Saturday, February 23, 2013

Short Take: Casino Royale

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The James Bond franchise has traditionally just replaced one leading actor with another. With Casino Royale (2006), the 21st film in the series, there was not only a new star (Daniel Craig), but also a complete reboot of the character. This adaptation of Ian Fleming’s inaugural 1953 Bond novel gives the viewer a more inexperienced Bond, a grittier tone, and far less fanciful trappings. (The famous Bond spy gadgetry, for instance, is all but gone.) The story is fast-paced espionage-adventure pulp, complete with Third-World terrorists, corrupt financiers, and glamorous international locations. The dramatic hook, though, is the treatment of the Bond character. The film begins as he is promoted to the elite of British secret-service field agents, and this new Bond is easily the most ruthless film version of the character to date. He’s a brutal, devious, and all but completely hardened killer. The tension in him comes from his awareness that the violence he traffics in is costing him his soul. His sympathetic side is brought out by his relationship with the British treasury accountant (Eva Green) assigned to oversee him in the high-stakes poker competition that is the story’s centerpiece. The film, unlike its predecessors, is not the least bit nonchalant about violence; the most eloquent moment is when Bond comforts the accountant in her shock from helping him kill an attacker. The picture also finds a tragic irony in his concluding victory; the humane aspects of him are now completely burned away. Martin Campbell, the director, does a superb job with both the character drama and the action setpieces. The latter are extraordinarily well-executed, with the first half alone providing a daredevil chase through a construction site, and an elaborate sequence involving the foiling of a plot to destroy a luxury jet. As for Daniel Craig, he could not embody this conception of Bond better. Everything about him says thug, but he also makes the viewer feel the tenderness that’s slipping away. But the standout performer is Judi Dench, who delivers a droll turn as "M," the secret service’s head officer. The screenplay is credited to Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis. The excellent cinematography, with gorgeous location work in Italy and the Bahamas, is by Phil Meheux.

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