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Casino Royale (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Jack Kennedy and I have one thing in common; we both met James Bond by reading “Casino Royale.” I read all of Ian Fleming’s books before the first film, “Dr. No,” came out in 1962. My original mental image of Bond was greatly influenced by the picture of Fleming that was on the back cover of all his books. He looked like a guy who was around 5-10 and skinny.

So when “Dr. No” came out when I was in Law School in Charlottesville, Virginia, I immediately went to see it with a classmate, Jerry Leary. We came out with a roaring argument. I said that Sean Connery, at a husky 6-2, was not the way I pictured James Bond from the book s and Jerry disagreed.

Jerry was right. In fact, Connery was so good he ruined the role for everyone that followed. Nobody came close and, in fact, they seemed to get worse. Pierce Brosnan was the closest to what I had originally pictured in physique, but he didn’t have the panache that came through in the books and that Connery captured so well. Now we have yet another Bond, buff Daniel Craig. Right off the bat I’ve been overruled because I thought that Clive Owen should have gotten the role.

Leaving Craig aside for the moment, this is the best Bond film since “Goldfinger” (1964). In fact, of all the Bond films, only the first three, “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love” (1963, the best of them all), and “Goldfinger” qualify as good films; you know, films with interesting scripts and real stories. After that, starting with “Thunderball,” producer Cubby Brocolli got hung up on stunts and Special Effects. The effects just got bigger and more time-consuming until they finally just took over the series. It’s why Roger Moore and Brosnan and all the others could survive; nobody cared who played Bond. All they were interested in were the stunts and special effects.

Brocolli didn’t have the rights to “Casino Royale,” so he never made it into a movie. A perfectly awful satire was made in 1967 with people like Peter Sellers and David Niven and Woody Allen and others all playing Bond. It died a quick death.

In 2000, Eon Productions, Brocolli’s company, finally obtained the rights and Cubby’s daughter, Barbara, and her half-brother, Michael G. Wilson get their shot at “Casino Royale.” It has taken leave from the book in many ways, one of the more glaring of which is that the card game played in the book was chemin de fer, or baccarat (a game in which the winner is the person whose two or three cards total closest to nine). In this film it’s Texas Hold ‘em poker, probably because that’s the hot game right now and more people understand it than chemin de fer.

There’s actually a story of sorts and a little character development. Craig is far more sensitive than the real Bond (I never remember Fleming’s James brooding over anything, much less a woman), and far more cold-blooded. He kills with impunity, if not glee. Although Fleming awarded Bond the double-0 designation he created as a license to kill, Fleming’s Bond didn’t flaunt it the way Craig does. Craig doesn’t have Connery’s way with a bon mot, and he looks funny in his body. I don’t know how else to say it, but Craig doesn’t seem comfortable in his own skin, even though he takes every opportunity to flaunt his buff physique. He walks funny and he runs funny. And, boy, does he do a lot of running in this movie.

Cubby Brocolli’s heirs haven’t forsaken the elaborate stunts and this one starts out with one that’s as spectacular as any they’ve ever created as James chases a bad guy up, over, around, and through some very high places. Even more impressive is the sinking of a Venetian House into the Grand Canal in Venice. There is no way to tell when you are watching it that it was filmed in a huge tank at Pinewood Studios in London. These scenes are exceptional.

There is a terrific bad guy, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who tears blood from his eye, but he isn’t a mad, power-hungry megalomaniac trying to take over the world. He just has some money problems of his own and has to get $150 million back, which he tries to do in the poker game that takes up about the last half of the film.

Director Martin Campbell (who has directed some of my favorites, like TV’s 8-part series, “Reilly, Ace of Spies,” the two Zorro films with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and 2000’s “Vertical Limit,” as good a mountain-climbing movie as you’ll ever see) shows his talent during the long poker game that should conclude the film. Says Campbell, “This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to shoot: 10 players around a table, playing Texas Hold ‘em, all looking at their cards and each other. Maintaining the tension and the continuity was a nightmare. In fact, as an exercise it would be a very good test for film students to try.”

Another change is that the Bond girl, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), isn’t a buxom bimbo. No, she’s a brainy (but still gorgeous) gal who doesn’t fall for Bond’s charms until the very end.

All in all, except for an ending that adds characters who might have been shown earlier, but who have become obscure by the end of the film, this is a much better Bond film than we’ve seen in decades and Craig is at least better than all the other Connery imitators, even if he isn’t Clive Owen.

November 15, 2006