A brutish, buff Bond

The Independent
Reviewed by Anthony Quinn
Published: 17 November 2006

Gangway! The muscled brute tearing through the
building site at the start of Casino Royale, swinging
from the neck of a crane and hurling himself from
ledges, chasing down his quarry with the pitiless speed
of a leopard on an antelope - put this man in a loincloth
and he could be Tarzan. In fact, he's the new James
Bond, whose feats of athletic prowess here make his
"man of action" tag look completely inadequate. Has
someone checked him for steroid abuse? It's as if the
film-makers, eager to wipe the memory of Roger Moore
or even Pierce Brosnan huffing and puffing through the
action sequences, have decided to reboot the brand by
cranking up Bond's virility: look, they're saying, he can
run, he can jump, he can practically fly!

Casino Royale, the first Bond novel that Ian Fleming
wrote, takes us back to his hero's early days. Alas, this
doesn't mean back to the early Sixties and the classic
Cold War-era of espionage; the new Bond emerges in
the post-September 11 present of counter-terrorism,
which in theory means that he has no history of being in
the 20th century at all. But let's not quibble. A prologue
of quite exorbitant violence, shot in grainy
monochrome, reveals Bond carrying out his first "kill" in
a seedy public toilet and thus earning his spurs as a
double-0 agent; it wasn't all guns with silencers and
smirking quips, you see. "I understand double-0s have a
very short life expectancy," he says wryly, though the
way he dispatches that first victim with his bare hands
suggests you'd still want him on your side in a fight.

That the film-makers have cast Daniel Craig in the role
is key to this leaner, meaner 007. Craig has a boxer's
face and a toned upper body; he looks very good in
skimpy swimming trunks.That physicality, together with
his look of cold command, indicates that he will be the
closest in style to Connery, a little rough around the
edges and no friend of the old school tie. I've liked Craig
as an actor since Our Friends in The North 10 years ago,
and his brooding, troubled air has been the making of
several decent movies since. But I remain unconvinced
by his Bond, not least because "good acting" is wasted
on such a fantasy role; what's really required is a
presence, an ability to look the part and to carry off its
essential foolishness. That might not be the man
Fleming created, but it sure as hell is the man that
cinema has, and it's too late to change him now. Banish
the twinkle from his eye and Bond is lost - all we can
hope is that Craig recovers it in the movies to come.

The plot falls into line with this dour, no-nonsense 007,
pitting him against a Euro-villain named Le Chiffre
(Mads Mikkelsen) who's been busy financing the world's
international terrorists, unspecified by name but
apparently drawn from everywhere bar the Middle East.
In order to foil his schemes by taking his money, Bond
must face Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game at
Casino Royale and prove to the world he can look good
in a tuxedo. Cue a coltish lovely from the Treasury,
Vesper Lynd, who will supervise his spending at the
table and ruffle his feathers with her sultry
Anglo-French poise. The dismayingly beautiful Eva
Green brings to her the right hint of insouciance to keep
Bond, and us, just short of tearful prostration at her
feet. The big poker scenes, however, are a fizzle,
tedious and talky, while Vesper's look of anguish on
007's behalf is pumped too full of melodrama: he's only
playing cards, love, not defusing a megaton bomb.

Indeed, the film goes light on technology; aside from
mobile phones and the throaty, feral roar of an Aston
Martin, the one concession to gadgetry is a
mini-defibrillator that saves Bond from heart failure (he
didn't notice the spiked martini). It's the first time I've
ever seen this gizmo being applied by the cardiac victim
himself, and surely the only time said victim will be
vigorously having it off within the hour. Perhaps, like
Louis in Casablanca, the heart is Bond's least vulnerable
spot. What will have you wincing and possibly crossing
your legs in sympathy is the scene of torture in which
Le Chiffre subjects Bond, naked and tied to a chair, to a
whipping of his testicles with a knotted rope. Yes, our
hero almost has his double-0s taken out of commission
before our eyes, a slice of raw realism that sits uneasily
amid the fancy millefeuilles of Eurotrash high living.

That disjunction has plagued the Bond franchise for
some time - remember Brosnan being tortured during
the credit sequence of Die Another Day. It seems that
the film-makers are still trying to decide whether 007
should be a vulnerable human being (as Fleming wrote
him) or a figure on which to hang our fantasies of
invincible suavity. What I miss in Craig's incarnation is
a lightness of touch, and a sense of fun. When a casino
barman asks Bond whether he'll take his martini shaken
or stirred, Craig snaps "Do I look like I give a damn?"
The line got a laugh, but it made my heart sink: Bond
should not be a boor, and he should never be so rattled
that he ceases to care how his drink is mixed. A touch of
the pugilist is fine so long as he retains his pertness, the
truly distinctive quality of a man so frequently called
upon to save the world. Bond is brought back from the
dead in Casino Royale, but his long-term prospects
aren't encouraging.