I’m running low on older material, so we’re likely in the last few weeks of the “From the Archive” feature. Hence, the recent ramping up of pre-production promo for the next James Bond film — led by casting announcements that include a recent Oscar winner as the villain — are cause enough to dust off old reviews of Daniel Craig’s initial turns in the famed 007 role. Today, it’s Casino Royale. This was originally published at my former online home.
There’s the whole subculture of film fandom desperately devoted to discussions of James Bond. They’ll debate Bond cars, Bond gadgets, Bond villains and Bond girls with adamant dedication to their own list of favorites, but it usually results in fetishizing the years that Sean Connery played the British spy. Seriously, I doubt there’s anyone out there stumping for Dr. Christmas Jones as the best Bond girl, and if you encounter this individual you should probably avoid talking movies with them. It’s got to be a pretty frustrating brand of movie junkiedom when you’re chasing the high of films from around forty years ago.
Despite the fact that the recent outings starring Pierce Brosnan have ranked among the strongest of the twenty official Bond films in terms of box office, the producers felt it was time to reinvent the franchise, tossing away the weathered tropes in favor of a grimmer, more realistic approach more in keeping with author Ian Fleming’s original conception of the character. Call it “Bond: Year One,” or, in movie parlance, Bond Begins. They’ve rebooted with Casino Royale, introducing us to Bond at the precise moment he earns his double-oh status and depicting his earliest days as a member of her majesty’s secret service.
To help make the new beginning all the more clear, they’ve recast the central role, giving us the sixth actor to take on Bond since the series launched in 1961. Daniel Craig plays 007 as an angry, impulsive figure, still working off whatever childhood issues sent him into this suicidal line of work and developing the mental and emotional callouses that will help him survive. He’s driven rather than suave. Thrillingly enough, when he seduces a beautiful woman early on it’s a means to gather information, not a retreat from the urgent matters at hand for a little Playboy-era canoodling. This Bond is focused. He’s got a job to do, and a bedroom romp is only as valuable as the distance it edges our man closer to his international security goals.
The serious approach is welcome, longed for even. But they may have erred too far on the side of subduing the spectacle. This Bond film is serious, alright. It’s also a little dull. Director Martin Campbell helmed Pierce Brosnan’s original go-round as Bond, and he returns to help introduce Craig. His work is solid enough, especially in the action sequences, but everything seems to just take a little too long, move a little too slowly. He lingers on the set-up when we’ve already figured out the payoff. It’s worthwhile to jettison the more ridiculous elements of the previous films, but it seems they’ve mistaken slack pacing for thoughtful filmmaking.
It’s all the more frustrating because the perfect medium between invisible cars and ice castles and a realistic (okay, quasi-realistic) depiction of spy work is contained right there in the first reel. Bond chases a scarred bomb-maker through a construction site, matching the man’s incredibly athletic leaps and bounds up unfinished elevator shifts and from girder to girder. The sequence plays out like a less cartoonish version of one of Jackie Chan’s marvelously inventive set pieces. It also benefits from actual stunt work: real humans instead of imperiled video game avatars. There’s undoubtedly some CGI-bolstering of the on-set heroics, but it’s still oddly refreshing to see the thrills built the old-fashioned way. For one satisfying stretch, we’re actually getting a taste of the Bond we deserve: one that’s grounded in the times but still capable of making the impossible seem just real enough to believe it.