Review: Casino Royale

Eyewear was wrong to carp.

The new James Bond film, number 21, Casino Royale, is the best in the series since Sean Connery tossed his to Miss Moneypenny for the last time.

[Spoiler alert]

First, let it be admitted that the Bond films are not precisely works of moral genius. Paul Virilio would no doubt argue they instead form part of the continuum in art and science that, in the 20th century, saw a "pitiless art" destroy the human form, if not the very idea of the humane (and so the scene in Miami, set among the plasticized skeletons of that bizarre recent exhibition is entirely apt). Indeed, what is James Bond if not the avatar of a pitiless man, arrogantly prepared to take life ("00") with an ice-cool modern instrumentality for a heart?

This is where the new film ricochets off the genre canon established in the first 20 features. By taking this very issue to heart, we are presented with something very much like the origin of Darth Vader that was seen in the Star Wars epic - just as Vader was a good if passionate man of talent who becomes twisted when his beloved dies so too is Casino Royale very much a "begins" structure (last seen in the new Batman): we get to observe the death of a soul and the rebirth of a less-human-but-more-powerful legend.

The movie takes an almost Lynchian turn in its last 45 minutes or so (some might say Finchian) starting at the exhilarating moment when Vesper Lynd is kidnapped and Bond pursues her at night (the chase has echoes of the intensity of the car scene in Fargo) - and suddenly Lynd is lying bound in the road, presented like a cruel homage to the damsels in distress of early silent films. It is a beautifully shocking brief image.

Bond veers off the road and crashes horribly. Dragged from the wreckage, he is surrounded by Le Chiffre and his men, who remotely observe their prisoner and cut his homing device out of his arm. Next a silent and deeply concerned Lynd and Bond are thrown in to a car and driven to a gloomy port, then roughly shoved into the depths of a rusted hulk. The sequence is without precedent in any previous Bond film, in terms of both its sombre mood and its cinematic intelligence. It is a deeply troubling few minutes, that manages (as both Lynch and Fincher sometimes can, as Kubrick could) to imbue the screen with a deeply evil sense of things awry at a level that is not entirely narrative. The world itself is out of joint.

Nothing else in the film is this good. However, the last main sequence - in which Bond suspects red-dressed Lynd of stealing money, follows her to the bank, through narrow twisting alleys, engages in a gunfight, and then Lynd drowns herself in a locked submerged elevator carriage in a sinking Venetian palazio (a homage to several films such as Death In Venice and Don't Look Now, with its red dress and themes of water and drowning) - is very suspenseful and troubling.

In general, the texture and tone of the film is similar to Dr. No. It features post-colonial hotels, sweating locals, ascensions from the sea, and romps at resorts. The violence is gritty and often hand-to-hand. This is all good, though the gambling scenes are poorly edited for continuity and suspense is often lacking during the card game itself. The first hour is fitfully interesting, if sometimes overwrought (the long chase at the airport is curiously dull as nothing much seems at stake except the destruction of a corporate prototype - does the new plane have passengers?).

What is sure is the charm of the lead. Craig is a very good Bond and he does what was promised: convey the moral damage that being a murderer for one's government does. His scenes with the beautiful (see above) Eva Green (Lynd) are mostly electric, and the erotic tension is sustained. Green is a good actor and is able to imbue her character with impressive depths. The plot of killing the woman Bond loves is not original to this film - see On Her Majesty's Secret Service. But here the stakes are higher. We care about the new bonds forming between Bond and Lynd.

The opening credits are mediocre, though the style is generally pleasingly retro, down to Chris Cornell's mainly muted turn as a latter day Matt Monroe crooner. Richard Hawley would have been the better and more intriguing option for a song.

The last scene is clever - we get the signature Monty Norman theme tune and the pay-off "Bond, James Bond" just at the cut to black - in more ways than one - as the movie fades out, Bond is about to rub out "Mr. White" - the white manipulator of the black African villains of earlier (and the de facto killer of Green in her red dress); now Bond's black ops will begin, in earnest.

If Bond 22 can keep this level of style, restraint and intelligence, this could the renaissance long-hoped for.


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