Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Casino Royale 2006

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

Pierce Brosnan was let go after Die Another Day (to his chagrin) and, for the first time, the series was definitively rebooted. The producers wanted to film Ian Fleming’s first novel, in which Bond is a rookie double-O agent. It was the bravest, boldest move the series has taken. And my God, did it work. The movie begins in black and white, shot like a film noir – but then we cut to glorious, eye-popping colour for the beautiful title sequence. A triumph of graphic design, it’s both old-school and modern, timeless and fresh, just like the rest of the film. Casino Royale has a justified and earned confidence about it – at every step, it makes the right decision, takes the correct turn. As with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell’s contribution is immense. He drives the storytelling with powerful momentum, but also a delicate touch. Tension is created especially well: huge chunks of the middle third are scenes of people sitting round a card table, but our attention and engagement don’t flag. The film is 138 minutes yet never feels dull or fatty. This is all muscle. The first two Bourne films had recently raised the bar for action cinema – both in terms of spectacle and emotional resonance – and Casino Royale clears it with ease. Crucially, we always see the results of the story’s events, both physically (Bond is often bleeding and bruised) and emotionally (Vesper has a breakdown after witnessing a violent death). This is blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order. Licence to Kill is, and will remain, my *favourite* James Bond movie. But Casino Royale may very well be the *best*. Ten Algerian love knots out of 10. Christ, 11 out of 10. A million out of 10.

Bond: Lots of people reacted skeptically or downright negatively when Daniel Craig was announced, fearing he was too short or too blond or too ugly or just nebulously not right. How fucking stupid do those craigisnotbond.com idiots look now?! He is superb. This is recognisably the same man we’ve been enjoying for 20 movies – cocky and charming, clever and cultured – but Craig brings a new sophistication of emotion as well as a fantastic physicality to the role.

Villains: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, excellent) is our lead bad guy. He takes puffs from an asthma inhaler, his eye weeps blood, and he’s clearly under pressure from his bosses. His cat-and-mouse games with Bond – ending with a brilliantly played torture scene taken from the book – are a joy. He gets killed off with 30 minutes to go by Mr White, a shadowy fixer from their unnamed criminal organisation. There’s also bent MI6 station chief Dryden; bomb-maker Mollaka (played by the guy who invented freerunning, Sébastian Foucan); Ugandan warlord Obanno, who invests $100m with Le Chiffre then wants it back; Alex Dimitrios, a dodgy middleman who loses his 1964 Aston Martin to Bond in a card game; dialogue-less bomber Carlos; Mr White’s colleague Adolph Gettler, who wears mismatched sunglasses; and Le Chiffre’s bald bodyguard, Kratt.

Girls: Le Chiffre has a girlfriend, Valenka, played by Ivana Miličević (who was Angelique in an unaired pilot for a Dark Shadows remake in 2004). Bond seduces Dimitrios’s incredibly sultry wife, Solange, to get some information – her first scene, where she horse-rides along the beach in a bikini and Bond steps out of the water in swimming trunks, has something for everyone. The hotels in the Bahamas and Montenegro both have pretty receptionists. But the star of the show is Vesper Lynd. “I’m the money,” she says when she meets Bond. “Every penny,” he says, clearly and understandably impressed. That opening scene is a sexually charged flirtation where we’re skillfully told an awful lot about both characters. The actors are just terrific: it’s a high score draw. Vesper has a vital role in the story and a seismic effect on the character of James Bond. She’s played sensationally well by French actress Eva Green. Perhaps her English accent is ever-so-slightly off now and again, but no matter: she ranks alongside Tracy di Vicenzo and Pam Bouvier as one of the very best female characters we’ve seen. She is also *extraordinarily* sexy (and, frankly, has the best boobs in the entire series).

Regulars: Creepy bad guy Mr White will appear again. Despite the reboot, M is still played by Judi Dench (yeah, it doesn’t make sense: get over it). The first time she speaks in the film she gets a rattling-good monologue: “Who the hell do they think they are? I report to the Prime Minister and even he’s smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don’t care what we do. They care what we get photographed doing. And how the hell could Bond be so stupid? I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.” We see both her home – an expensive flat with views of Canary Wharf – and her husband. All the M/Bond scenes are great. There’s no Moneypenny or Q, however: in the former’s place is a male aide called Villlers, in the latter’s is a team of computer boffins. René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) is a character from the novel who will be in the next movie too. And we get a new Felix Leiter, played with pensive worry by Jeffrey Wright.

