I have a great fondness for the original Casino Royale (1967). It was the first movie I ever paid to see twice (I was 12 at the time). It was also the movie that put an end to seeing movies as a family outing with my parents — I loved it; they hated it. I bought the soundtrack album the day after the first viewing, and have rarely let a year pass without watching the film since its appearance on home video.
The original with its improbable cast — Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, David Niven, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, etc. — and its equally unlikely roster of directors — John Huston, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish — is many things. The one thing it is not is a proper adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel. It used the James Bond character (sort of), Bond’s baccarat game with Le Chiffre, a few other characters and a handful of references, but the aim was to deconstruct and satirize the whole James Bond phenomenon.
Now, nearly 40 years later, we’re presented with a more or less faithful, sober version of the novel that aims to jump-start the sagging franchise. It remains for the box-office to determine how successful the film is in that regard, but artistically, the new Casino Royale is a pretty good accomplishment — and occasionally a bit more.
It’s way too long at 144 minutes. There are a few profoundly preposterous moments — Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, The Dreamers) with the defibrillator, for starters — and the ending is both over-produced and too protracted. The decision to update the 1953 novel is another matter — one that has frankly plagued the series for years now. Bond is part and parcel of a certain era, and he frankly seems a little out of place in the modern world where issues are more complex, corruption is the status quo and belief in the innate rightness of the U.S. and British governments is less of a given. (That last started to erode the series as Vietnam dragged on.)
The filmmakers seem to realize this to a degree. Oh, Bond is now fighting terrorists rather than the Russians and secret spy organizations, and there are 9/11 references. (Not surprisingly, since Paul Haggis’ name is on the script, we learn that terrorism is a bad thing.) Bond’s even been taken down a peg in the elitist category — the big baccarat game with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, King Arthur) has become a more accessible high stakes poker game. But he still moves in a fantasy world of finely tailored evening clothes and beautiful, biologically accommodating women who never wear the same gown twice. If you’re willing to buy into this slightly unwieldy mix, Casino Royale is a first-class actioner with a veneer of sophistication.
It’s also the least silly film in the series since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), giving it the illusion of something like depth. And it has one element missing from almost every other action film being made today — class.
Of course, the big question on every Bond fan’s mind is how does Daniel Craig (Layer Cake) fit the role of James Bond? He fits it very nicely indeed, and brings something new to the character. His Bond has traces of true darkness and even insecurity that are not cancelled out by the innate charm of his predecessors. Craig has charm, but it’s more naive, and the feeling that an almost fascist thug lurks beneath the sophisticated facade is ever present. Sean Connery had some of this, but the twinkle in his eye conveyed that it was all in fun. There’s little of that in Craig’s performance, and as a result his Bond seems more ruthless and dangerous.
The film also scores nicely with the rest of its cast. Eva Green makes a good Vesper Lynd. Judi Dench adds immeasurably to the class and wit of the proceedings as M. Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre is a bit overblown (so evil he cries blood out of his blind eye), but aren’t all Bond villains?
When the film is at its best — the early chase sequence is little short of amazing — it soars. When it’s not, it’s still a solidly made action thriller that brings a little color into an often drab moviegoing world. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke