The Spy Who Shocked Me
Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you.
For quite a while, actually, you've certainly taken your own sweet time turning up. Have you by any chance had a bit of work done here and there? I love what you've done with your hair...
Whether the Bond franchise was in dire need of a radical makeover following 2002's Die Another Day is questionable, given the deserved popularity of Pierce Brosnan in the role(Not to mention a global box office take of over $430 million.). It's a bit of a moot point now as Eon, Bond's big-screen custodians, clearly thought so, even if the studio didn't Well, they've opted for grit over glamour and the results, as displayed in Martin Campbell's Casino Royale, are startling.
The news that Brosnan would be replaced for this final Fleming adaptation by the surprising choice of Daniel Craig attracted only slightly more attention from the lunatic fringes of Bond fandom than the
revelation that the new movie would ditch over forty years of admittedly rather duff continuity and be a very definite re-start for the franchise, but Eon have stuck by both decisions.
So the movie opens with Bond receiving his 00 rank and rapidly discovering the talents for monumental carnage and indiscriminate fornication and adultery that have made him such a family favourite for many decades. Surveillance on a Madagascar-based mercenary leads to Bond putting a serious spanner in the works of terrorist financier Le Chiffre (nicely played by Mads Mikkelsen), and, more importantly, probably the best action sequence of the year, as Bond relentlessly pursues the astonishingly agile free-runner Sebastian Foucan all over a building site. Seriously short of funds and pursued by some very nasty creditors, Le Chiffre is forced to organise a high-stakes card game to recoup his losses, and Bond's prodigious gambling talents make him the obvious man to take him on...
Expectations for this movie were high, but it delivers in spades. Most importantly it does the business as a tough, realistic thriller. The opening act, with Bond basically wandering around the Bahamas and
Miami for an hour, destroying everything in his path, is perhaps a little overlong, but from here the movie goes into a fairly close (by Eon's standards) adaptation of the original novel. The character of Mathis, here played by Giancarlo Gianinni, finally makes it into a Bond movie, and Felix Leiter very briefly pops up (it seems that these days he is once again an African-American). The book's most notorious sequence also appears, although Le Chiffre's carpet-beater is replaced by a length of rope. Eva Green gets a chance to do a bit more acting than the average Bond girl, even if her relationship with Craig is a
bit too underwritten to really convince. Martin Campbell's taut direction is better suited to the various gunfights and chases anyway.
But the really startling thing about this movie is the way it handles the central character. It essentially ignores the characterisation that has developed (or rather hasn't developed) over the previous twenty
films, and goes back to source. Daniel Craig's performance as Bond is closer to Ian Fleming than I would ever have imagined. He enjoys the good things in life and is extremely good at his job, but his job is applied brutality - he's cold and hard and ruthless, and when things don't go his way he's prone to acts of almost irrational violence. That said, the movie makes it clear he's not just a blunt instrument - this is a cunning and almost scarily perceptive man. You don't want him as an enemy - but then, neither do you really want him as a friend...
Daniel Craig brings him to life tremendously. It would be unfair to the other Bonds to say he's the first not trying to copy Connery, but he seems to be the first whose performance isn't in some way a reaction
to the great man's interpretation. He's playing a human being whereas Brosnan in particular was inhabiting an icon. (The Brosnan pictures, slick and accomplished though they all were, are now looking to me at least like karaoke Bonds - the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s remixed and repackaged with a knowing wink.)
There's a lengthy coda to one action sequence where we see Bond back in his room drinking whiskey as he washes off the blood, something previously unimaginable. The relaunch allows the writers to have a lot of fun with the various elements of the Bond legend - the clothes, the Aston Martin, the drink, the catchphrase. But it's telling that they miss a lot of the staples out completely. There's no sign of Q, in particular, or his invisible car. (Though that's probably the idea of an
invisible car, come to think of it.) Essentially the reboot has given the scriptwriters the opportunity to dynamite away most of the dead weight of formula and tradition that have accumulated around James
Bond over the decades. Rather surprisingly, the character revealed - and maybe released - by this is as compelling and guiltily entertaining as he must have been fifty years ago. Where they're going to go from here I haven't the faintest idea - but I can't wait to see. This is very probably the best Bond movie since the 1960s, and one of the best action movies of 2006. Highly recommended.