Action: We see Bond’s first ever kill: a frenetic, violent fight in a gents. The freerunning sequence near the beginning of the movie is *fantastic*. Outlandish, breathtaking, but always grounded in plausibility and full of character, it’s the greatest foot chase in cinema history (step aside, Point Break). Bond and Dimitrios struggle silently in a crowded museum, Bond stabbing him to death without anyone noticing. The extended sequence at Miami Airport is wonderful – plot, character, tension, action and wit all in evidence. Le Chiffre and Valenka are attacked by machete-wielding thugs; Bond has a very violent fight with them in a stairwell. During the card game, Bond is poisoned – cue a terrific scene in which he has to call MI6 HQ for advice on how to restart his heart (after he passes out, Vesper saves the day by administering the vital defibrillator shock). When Vesper is kidnapped, Bond chases after her in his Aston Martin – the scene ends with a dramatic, done-for-real crash where the car flips over and cannon rolls seven times (a world record for a movie stunt). Finally, there’s a mad dash through Venice (Vesper the only person wearing red so we can spot her in the crowd) and the climactic sequence in a sinking building (superb).

Comedy: Much more than some people assume. “Put your hand down!” orders a frustrated Bond to undercover ally Carter, who keeps touching his earpiece and giving himself away. When Bond later breaks into M’s swish Docklands apartment, she asks him, “How the hell did you find out where I lived?” He replies, “Same way I found out your name. I thought M was a randomly assigned letter. I had no idea it stood for–” and then M interrupts: “Utter one more word and I’ll have you killed.” In the Bahamas, Bond crashes a Range Rover to cause a distraction then casually throws away the keys. When flirting with Solange, Bond suggests a drink ‘at his place’. When she asks if it’s close, he drives quickly round the hotel car park and back to where they started. Richard Branson has a blink-and-miss cameo. Bond’s laconic ‘ow!’ when injected with a tracker device is very funny. When he teams up with Vesper, Bond reads aloud their assigned cover story: “…and you’re Miss Stephanie Broadchest,” he lies. The banker controlling the poker game’s stakes, Monsieur Mendel, is a deliberately camp and quirky character. When asked, for the first time, if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond snaps, “Do I look like I give a damn?” Twice, Bond returns to the card table after Le Chiffre thought he was dead: Mads Mikkelsen’s dry double-takes are very good.

Music: David Arnold’s fourth score in a row. The best bit is early action cue African Rundown. Because this is essentially 007’s first case, the full-blown James Bond Theme is held back until the very last shot. The theme song is Chris Cornell’s dull-but-inoffensive You Know My Name.

Personal connection: I went to see this at the cinema twice – firstly with Mark Wright at the Odeon Marble Arch on Tuesday 21 November 2006, and then with Robert Dick at the Odeon Beckenham on Saturday 20 January 2007. It demanded to be seen again.

People I’ve met: In 2003, I briefly worked with actor Robert Jezek, who has a tiny role as a policeman in Casino Royale.

GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995)

GoldenEye

SPOILER WARNING: Just a note to specify that these reviews reveal plot twists. I wasn’t too fussed with the older ones, but over the last 20 years or so the movies have more often used definite surprises in their storytelling. I love these films, so wouldn’t like to spoil them for anyone.

Bond is back, after a six-year hiatus. At the time, that felt like an eternity – but it was only the same distance we now are from Quantum of Solace! We have a new 007, a new M, a new Moneypenny; we’re in a new decade and a new post-Cold War world, and this was a big roll of the dice. It came up double-sixes. What strikes me most about GoldenEye – aside from just how blinking entertaining it is – is how ‘knowing’ the whole thing manages to be. It’s having its cake and eating it: it’s able to be a full-bloodied, full-on Bond movie *and* slyly wink at the audience. It’s an audacious achievement. GoldenEye is very 1990s – there’s talk of sexual harassment and the break-up of the USSR, jokes about safe sex, and the use of the embryonic internet. It’s aware of cliché too: “I might as well ask you,” says the bad guy to Bond, “if all the vodka martinis ever silenced the screams of all the men you’ve killed. Or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all these willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” But this is no spoof or undercut of the series. The story is involving and the character stuff very good; the action is superb throughout, and there’s some really excellent model work. A total triumph. 10 “I am invincible!”s out of 10.

Bond: Pierce Brosnan is terrific – instantly at ease in the role. He handles action, comedy and drama with aplomb and plenty of charisma. One of his best moments, which I mention because Robert Dick reminded me of it, is a nonchalant tilt of the head to avoid the backlash of an explosion: effortless cool. The opening sequence is set ‘nine years earlier’ – ie, 1986, the year Brosnan was originally cast as James Bond.

