Review: “Casino Royale”

A superbly made ‘restart’ to the James Bond franchise, “Royale” is a bold mix of the current big spectacle Bond formula action movie combined with the very first Ian Fleming novel about the character from the 1950’s. While the results don’t entirely gel, it does yield the best film in the franchise in over a decade. Certainly it’s the most loyal adaptation of author Ian Fleming’s original vision for the character since the 1960’s.

At 144 minutes it runs a tad long, and its mostly impressive action sequences are somewhat crudely inserted and amassed into the film’s early scenes. Yet the middle and later parts are surprisingly loyal to the original work, whilst Daniel Craig delivers a bravura turn that will bring in a whole new series of fans. Those elitists who find the films somewhat cliched and trite (as admittedly they have gotten at times) will warm to this one’s more humanistic approach.

The Bond franchise has always struggled to find a balance between crowd pleasing larger than life spectacle action, and the darker, old-fashioned espionage thrillers in which the character was created. The former has contributed toward the franchise losing much of its credibility due to its over the top approach and big spectacle, and yet those films earned far more money than the more serious and realistic turns, and on occasion popped out a simply great piece of cinema at the same time (most notably “Goldfinger” and “The Spy Who Loved Me”).

Often the series would venture too far down one path, and when that happened the producers would pull back and go in the opposite direction. It’s a move that has always been a welcome one, resulting in excellent films such as “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, “For Your Eyes Only”, “The Living Daylights” and “Goldeneye”. The last of that bunch was helmed by Martin Campbell who returns for “Royale” with a greater sense of respect for the series, and a much more poised and careful hand that shows potential for real greatness if he can keep this standard up.

“Goldeneye” resurrected the franchise after the odious “Licence to Kill” which made Bond too American, too serious and too ‘real’ to the point that the franchise became a bad Miami Vice episode. “Goldeneye” brought back a dry sense of humour, international location hopping, a sense of style and strong production values – yielding one of the series most sheerly entertaining movies. The benefits didn’t last though, culminating in 2002’s far too silly “Die Another Day” (forget the invisible car, the bad CG tsunami windsurfing scene was what did it in for me).

“Royale” now takes the franchise in another and better direction. Campbell smartly keeps the stronger elements of the Brosnan-era – namely the high quality production values, big stunts, sexy humour and Judi Dench as ‘M’, but loses much of the 90’s blockbuster bombast and recasts everything else in a much more serious and realistic light that’s faithful to the original material both literally and in intent. It’s modern, but retro including the way it’s shot which relies on strong but striaght forward visuals rather than quick pace editing.

Make no mistake though, the film never goes too far into realism – locations stick to exotic locales like Venice, Montenegro, the Bahamas and Uganda, whilst modern world politics and terrorism get a brief mention but are never focussed on. A touch of fantasy and timelessness are what’s helped the franchise keep its longevity over the years and it remains intact here.

Yet in a rare move “Royale” is much more focused on character than plot, and with the film setting this up as Bond’s early days, it allows for much greater insights into him as a person. Gone is the seemingly invincible gentlemen super spy, replaced by a more brutal, less polished and emotionally vulnerable man whose arrogance and self-confidence over reach themselves with near fatal consequences. This is a Bond that bleeds, falls in love, grimly dispatches people because that’s his job, and doesn’t win every fight he’s in. It’s a quite different approach in a series famous for variations on the same theme, but ultimately both the film and franchise are better for it.

We now live in a time where we expect more credible, gritty tough guy spies in our films thanks to the likes of characters like Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. The all too glossy almost superhero like Bond seems almost anachronistic, and yet the one actor who previously tried to make Bond most human was Timothy Dalton. He did well but could never get that mix of superspy and emotional human quite right, and never really got a chance to explore it.

Daniel Craig though pulls it off, so well in fact he even makes those aforementioned heroes with the same initials seem like cardboard comic book heroes compared with the more faceted and personal take he brings to the role. Like his character, Craig is a powerhouse of muscle (amply shown in two speedo scenes) and confidence but with a rough, everyday look about him. What he lacks in the finesse department, he makes up for in sheer raw brutality – making him the first actor in the role who has been able to make the character physically intimidating.

More important though, he’s also just a great actor in general and very committed to this performance which is one of the series best pieces of acting work. Whilst he still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the quips just yet, the writers cleverly have made that a part of the character which makes his one or two missteps go by almost unnoticed – he unfortunately underplays his delivery of the novel’s famous last line, though he does get a famous one for his own final words in the film’s great coda.

Craig is ably supported by a strong cast led by French actress Eva Green. The gorgeous Green slickly pulls off the mix of Vesper’s beauty, smarts and conflicted emotional state well – a throwback to the beauties of the Hitchcock era in some ways. More importantly though, and it’s something so rare to see these days in these films, the pair share a real chemistry which works extremely well and gets a healthy amount of screen time to shine.

