REVIEW: CASINO ROYALE, IAN FLEMING, 2006
The latest Bond outing, Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig in the leading role, is over-hyped rubbish. Sorry. I know it has plentiful fans and appears to have garnered critical support too, but I was thoroughly unimpressed, and even a little depressed, by the whole experience.
Let's be upfront about this: I had high hopes for this film. I really wanted Craig to succeed as the new Bond. And after the crashing disappointment which was Die Another Day, the last Brosnan Bond pic, with its absurd invisible car and cut-price CGi, I couldn't see any other direction for the franchise to go, but up. How wrong I was.
The key problem, as far as I can tell is this: the Bourne franchise, with Matt Damon as the super-cool tough guy Jason Bourne, fighting against the worst excesses of the US secret services, has knocked Bond for six. The dark, gritty froideur of Bourne and the imaginative direction from first Doug Liman and then Paul Greengrass (one of our very best directors working today in my opinion) ensured Bond looked kitsch and laboured in comparison. Bond producers were rightly concerned. Their solution, it seemed, was to emulate the success of Bourne. Big mistake!
Bond and Bourne are based on entirely different premises. James Bond is an insider, he works for Mi6, and according to Fleming, Bond's originator, Bond is Eton-educated, a man born out of British imperialist traditions. (Although in this new version of Casino Royale, it is hammered home that the new Bond is strictly State-school).Jason Bourne is an outsider of uncertain origin. He is a CIA-trained killing machine who is now intent on recovering his identity - the identity they stole from him. Thus, however maverick or disobedient he may be, Bond is ultimately on government pay, whereas Bourne is a social outcast, unearthing the dark and sinister secrets underpinning the State - and are the primary source of the best paranoid conspiracy theories, which epitomise the uncertain, fearful world we live in today. From this point of view, Bond is pretty much stuffed.
Casino Royale is even further hampered by the producers' inability to string together a decent plot-line. Yes, yes, we know this is now post 9/11 ... Judi Dench's M tells us this in the starkest terms possible. But this has little effect on plot detail it seems. Even the rise of extremist Islamic terrorism hasn't informed the new look Bond, in spite of being viewed world over as the major terrorist force of our times. This is remarkable when one considers how terrorism is not shied away from in similar spy franchises. Take the BBC's impressive Spooks for example: in Series Five the Mi5 crew tackled Islamic terrorists, radical Christian terrorists, pro-environmental terrorists, Mossad (twice), a genocidal African leader, a Serbian Mi6 plant and foiled an ultra-right corporate coup of the British government.
So what do we get with Casino Royale? A muddled narrative which focuses on financial fraud - namely fixing stock prices by means of sponsoring terrorist actions. Which terrorists? Well, we never learn this vital piece of information.
Our 'Bond Villain' is the money-man for these unnamed forces of evil - played here by Mads Mikkelson, complete with a creepy bleeding tear-duct and a Ventolin inhaler - who has lost $150m and needs to recoup it in a poker game, staged at a luxury hotel in Montenegro. Wow whoopee .... edge of the seat stuff ... I was almost crying with boredom. The plot revolved, seemingly, around this $150m, and Bond's sharpest card-playing tactics to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. Now I hate to be flippant - but let's face it, $150m is diddly-squat in the arena of global terrorism and the 'war' on terror.
OK, so we have a poor storyline - but can the direction, the character development, the action sequences at least ensure an entertaining, gripping ride of a movie? Can it heck! Casino Royale lacked suspense, lacked passion, lacked interest. Well, to be fair. The opening scenes, Bond's first kills, were fantastic. And then there was an exciting high wire crane-chase with Bond hunting down a bomb-maker in Madagascar. All good stuff.
But it went dramatically downhill from there.
We had a mildly riveting action sequence at Miami airport with Bond trying to save a new Skyfleet super-plane from being blown up by the bad guys. And then Bond was dispatched to Montenegro and the interminable poker game at the heart of the film, which was punctuated, mercifully, by an occasional welcome bout of unbridled violence.
This casino equence culminated in a much-hyped torture scene which was a bit of a snore really, and then there was an endless coda in Venice, when Bond discovers the true perfidy of Vesper Lynd, the slink Missy he has fallen for. Vesper Lynd was played by the stylish French actress Eva Green, whose plummy British vowels sounded like she was gobbling clumps of broken china and had a bad cold to boot, poor dear. Her natural good looks were swamped by swathes of makeup, lashings of thick black kohl, as though she was auditioning for a role as vampish temptress in a 1950s Film Noir. I was wholly unmoved by the Bond/Lynd romance.
As for Bond himself. This was the million dollar question. Could Daniel Craig overcome his critics? In a word, no ... Except, yes. The critics have positively wet themselves with surprised glee, admiration and probably contrition at Craig's Bond. This universal acclaim has declared him to be the best Bond since Connery. How can this be??
I seriously wonder if I am living on an alternative planet ... Craig's Bond was mediocre, at best (and believe me, I so, so wanted this to work and was pretty cheesed-off at the whiny media Craig-bashing pre-Casino Royale). His primary facial expression was a strangely screwed-up, pursed-lip 'thing' which riled me throughout. His voice is, well, deep, male ... but almost entirely flat and toneless. The man, as depicted here, is devoid of personal charisma. Worst of all, he is humourless.
OK so we know the famous Bond 'quips' were a non-starter in this all-new, oh-so-serious Bond ... well Bond producers, scriptwriters et al, get over yourselves! We need a Bond with a 'twinkle' - even while dispatching the villains with calculated, sociopathic violence. Bond's wit is an essential ingredient of 'BOND'. Jason Bourne, of course, does not need to be funny. That is not his style, which is born out of anguish, pain, a sense of loss. But then again, this is not Bourne. I'll just repeat that. THIS IS NOT BOURNE.
Craig, in fairness, was given precious little to work with. He is a very fine actor. I would never dispute that. But in Casino Royale, the script is risible. During the interminable poker-game we actually get 'commentary' from one of the secondary characters, Mathis (Giancarlo Gianninni). And still, the game doesn't make sense.
On the plus side, the locations are magnificent. Montenegro is a combination here of the Czech Republic and Italy's spectacular Lake Como, and the Bahamas look fabulous. As a deluxe tourist brochure Casino Royale is at its very best.
In sum this is a disappointing film. I am now extremely disheartened and alarmed for the future of the Bond series. I realise my take on this film is completely out of step with the general concensus, but I strongly suspect that there will be more naysayers over time, once the dust has settled and the film hits renewed scrutiny when the DVD is released.
I was surprised to see that Martin Campbell had directed this film so very poorly - I loved his Goldeneye. That film was outlandish, silly, replete with some remarkably hammy acting, (yes, I'm speaking of Sean Bean), but boy, was it thrilling! And it had characters we cared about (Izabella Scorupco as Natalya), laughed at (Alan Cummings as Boris, Robbie Coltrane as Zukovosky) and loved to hate (Famke Janssen as the inimitable thigh-crusher assassin Xenia Onatopp). And how ridiculous but cool was it to see Pierce Brosnan driving that huge great tank through the streets of St Petersburg?
But this seems far too much like good, old-fashioned audience-pleasing fun for the new look po-faced Bond.