Villains: Sean Bean plays 006-turned-villain Alec Trevelyn. The public-school accent might be a bit distracting, but he’s an effective enough bad guy. He’s in league with off-his-trolley Russian general Ourumov (an earnest Gottfried John) and recruits cyber-geek traitor Boris Grishenko (a fun Alan Cumming). The diabolical highlight of GoldenEye, however, is Xenia Onatopp (“Onatopp?” “Onatopp.”), played by the strikingly sexy Famke Janssen. She’s a fantastically perverse creation – she smokes cigars, murders an admiral during sex by squeezing him between her thighs (well, if you have to go…), seemingly takes orgasmic pleasure in machine-gunning innocent people, and licks Bond’s face as she tries to kill him.

Girls: Brosnan’s first conquest is Caroline, a psychologist sent by M to appraise Bond. He darts around in his Aston Martin with her nervously in the passenger seat, then pops open the champers and moves in for the kill. The female lead is Natalya Simonova, played by the gorgeous Izabella Scorupco. She might have a Secret Squirrel job, working in a satellite control bunker, but she feels like a real woman, a believable human being. She’s no pushover, but is not a spy or agent – she gets scared, she acts tough, she’s clever and resourceful. She actually carries her own subplot for over half the movie, not teaming up with Bond until the 68-minute mark, and then vitally helps with the mission. We’ve come a long way since Britt Ekland. Natalya’s one of the best.

Regulars: Moneypenny’s been recast again, much more successfully this time. Samantha Bond is instantly attractive, classy and interesting, giving as good as she gets in a well-written flirting scene with Bond. Q gets a deliberately old-school gadget show-and-tell that’s played for all it’s worth. MI6 man Tanner crops up, this time played by Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. In a series first, the real MI6 HQ in Vauxhall is used for establishing shots. Most significantly, M is now played by Judi Dench. It seems natural now, but was a bold decision at the time. Making her a woman, and casting such a good actress, adds a new energy to the Bond-M dynamic. The often-shown ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ scene is just knockout. Dench is easily in charge, Bond’s boss and a ballbreaker – but she’s also concerned, fair and empathetic. Seeing how Felix had his leg bitten off in the last film, we get a replacement character: Bond’s CIA pal is now Jack Wade, played with sparkle by The Living Daylights’ Joe Don Baker. Robbie Coltrane appears in a semi-comic role as Russian gangster Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky.

Action: The famous opening bungee jump is a mission statement for the whole film – leaping into new territory. The subsequent sequence sees Bond and 006 break into a nerve-gas plant, then James has a physics-defying stunt when he rides his bike off a cliff and catches up with a falling plane. There’s a playful car chase in the hills above Monte Carlo (see ‘Music’). The destruction of the Severnaya base is very well directed. Bond fights Xenia at a posh swimming pool in a scene more like rough sex than a punch-up. Bond uses an ejector seat to flee an exploding helicopter. His and Natalya’s escape from the Russian jail is great, and is followed by the outrageous tank-through-the-streets-of-St Petersburg stuff. Bond derails the bad guys’ train by parking the tank on the tracks – quite how he got ahead of a speeding train to do this is best not questioned. 007 and Natalya’s plane is shot down over Cuba; Xenia then shows up and Bond kills her. We end with a massive run of fine action at the secret base, which includes Bond and Trevelyan’s scrap on top of the massive radar dish.

Comedy: In the pre-titles scene, a squeaky wheel on a trolley gets a good laugh. There are a few old-style sight gags, such as a peloton of cyclists being knocked over like dominoes, and the punning quota is at its highest in a while. Bond and Xenia have some innuendo-heavy banter over the card table. James flirts stylishly with Moneypenny. There’s also M reprimanding a sarcastic Tanner, Jack Wade’s knackered car (and his sledgehammer approach to restarting it), and Minnie Driver as a tone-deaf club singer.

Music: The score is by Eric Serra. Oh, dear. Although not a total disaster – some action cues are quite good – it has sections of staggeringly awful music. It’s charmless, badly dated nonsense, sometimes sounding more like the theme to The Krypton Factor than a movie score. Check out, if you can bear, this inane piece from early on in the movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImPfR-6yUu4

The theme is written by Bono and The Edge (how is the drummer?), and sung by Tina Turner. I find it very difficult to have any kind of opinion either way on it. It’s just *there*. Over the end credits is an awful, slushy number called The Experience of Love from Eric Serra.

Personal connection: This was the first Bond film I saw at the cinema. It was in December 1995 and I went to the UCI Derby with my old pal Stuart Oultram.