New Bond and ‘Casino Royale’ don’t give audience license to care.

This is where I’m supposed to say, “Bond is back and he’s better than ever!” Well, he is. But he isn’t.

New Bond and Casino Royale’ don’t give audience license to care

Friday, November 17, 2006

Clint O’Connor Plain Dealer Film Critic

This is where I’m supposed to say, “Bond is back and he’s better than ever!” Well, he is. But he isn’t.

“Casino Royale” is the 21st film in the official James Bond series, the first in four years, and marks the debut of British actor Daniel Craig as Her Majesty’s most suave secret agent 007. Craig is fine. He brings a nice blue-eyed ruggedness to the proceedings. His buffed-up bod looks good in tuxedo or bathing suit or when wooing the very woo-worthy Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, a treasury official sent to baby-sit Bond’s stake in a big-money poker game.

Ever since the vintage Sean Connery originals, whenever the franchise introduces a new 007, he usually gets a good movie to star in. Roger Moore had “Live and Let Die” in 1973; Pierce Brosnan had “GoldenEye” in 1995.

The idea this time was to go back to the beginning. Kick-start the series by showing Bond before he acquired his license to kill. They started with Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, “Casino Royale” (not to be confused with the David Niven-Peter Sellers spoof in 1967).

It was a good plan, just not the greatest execution.

If you want us to be edge-of-our-seat during the crashes and chases you have to give us a license to care.

“Casino Royale” wants to distance itself from the old Bonds. At one point, Craig rushes to a bar to order a vodka martini. The bartender asks if he wants it shaken or stirred. “Do I look like I give a damn?” snorts 21st-century Bond. (Take that, four decades of filmdom’s most famous drink order!) OK. But don’t abandon suspense and a sense of humor, too.

The pacing is very insert-action-scene-here, regardless of whether those moments propel plot or character. The bad guy is ill-defined (Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre, who oozes blood out of a tear duct). Judi Dench is back as M, but there is no Q (or his gadgets-descendant R), and no real mission of merit.

The storytelling is jumbled and the greatest failing of “Casino Royale” is that we never get to know this new Bond. If you’re going to start at square one with a new actor, throw us a few bones of discovery. We know 007 is a ruthless spy who keeps people at a distance, but don’t keep the audience at a distance.

The script is by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with an assist from Paul Haggis (the Oscar-winning writer-director of “Crash”). Presumably Haggis was called in to punch things up, and the movie does pick up at the halfway mark when Bond and Lynd meet on a train.

After what seems like the ending, they kind of tack on another movie. “Casino Royale” feels like three movies trying to become one. I just wish they had picked one.

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