Gangway! The muscled brute tearing through the building site at the start of Casino Royale, swinging from the neck of a crane and hurling himself from ledges, chasing down his quarry with the pitiless speed of a leopard on an antelope - put this man in a loincloth and he could be Tarzan. In fact, he's the new James Bond, whose feats of athletic prowess here make his "man of action" tag look completely inadequate. Has someone checked him for steroid abuse? It's as if the film-makers, eager to wipe the memory of Roger Moore or even Pierce Brosnan huffing and puffing through the action sequences, have decided to reboot the brand by cranking up Bond's virility: look, they're saying, he can run, he can jump, he can practically fly!
Casino Royale, the first Bond novel that Ian Fleming wrote, takes us back to his hero's early days. Alas, this doesn't mean back to the early Sixties and the classic Cold War-era of espionage; the new Bond emerges in the post-September 11 present of counter-terrorism, which in theory means that he has no history of being in the 20th century at all. But let's not quibble. A prologue of quite exorbitant violence, shot in grainy monochrome, reveals Bond carrying out his first "kill" in a seedy public toilet and thus earning his spurs as a double-0 agent; it wasn't all guns with silencers and smirking quips, you see. "I understand double-0s have a very short life expectancy," he says wryly, though the way he dispatches that first victim with his bare hands suggests you'd still want him on your side in a fight.
That the film-makers have cast Daniel Craig in the role is key to this leaner, meaner 007. Craig has a boxer's face and a toned upper body; he looks very good in skimpy swimming trunks.That physicality, together with his look of cold command, indicates that he will be the closest in style to Connery, a little rough around the edges and no friend of the old school tie. I've liked Craig as an actor since Our Friends in The North 10 years ago, and his brooding, troubled air has been the making of several decent movies since. But I remain unconvinced by his Bond, not least because "good acting" is wasted on such a fantasy role; what's really required is a presence, an ability to look the part and to carry off its essential foolishness. That might not be the man Fleming created, but it sure as hell is the man that cinema has, and it's too late to change him now. Banish the twinkle from his eye and Bond is lost - all we can hope is that Craig recovers it in the movies to come.
The plot falls into line with this dour, no-nonsense 007, pitting him against a Euro-villain named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who's been busy financing the world's international terrorists, unspecified by name but apparently drawn from everywhere bar the Middle East. In order to foil his schemes by taking his money, Bond must face Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale and prove to the world he can look good in a tuxedo. Cue a coltish lovely from the Treasury, Vesper Lynd, who will supervise his spending at the table and ruffle his feathers with her sultry Anglo-French poise. The dismayingly beautiful Eva Green brings to her the right hint of insouciance to keep Bond, and us, just short of tearful prostration at her feet. The big poker scenes, however, are a fizzle, tedious and talky, while Vesper's look of anguish on 007's behalf is pumped too full of melodrama: he's only playing cards, love, not defusing a megaton bomb.
Indeed, the film goes light on technology; aside from mobile phones and the throaty, feral roar of an Aston Martin, the one concession to gadgetry is a mini-defibrillator that saves Bond from heart failure (he didn't notice the spiked martini). It's the first time I've ever seen this gizmo being applied by the cardiac victim himself, and surely the only time said victim will be vigorously having it off within the hour. Perhaps, like Louis in Casablanca, the heart is Bond's least vulnerable spot. What will have you wincing and possibly crossing your legs in sympathy is the scene of torture in which Le Chiffre subjects Bond, naked and tied to a chair, to a whipping of his testicles with a knotted rope. Yes, our hero almost has his double-0s taken out of commission before our eyes, a slice of raw realism that sits uneasily amid the fancy millefeuilles of Eurotrash high living.
That disjunction has plagued the Bond franchise for some time - remember Brosnan being tortured during the credit sequence of Die Another Day. It seems that the film-makers are still trying to decide whether 007 should be a vulnerable human being (as Fleming wrote him) or a figure on which to hang our fantasies of invincible suavity. What I miss in Craig's incarnation is a lightness of touch, and a sense of fun. When a casino barman asks Bond whether he'll take his martini shaken or stirred, Craig snaps "Do I look like I give a damn?" The line got a laugh, but it made my heart sink: Bond should not be a boor, and he should never be so rattled that he ceases to care how his drink is mixed. A touch of the pugilist is fine so long as he retains his pertness, the truly distinctive quality of a man so frequently called upon to save the world. Bond is brought back from the dead in Casino Royale, but his long-term prospects aren't encouraging.
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