Review: Casino Royale

Last year, “Batman Begins” ditched its cartoony predecessors in favor of a more down-to-earth action hero. It received rave reviews because we were given the answer to the question “why?” as in “Why would someone fly through the air wearing a bat cape with such a self-righteous attitude?” In the re-boot of the James Bond franchise, we are given the reason why Bond trusts no one in “Casino Royale.”

This movie is stripped down to its essence, removing old gimmicks and infusing character development. At one point, Bond (Daniel Craig) orders his typical martini, but when the bartender responds, “Shaken or stirred?” Bond retorts, “Do I look like I give a damn?” That is just one of the many changes to the Bond franchise.

There’s no Moneypenny this time around, nor are there any fancy gizmos and gadgets supplied by “Q.” The famous “Bond, James Bond” line doesn’t make its appearance until the conclusion, and the Bond Theme itself is held to brief stints as to not cloud the direction or plot. Gone are the silly quips and the corny sense of humor. This isn’t to say that Bond doesn’t make jokes, but these jokes are more situational and less cliché.

Perhaps more refreshing is that in this re-boot, Bond is less refined and a slower learner (both in killing and deception), inventing and tinkering with 007 as he goes along. Instead of the extravagant special-effects action of the 80s and 90s we’re given more realistic combat. Bond must kill two people before earning double-0 status, and one the slayings is accomplished through hand-to-hand combat with little use for technology. Bond himself becomes the subject of horrible torture, giving a truer feel to the Bond that Ian Fleming had originally intended.

The movie starts where the novel does – Bond has just been given his license to kill. He hasn’t earned M’s (Judi Dench) trust yet, and her confidence is further shaken when he botches an assignment to track down a terrorist bomb-making mercenary. The incident ends up where no spy should ever see himself – the front page of the newspapers – and Bond is ordered to lay low. Of course, he doesn’t, and begins tracking a terrorist organization. Somewhat keeping in traditions of the older Bonds, this takes 007 to a variety of venues, including the Bahamas and Miami, before he finally finds his mark, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who attempts to launder money through the Casino Royale in Montenegro.

This is really when the movie finds its own wings. Bond meets accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and their personalities initially clash before coming together. Watching the love story between the opposites develop penetrates to the depths of the Bond character. Bond has had interests before – actually, he has about two every movie – but this is far different. Whereas Bond used to treat girls like a fraternity brother treats beer cans, Casino Royale introduces the word “love” into his vocabulary, and spends a large part of the movie selling it.

Other than a stairwell fight, there is little combat at the Casino. Instead, we see Lynd and Bond grow closer. After the aforementioned stairwell fight, Lynd huddles in her shower, desperately trying to forget what happened earlier. Bond sits down, and, in the most human of moments, comforts and calms her. For the first time, Bond is seen as caring, humanizing his character, making him more relatable, and, at the same time, breaking away from previous moulds. His struggle between his love and his job is exactly what has made the Spiderman franchise so successful, and is why Casino Royale puts itself in a different league than the Bonds of the past.

And, despite the lack of action, the moments during the high-stakes poker game (the buy-in is an eye-popping $10 million with blinds starting at $5,000), the tension is palpable. It’s also nice to see that the producers are keeping with the times, using a game of no-limit Texas hold’em as the game of choice.

Without spoiling too much of the conclusion, the answer to why Bond is so untrusting is answered by the final stanza. We’re given more than a valid reason why he acts the way he does, and in many ways, we can’t blame him for his use-em-and-lose him attitude with women that will surely develop as this franchise grows.

As for the acting, for all the controversy surrounding naming Craig as the new Bond, he effortlessly blends the cold, calculating agent, with the compassionate, warm human. The same could be said for Green, who brilliantly mixes sardonic and tender, resulting in a believable match for Bond. Still, it is somewhat strange why Dench returns as M if all of the characters of the past have been dispensed with.

But that is a small criticism in an otherwise triumphant rebirth. The James Bond franchise has reinvented itself in a compelling way. This is the 007 movie I have been waiting for.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

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