The Sunday Times November 12, 2006
Film: All at sea Daniel Craig may shine in shorts, but Casino Royale shows Bond is a busted flush, laments Cosmo Landesman
The new James Bond film, Casino Royale, hasn’t gone on general release yet — officially, that’s on Friday — but already it has the buzz of a triumphant return. The film is good and Daniel Craig, as Bond, is great, or so it’s said. And you almost feel a kind of patriotic duty to go out and see it. Don’t bother. James Bond is dead, and no new face can hide the fact that Casino Royale is the same old tosh the producers of the Bond franchise have been serving up since the glory days of the 1960s.
I take that back. Actually, we have here a new and inferior type of tosh. This new Bond, directed by Martin Campbell, who also did 1995’s GoldenEye, is a back-to-basics Bond. It has been stripped of exotic locations, extravagant gadgetry, bikinied beauties and larger-than-life villains. So what’s left? Not much. Campbell and his screenwriters have got rid of the fantasy element and gone for something that aims to be “gritty” and “real” — that is, we get lots more explicit screen violence and emotional intimacy. Bond bleeds. Bond falls in love. This is the first Bond film that is really all about James Bond.
At least Casino Royale starts off with a promising new approach. Instead of the usual pre-credits action, we get a snazzy retro title sequence, based on figures from playing cards. But alarm bells go off as soon as Chris Cornell’s shockingly bland theme song, You Know My Name, starts to play. We then are taken back to the beginning of Bond’s career, and see how he loses his killing virginity by taking out a double agent. This opening sequence, shot in black and white, is full of offbeat angles. But it’s ruined by a script that resorts to the oldest, corniest trick in the spy/action genre. (Even so, I won’t spoil it for you.) The film then moves into colour and into the present. While on a mission in Africa, Bond chases a bombmaker (Sebastien Foucan) through the Nambutu embassy and ends up practically slaughtering the entire staff. Were they terrorists too, or just unfortunate darkies who happened to be in Bond’s way? We never know. Could you have a hero slaughter an entire embassy of white people? I doubt it.
Naturally, M (Judi Dench) is a bit pissed off with 007. She yells at him for being “arrogant” and “stupid”, and not following instructions; but, despite his reckless slaughter, she assigns him a new mission. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who is a banker to terrorists, has lost a lot of his clients’ money in a failed stock-market gamble. He has arranged a high-stakes poker game in a casino in Montenegro to try to win millions and pay his clients back before they kill him. The plan is for Bond to beat Le Chiffre at poker and thus destroy a whole terrorist network. Think about the absurdity of that for a moment. Accompanying Bond is a beauty from HM Treasury, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), whose job it is to keep an eye on the millions Bond has been given to gamble with. Against the odds, Vesper wins his heart.
But the only thing triumphant about Casino Royale is Craig’s performance. He brings to the role sex appeal, sadism and athleticism. (Though he doesn’t look to me like a man who drinks martinis.) Craig actually looks like Gollum’s younger brother, and he charges around like the Terminator. The film aims to be a character-driven study of how 007 was changed by this mission and meeting Vesper. But as far as I can tell, it’s the story of how a sadistic psycho who hated women became a better-dressed and more professional sadistic psycho who hates women. Nor do we ever believe he has fallen in love with Vesper.
The French actress Eva Green, who is this year’s Bond girl,has said that her character isn’t the “classic iconic Bond girl, wearing a bikini, being sexy and firing a gun” — and she’s right. The iconic Bond girl in this film is Bond himself. In a scene that pays homage to Ursula Andress in Dr No, Craig emerges from the sea in a brief pair of trunks. He reveals more of his body than any babe.
As for the bad guys, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an instantly forgettable bunch. Le Chiffre is just boring — he’s a banker with a funny eye that sheds blood when stressed. And the action sequences don’t fit into the story but are just tedious set pieces that we’ve seen dozens of times. The central battle over the poker table at the casino, on the other hand, is flat. We never get the feeling that anything significant is at stake if Bond loses — except his masculine pride.
I suspect that when all the hype dies down, people will see what a disappointing film Casino Royale is. Despite updating Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel and replacing communist agents with terrorists, the film has no relation to the world we live in. Nor does it offer a fantasy of a glamorous world we would like to escape to. It’s neither an exciting thriller nor an interesting study in character. And there is no memorable iconic moment featuring Bond, his baddies or his beauties, the kind that you take home from the cinema and that stays with you.
Casino Royale, Two stars
12A, 144 mins