predator and prey than it does a full-blooded romance between two impossibly gorgeous, smart people. "I'll be keeping my eye on the money and not your perfectly formed ass," Lynd quips within minutes of meeting Bond. "You noticed," he replies. After Casino Royale, it's safe to say everyone will be intimately familiar with Craig's most private parts. They're reason enough to keep the series alive for another 20 installments.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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