In his 21st official outing, James Bond returns to basics with "Casino Royale." What is old is suddenly new again, the film free of the high-tech gadgets and overblown action setups of the Pierce Brosnan era and replaced with a concentration on character shades and elegant storytelling. Also reinvigorating things is the new 007 himself. Blond-haired Daniel Craig (2006's "Infamous
") defies the naysayers' doubts with a sexy ruggedness and fascinatingly multilayered performance that makes one forget Brosnan ever had anything to do with the long-running franchise. In fact, Craig is the best thing about "Casino Royale," which for all of its positive steps in the right direction could still use some more dusting off.
The plot is of the shrug and who-cares variety, although the decision to set it up as a prequel set in modern times was a good idea that signals an attempt to start fresh. Only very recently promoted to 007 status, martini-swilling Secret Agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) lands in hot water with big boss M (Judi Dench) when death finds its way to wherever he goes. Paired up with the headstrong and alluring Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), hired to keep a close eye on him, James Bond heads to the exotic Montenegro to participate in a high-stakes Poker tournament. His goal: to play against and ultimately take down Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a maniacal banker who is planning to use his winnings to aid in international terrorist cells.
Sleekly directed by Martin Campbell (2005's "The Legend of Zorro"), "Casino Royale" turns a blind eye on the filmmaking action conventions of 2006i.e. shaky camerawork, computer effects galoreand adopts a more simplistic and classic approach. The cinematography by Phil Meheux (1999's "Bicentennial Man
") is gorgeous as Bond goes globe-trotting from Madagascar to London to the Bahamas to Miami to Montenegro to Venice, putting all of the locations in an attractive, almost fairy tale-perfect light. The editing by Stuart Baird is also commendatory; no matter how chaotic and crazy the action scenes getstandouts include an elaborate foot chase, a battle on an airport runway, and a stairwell showdownthey are never short of comprehensible, cohesively structured, and riveting. Oh, and the theme song, "You Know My Name," written and performed by Chris Cornell, is the strongest the series has seen in ages.
With one film in the series now under his belt, Daniel Craig has unequivocally made James Bond his own separate entity even as he stays true to the spirit of the character. Whereas Pierce Brosnan had an uppity air about him, Craig is a man's mangritty, self-sacrificing, suave, and unafraid to get his hands dirty and blood on his sleeve. This isn't some vanilla representation of Bond, either, but a more complex man just starting out in the field, willing to defy orders when the situation calls for it, and not yet always learned when it comes to detecting friends from foes.
As the exquisitely-named Vesper Lynd, Eva Green (2004's "The Dreamers
") eclipses being just another "Bond babe;" she's beautiful for sure, but also has brains, ideas, and the capacity to fight when need be. Even more could have been done with Vesperwhat role she is serving by following Bond around isn't immediately apparentbut she is developed enough through her charismatic interactions with Bond that it makes little difference. In a small but memorable turn, Caterina Murino lights up the screen as Solange, the happily philandering wife of a man in cahoots with central bad guy Le Chiffre. And as Le Chiffre, Mads Mikkelsen (2004's "King Arthur") makes a good but not enduring villain. The character's tendency to bleed from his tear ducts is a neat touch, but otherwise it's a villain seen many times before.
"Casino Royale" grabs the viewer's full attention, even when the picture transforms midway through into a card-playing drama, but that's not to say the 144-minute running time isn't overkill. The story is unoriginal and decidedly skinny, and the motive of Le Chiffre cursorily explained. The last act especially feels overextended and, until a key development is discovered near the end, curiously shiftless. Fortunately, the picturesque locations, the skillful tension, and the guidance of Daniel Craig help to smooth over the problems. With Craig proving his worth as tough agent and ladies' man Bond, the inevitable next installment (due in 2008) is now free to concentrate on shaking up the formula to a more imaginative extent. "Casino Royale" is a step in the right direction, but the series has the potential for a greatness this film doesn't quite have.