Good action, but a Bond Misfire
20 October 2006
*** This comment may contain spoilers ***
It was called “Alcazar,” which turned out to be the new Bond film. I just read someone’s review from that screening and it’s like he and I were shown two different films. I’m not as enthusiastic. I’ve seen all the Bonds, but I didn’t like the last couple so I thought the filmmakers would give us the same thing again. Well, Casino Royale is different; but it’s different in an odd, unpleasant way. First let me say that action fans will relish the great stunt work in this film. For example, one of the major action scenes takes place in a construction site and it’s nicely executed and filmed with gusto. The other major set piece features a gripping sequence with a suicide bomber, an airplane, and a tanker truck. The director, Martin Campbell, has made his mark as an innovative action film director. Unfortunately, his expertise doesn’t extend into other aspects of the film. The biggest problem is that the film is stocked with a number of unappealing elements, which makes it self-destruct on so many levels
Let’s start with Daniel Craig: although I liked his performance in Layer Cake, he’s boring to watch in Casino Royale. He can handle the action sequences, but he’s stiff and uncharismatic for most of the film. He rarely cracks a smile or ever seems to be in danger. (There’s a gruesome torture scene, but the dialog is so horrible, and Craig’s delivery of his lines is flat and unconvincing that all tension in that scene is lost). It’s hard to believe that women want to jump in bed with him because his character has a hollowness to it that makes him rarely credible or interesting. Again, Craig does have grace and agility in how he handles action scenes; but it’s in the non- action scenes where he almost ceases to exist. Playing 007 doesn’t seem to spark anything special in Craig and, as a result, there’s nothing new to discover in him. You get this feeling that Craig plays the part as if it were an unpleasant chore—he’s somewhat awkward in dialog scenes and there are times when he has an air of condescension in his presence, as if somehow his serious acting background made the Bond role beneath him. He acts as if he’s slumming.
The filmmakers seem to be aware of Craig’s discomfort, which probably motivated them to use a camera work and editing style that races by too fast to linger on anything. I don’t think the camera really stays static in this film. At times it works, giving the film a sense of urgency. Then there are times when it makes you feel distant from the story because everything is moving so quickly. There were times when I wondered why Bond was doing what he was doing and trying to discern what was the point. The action, though spectacular, seldom advances the story. Then again, there really isn’t much story. Those who are expecting a world domination scheme by the villain will be disappointed. To be fair, a low-key caper is a nice change; but, in structure, Casino Royale doesn’t move towards a dramatic conclusion. In fact, I wondered if the villain Le Chiffre has a big revelation of a scheme that MI6 is attempting to stop. But nothing like it occurs. The entire plot is given away when Vesper and Bond agree that he must bankrupt LeChiffre.
The structural problems also affect the love story. Yeah, somewhere in all this, the filmmakers jam a love story that lacks heat. The Bond girl, Vesper, has some witty banter with Bond, but she doesn’t appear until a third of the film is over. There simply isn’t enough screen time for the romance to really develop and make us care about Bond and Vesper.
The rest of the cast is bland. Has there ever been a weaker Bond villain than Le Chiffre? A less endearing Bond girl than Eva Greene’s Vesper? Even Judi Dench, who reprises her role as M, seems to have lost her magic. If anything, her involvement contributes to the structural problems. Is she the same M from the last couple of Bond films? The implication is “yes.” Yet Casino Royale attempts to be an origin story for Bond, so what is she doing in this film? She seems to exist because, well, the strained relationship between Bond and M worked in the last couple of Bond films. It’s now predictable– she can’t tolerate him, yet she turns to him. She doesn’t approve of him, yet she depends on him. As for the origin aspect, the filmmakers don’t really devote a lot of time to it. The story only has a light reference to Bond as a novice 00- agent. We see him performing his first two kills at the start of the film. It’s about 10 minutes worth of story time, maybe even reaching 15 minutes if you count the title credits, which continues that theme. As a result, I basically forgot that this is an origin story. (When I first heard about this origin story angle to Casino Royale, I thought the filmmakers would approach it like, say, Batman Begins, where about an hour is devoted to the development of the character.) Which takes us to the next question: why are the filmmakers even bothering to tell this kind of story? Bond doesn’t really come across as a new 00-agent, so this angle of the film is meaningless.
I guess the filmmakers will never really catch the magic of those early Bond films like Dr. No or Goldfinger. Casino Royale, despite some imaginative action scenes, never draws us into the story through a strong Bond actor, nor does it establish any rhythm or build much sustained energy. The result is a film that has us yearning for those much older Bond films that never lost your attention. Just about everything in Casino Royale misfires.