Their verbal jousting, moments of tenderness and eventual outcome all flow with a nice sense of old romanticism. The story does spend just a tad too long in its third act indulging in those moments and James’ eventual falling for her never feels entirely genuine (thus robbing the ending of some emotional impact). Nevertheless the pair do a tremendous job together.

Kudos also to the other players. Mads Mikkelsen might be stuck with one gimmick too many (the scarred eye is fine, the bleeding tear duct and asthma inhaler go too far), but otherwise delivers a great turn as the villain of the piece. Not your stock Bond megalomaniac bad guy, Le Chiffre is simply a well-mannered amoral gentlemen driven purely by greed, a believable baddie capable of being intimidated by more ruthless predators and yet cold and calculating enough to outwit our hero at various turns. He’s a villain with weakness and basic human frailty, which makes him that much more a convincingly real threat.

Dench gets to imbue her ‘M’ this time around with a bigger sense of power and intimidation, bringing back that welcome sense of antagonism between herself and Bond that hasn’t been around since the Bernard Lee days. Giannini as the MI6 contact in Montenegro has a sly devilish charm reminiscent of the great Kerim Bay character in “From Russia with Love”, and Jeffrey Wright has a fun but small role as Felix Leiter. Much of the rest of the cast do alright with what they have, but most other roles (short of Solange & Mr. White) are stand-ins or cameos at best.

Action scenes explode with power rather than panache – a free running sequence across an African construction site is jaw-droppingly impressive, a chase at an airport yields an intense car crash, and the hand-to-hand combat is raw and powerful. Campbell firmly understands that unlike other action heroes, the Bond films smartly avoid guns where possible and so combat is much more effective and of the wild stunt or intense close-up physical type – knives in particular get worked into the action with great effect, and Campbell never shies away from showing the brutal aftermath both physically and emotionally of these conflicts.

Yet they’re also where the main faults with “Royale” lie. Most of the films since the Moore-era have been driven by plot, which means the action scenes have flowed pretty smoothly and are welcome breaks amidst all the exposition. With ‘Royale’ being so character based, and the script sticking so close to the small and more emotional scope of the book in the second half, the big action set pieces come front loaded which makes the ending feel mildly anti-climactic.

Clocking in a good 15-20 minutes too long, the first hour is filled with good scenes but quite a few that add up to ultimately little. The moments of action in the second act feel far better incorporated into the story, making the early set pieces somewhat awkward and out of place no matter how elaborate they are. Similarly a scene towards the end set around a collapsing building in Venice allows for a great setting, but is too much for what should be a more underplayed moment.

Most notably an intense sequence set around stopping a bomb at an airport in Miami feels like overkill, especially when half an hour later the much simpler card games at the casino are more compelling and brimming with tension – as is an absolutely brutal attack in a stairwell that leaves both leads rather shaken. If further edits were to happen, those scenes in the Bahamas and Miami should be the first to undergo a bit of a trimming, followed by maybe some of the post-torture romantics in the last half hour.

Still, scribes Purvis & Wade, along with a polish by Paul Haggis, deliver a far better and more nuanced script than their previous work. The dialogue is whip smart, the character traits believable, and the story balances the tricky tightrope of appealing to low attention span teens whilst finally giving us older audiences something more substantial to sit through. The trio do a great job updating the five decade old story with modern touches, but keeping it relatively timeless in some ways.

When they stick with Fleming’s original story elements though (from Montenegro onwards) the film glows – combining the author’s great beats with welcome moments of modern suspense and dry witicism. The infamous testicle torture scene remains intact, as does the twist ending (though somewhat dimmed), and in a great move the trio incorporate a side character in the shadows working for a much larger organisation. It’s a definite hint of a SMERSH/SPECTRE like threat re-emerging in further films which would be great to see.

Production values across the rest of the board are excellent. The few FX shots are stunning, the costumes and sets exquisite but believable, and David Arnold’s score for the first time has moments that would do the great John Barry proud, though Chris Cornell’s song is decidedly lacklustre (opening credits aren’t much chop either unfortunately). Product placement is disgustingly rampant for Sony with its cameras, computers and phones far too conspicuous in their placement.

The one or two bum notes can’t stop the fact that “Casino Royale” is simply a great film, one of the best in the long-running series and one that returns James Bond to the top of the heap. The jury’s still out on whether Craig will challenge Sean Connery for the title of the best Bond ever, but for a first effort in the role he’s showing great promise. The film completely justifies its “Batman Begins” style restart approach, though the early calls of ‘best Bond ever’ are an over exaggeration (although they’re not far off the mark I’ll grant you).

Had the film ditched some of the more crowd-pleasing set pieces and stuck closer to the text like the middle and much of latter sections of the film do, it probably would’ve flowed better. Likewise lets hope the inevitable sequels keep this more character and story rather than action driven approach going for at least a little while. It’s not as lightly entertaining as the Moore & Brosnan era, but it is certainly more rewarding than many of their films. Bond is back and better than he has been in a LONG time.