Wednesday, November 26, 2008


When Sean Connery appeared in the third 007 thriller "Goldfinger" in 1964, the James Bond film franchise had won audiences over with its surefire formula of combining girls and gadgets with epic international criminal intrigue. James Bond always tangled with megalomaniacal villains whose larger-than-life ambitions dwarfed the skulduggery of commonplace lawbreakers. Each Bond adventure emerged as an event decked out with stunts galore and often a chart-topping title tune. The "Casino Royale" title tune is instantly forgettable. The formula served the series well as the last Pierce Brosnan 007 thriller "Die Another Day" amassed more than $400-million-plus at the box office in 2002.

Fearful that they couldn't top themselves again and fresh out of imaginative ideas, the Bond producers decided to start from scratch, like George Lucas did—with far greater credibility than he is given—with "Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace." Not only did the 007 producers send Pierce Brosnan packing, but they also trashed their tried-and-true formula. Anybody remember the new Coke? Well, Sony and Columbia Pictures, which bought out United Artists—the distributor of the previous 20 Bond pictures—have unveiled the new Bond. If you look at the money that "Casino Royale" has generated and you read the critics, the new Bond and the actor impersonating him—Daniel Craig of the first "Tomb Raider" movie—are performing better than anybody could have surmised.

Most new Bonds amount to underachievers, such as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) and "Live and Lie Die" (1973), and Bonds that forsake the formula usually crash and burn. Aside from its earnings and its widespread critical support, "Casino Royale" is barely a Bond opus. Neither M's secretary—Miss Moneypenny—nor Bond's gadget supplying guy—Q, show up in the 21st 007 thriller. The producers have dispensed with risqué names for the heroines and the villainesses, and the stunts are largely low-tech. The clever one-liners that our globe-trotting hero spouts and the larger-than-life villains are both conspicuously absent.

Instead, "Casino Royale" (* out of ****) qualifies as a prequel, showing how James Bond acquired his license to kill before he became the polished practitioner of seduction and sadism in the earlier 007 outings. No, the new Bond is set in the here and now rather than the yonder of yesteryear. Actually, the black & white opening sequence is supposed to take place before the first Bond movie "Dr. No" and then the remainder of the movie—in color—occurs after "Die Another Day." Along the way, the filmmakers have cherry picked only bits and pieces from the 1953 Ian Fleming original novel where the redoubtable, double-0 agent made his debut.

Suffice it to say that "Casino Royale" establishes James Bond's lethal credentials and shows him gambling with a crafty criminal genius in a high-stakes poker game. Compared with previous Bonds, "Casino Royale" is about neither the next plot to take over the world nor a devious scheme to mastermind the perfect crime. James Bond earns his license to kill status in the opening black & white sequences that lack any kind of excitement and seem rather like a picnic for him. He beats a guy up in a public restroom and outsmarts an opponent who holds him at gunpoint with an empty weapon. Afterward, Bond makes a buffoon of himself by shooting dead a couple of people at a foreign embassy and getting caught on a surveillance camera in the act of killing! Of course, M (Judi Dench of the Brosnan Bonds) is predictably furious. "In the old days, if an agent did something that embarrassing, he'd at least have the good sense to defect." Later, British Intelligence learns that Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen of "King Arthur"), who bankrolls terrorists, has got to win big at the gambling tables at Casino Royale or face death from one of his savage, machete-wielding African clients. M sends Bond to beat Le Chiffre at cards, and the British Treasury assigns Vesper Lynd (Parisian actress Eva Green of "Kingdom of Heaven") to see that 007 doesn't blow the big bucks.

"GoldenEye" director Martin Campbell is back calling the shots on Bond 21. He must have forgotten, however, what makes a good Bond. First, "Casino Royale" clocks in at 144 tedious minutes, the longest Bond on record—longer than Peter Hunt's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Second, there are lengthy stretches where nothing extraordinary happens. The color opening set piece where Bond and a black villain cavort around a construction site as if they had wings on their ankles grows tiresome but looks spectacular. Later, a white-knuckled fight in a motel stairwell goes on ad-nauseam. The chief villain is appropriately ruthless, but he doesn't do anything to make you genuinely hate him. He does whip Bond into a frenzy in one scene, but that's small potatoes compared with other Bond bad guys. Actually, the secondary villains pose more of a threat than Le Chiffre and his clowns. Most, "Casino Royale" is humdrum and humorless in its efforts to be realistic.

The Robert Wade and Neal Purvis screenplay offers few surprises (especially if you've perused the Ian Fleming novel) and the movie serves up two false endings before an explosive but hardly exciting finale in urban renewal in the exotic city of Venice. The only thing that differentiates Le Chiffre is his ability to shed a bloody tear or two. Daniel Craig plays James Bond as a hopelessly straightforward and tight-lipped, blue-collar thug with muscles. He resembles a cross-between of Steve McQueen of "Bullitt" and Yoda from "Star Wars." He is tough and rugged but lacks charisma. Furthermore, he has to rely on others to get him out of tight spots. Indeed, if it weren't for Vesper Lynd, Bond would never have accomplished his mission—bittersweet as it turns out.

"Casino Royale" ranks as an uninspired but ambitious stab to make over one of the most successful franchises in film history. As a traditional, old-school Bond fan, "Casino Royale" left me neither shaken nor stirred.

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