Pierce Brosnan looks like a needlepoint ninny compared to Daniel Craig — his bulkier, blonder, bad-to-the-boner James Bond replacement. Gone are the days when a flashy smile and a shiny gadget were all it took to save the world from imminent danger. In a post-9/11 world, it takes someone who’ll drown a man in a bathroom sink, run through a brick wall without blinking, and do more with his pinky finger than bin Laden can do with an AK-47.
In “Casino Royale,” Bond’s makeover is literally head to toe. Besides the fact that he doesn’t “give a damn” whether his martini is shaken or stirred, he’s not even six feet tall — a marginal detail that adds an air of Napoleonic aggression. A pair of diamond-cut, arctic blue eyes peer out of Craig’s overly tanned, haphazardly scarred face. A chiseled, Spartan body somehow manages to slump when covered by an Armani tux, as if Bond would prefer to don camouflage cargos and a wife beater when doing Her Majesty’s bidding. He is blunt force personified, dehumanized and solidified. In other words, this Bond is more American than British, more stop-at-nothing than let’s-pause-an-hour-for-a-bit-of-tea.
Bond novelist Ian Fleming initially envisioned his agent as a mindless killing instrument rather than a suave lady-killer, and filmmakers looked to his first novel when they began to reinvent 007. “Casino Royale” begins where 007 begins — with his first two kills, the requisite body count for double-0 status. It then follows Bond through a series of top-secret spy missions, culminating in his big challenge: outsmarting asthmatic French math genius Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen) in a high-stakes game of poker.
Le Chiffre is the perfect Bond-movie villain. Constantly sporting his “poker face,” which often disturbingly includes a bloody teardrop leaking from the corner of his glass eye, he represents a very contemporary idea of evil — he’s a smart, rich investor who uses his talents to capitalize on terrorism. He claims his sanguine tear duct is “nothing sinister,” but we know better. It’s freaky, that’s what it is.
The violence in “Casino Royale” is entertaining, but not in the way we have come to expect from recent Bond movies. It’s less like a 007 video game chock-full-of weapons and ammo, and more like a kick-boxing match. Three-fourths of the action is hand-to-hand combat, sometimes coming down to a struggle between muscle mass and pure strength of will. But scenes in which a global struggle comes down to two men, grappling desperately for the future of the free world, begin to feel uncomfortably reminiscent of Peter Markle’s harrowing 9/11 film, “Flight 93.”
Which brings us to the most chilling irony in the film. Obviously, the new Bond has not just been revamped for the novelty’s sake. All efforts have been made to create a Bond relevant to today, one who is not stuck in an erstwhile Cold War. But, in choosing villains who capitalize on tragedy, the creators of “Casino Royale” have inadvertently turned self-critical. The tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror demanded a new kind of hero — a figure invincible and “American” enough to unflinchingly respond to a dark and imminent threat — but a positive response to this opportunistic makeover equals a bigger paycheck for studios.
But no one’s bluffing here. “Casino Royale” is, by all degrees of measurement, a cinematic royal flush. Only one wishes that, instead of keeping his eyes peeled for diamonds, director Martin Campbell had instead tried to include a little bit of heart. It’s the one thing that this Bond lacks, but could surely use.
Dir: Martin Campbell