It seems the best way to rejuvenate worn-out pop culture icons these days is to go back to the beginning. It worked for the caped crusader in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. And it works for the long-floundering (though immensely lucrative) James Bond franchise in Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale. I hate to add to the deafening hype, but the way this film turns Bond inside-out, exploring how he became the efficient, misogynistic, starched-collared killing machine he is, is unbelievably fun. Though it drags a tad in the final third, this is one of the best films in the franchise’s history.
There’s something undeniably appealing about watching people in formative stages of development. You can see a war going on between competing impulses. Casino Royale is the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Both it and the film begin just as the spy is achieving “Double-0” status. Killing is new to him and, while it may be getting easier, it’s still no cup of tea in the moral department. This is new territory indeed, but young Bond hasn’t quite learned the whole cold, ironic distance thing yet. That’s not to say he’s a nice guy. Thankfully, the script, penned by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, gives us a Bond as ruthless and brutal as Fleming intended. How can he be ruthless and moral at the same time? The answer: he’s young and it’s very complicated. When you add to the equation the fact that he suffers under a Zeppelin-sized ego and falls head over heels in love with an accountant for the British Treasury named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), offering to throw away his career for a lifetime of her tender embraces, it’s quite clear that this is not the Bond that Pierce Brosnan played as if sleepwalking.
And without a performance like the one that Daniel Craig (The Mother, Infamous) delivers here, it might never have worked. Craig’s 007 swings from being trapped in an iron cage of emotion to a bubbling cauldron of warring desires. I hate to say it, but he’s better than Sean Connery. And by a fair margin.
In a world without splashy high-tech gadgets, the baddies aren’t out to destroy the world with laser beams. This time, Bond’s nemesis is a shifty, lazy-eyed banker—his damaged tear ducts actually weep blood—named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). He runs questionable accounts for terrorist organizations (in this case, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army) and then uses the cash to manipulate the stock market. After betting $100 million that an airline will fail, his henchman tries to drive a bomb into its new Airbus A380-esque supercarrier. When Bond kiboshes the plan, the banker loses everything. Fearing crazed LRA machetes are coming for his throat, Le Chiffre enters a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Knowing Bond to be a talented bluffer, MI6 sends him in to beat Le Chiffre, hoping that the crook will be forced to take refuge under the organization’s auspices when the creditors come calling.
The poker scenes drag a little and the burgeoning romance between Lynd and Bond doesn’t always have the spark it should, but Bond’s psychological journey through it all makes Casino Royale absorbing viewing nonetheless. While some worried that presenting a more sensitive, gadget-less Bond might be a risk to the health of the franchise, this movie will only make the brand stronger, inviting in new fans who may have dismissed the most recent films as overly cartoonish and bloated.
Casino Royale is now playing at the Paramount (259 Richmond St. W.), Rainbow Market Square (80 Front St. E.), Varsity (55 Bloor St. W.), Beach Cinemas (1651 Queen St. E.) and others
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Also out now: Christopher Guest’s latest chortle-fest, For Your Consideration. Read what I said about it when it appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September.
For Your Consideration is now playing at the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W.), Canada Square (2200 Yonge St.), The Queensway (1025 The Queensway) and others