After a short, violent, black and white sequence that explains how Bond earned his ‘double 0’ licence to kill, there follows some jarringly awful opening credits, an over-designed extravaganza relayed in silhouette, based on the four symbols from a deck of cards and a whirling roulette wheel. It is an ominous shambles, further undermined by a terribly bland stadium rock tune from Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. The film then quickly switches to Bond’s first proper assignment, spying on terrorist suspects in Madagascar, and a hyper-kinetic, dizzying, chase scene through a building site inspired by the urban sport of ‘free-running’.
Bond’s mission soon leads him to the Bahamas, where he discovers the evil Le Chiffre (Danish star Mads Mikkelsen), who has put in place a plan to fund a series of terrorist attacks by staging a high-stakes poker game at the titular Casino Royale in Montenegro. With his handler M (Judi Dench) unconvinced by Bond’s methods, the $10million he is given to infiltrate the game comes accompanied by a minder from the Treasury, the beautiful Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Bond soon allies himself with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), MI6’s local field agent, and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who is representing the interests of the CIA. These occasional asides do not distract from the long periods of boredom around the poker table. It would take some remarkable reinvention to make a poker game cinematically exciting again and it simply doesn’t happen here.
Craig is the first Bond since Connery to look like a killer. When Brosnan threw a punch, it was followed with a quip or a wave of his hanky. When Craig throws one it is followed with his forehead. I wasn’t fully convinced by the usually charismatic actor, but this is not all his fault. Casino Royale wants it both ways – to be tougher, more vital and more ‘realistic’ and at the same time sustain the fantasy of international intrigue, swooning beauties, luxury cars and the ultimate dream, death without consequence. The more the filmmakers try to ground the franchise, the further it sails away on the breeze. Bond shows his newfound nerve-endings in a brutal scene where Le Chiffre batters his scrotum with a knotted rope while the spy is tied to a chair. Rather than spend the remainder of the running time strapped to a packet of frozen peas, I was astonished to see the same man, in the next scene, saunter along the sands of Lake Garda without so much as a wince. A lot of blood, and a lot of it Craig’s, is spilled to remind us of the new Bond’s gritty humanity, but the story itself and its shiny presentation are so unnatural and mishandled they only go to remind us that we are watching a fiction.
Craig gives us a lot of piercing stares, his tiny blue eyes peering away at something in the distance as the camera holds his round head in close-up. I have no idea what he is looking at, his credibility disappearing over the horizon, perhaps. Where once there was Andress or Berry emerging from the surf, we now get Craig resplendent, a bulldog in speedos, squat and flexed and tilted forward as if constantly in motion. His action sequences are well executed, if a little repetitive, but the character’s newfound vulnerability, his determination to soul-search, leaves Craig looking occasionally unsure of himself.
There are deviations from the long-established Bond canon, most of them welcome. Green is not a typical giggling sex-object, she is smart and educated and very capable. The over-elaborate digital effects work the series had descended into – invisible cars, surfing tsunamis - have been dropped with what remains, for the most part, being utilised in an almost subtle manner. Q does not appear (and indeed no special attention is paid to the gadgets), replaced by an on-call team of boffins, none of them named Moneypenny, communicating with a tiny microchip buried in Bonds arm. As before, however, big-ticket brand names are showcased throughout; luxury cars, watches, couture clothing, with more attainable products, like mobile phones, laptops and family saloons benefiting from mini advertisement breaks all to themselves. Bond might have changed his face for a lumpier model, lost seven inches in height, gained seven in breadth and grown a pair, but his is still a licence to make a killing.
Rather than stand alone as a film, Casino Royale is an episode of a long-running serial, chopped up even further into bite sized chunks, a compendium of action scenes assembled around an immediately recognisable character. Scenes appear out of nowhere, and disappear back again just as quickly, without any impact on the overall momentum of the story. A final grand spectacle set in a crumbling Venetian villa rattles through the duplicities in double-quick time, leaving us with a conclusion of sorts. Having lost track of the thin story during the doldrums of the poker game, I wasn’t overly concerned, but there followed another ending, then another and then another. Then the new Bond stared out again for what felt like a solid minute and finally we heard John Barry’s theme, wrapping up this curiously back-to-front film. That’s not to deny that each of these endings, and indeed most of the work that preceded them, was efficiently presented, technically impressive and occasionally gripping, but they are not connected to one another with any strength. It’s very messy, and so long, at two hours and twenty minutes, that it’s eternal nature becomes an abstraction, another element of the whole phenomenon that doesn’t work.