A fter serving up a sleek male mannequin in four so-so films, the corporate executives of the James Bond franchise have opted for his opposite in Casino Royale: Bond as a bit of rough trade. And he’s good! Better than that, he’s what Bond hasn’t been in a quarter-century, since a certain rugged Scot said, “Never again.” He’s fascinating.
As 007, Daniel Craig tilts his head forward like a boxer, an impression reinforced by his semi-smashed nose and sandpaper skin that often sports fresh lacerations. But those radioactive blue eyes make him something more than a bullyboy. This Bond is haunted, not yet housebroken, still figuring out the persona. In Casino Royale, the reset button has been pressed in the manner of Batman Begins. Judi Dench is back as the scolding distaff M, but Bond has only recently been licensed to kill, and those kills are still a shock. We’re grateful when the latest Bond girl, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), shows up and engages 007 in an impudent game of What’s My Backstory? She guesses he has had the best education money can buy but didn’t come from money—and that he still carries a chip on his shoulder about the elites. That fits. Still, questions linger. Who were Bond’s parents? How did he become a secret agent? Why does he chase a bad guy up an enormous crane over the ocean when he could just, uh, wait for the man to come down?
The last question is rhetorical. Even in this more down-to-earth Bond film, serious acrobatics are required to hurtle us over the narrative chasms. The director is Martin Campbell, who also made Pierce Brosnan’s generally flaccid debut, GoldenEye. He doesn’t screw up this time. Working with the crack editor Stuart Baird, Campbell propels Bond (and his quarries) onto impossible precipices and stands back while the world’s highest-paid stuntpeople earn their paychecks. In the early Bond movies, the violence was both brutal and stylish, with witty curlicues; here, it’s mostly brutal, but at least the director has a Hong Kong–style awe for the poetry of human bodies doing things that, evolutionarily speaking, they haven’t needed to do since the saber-toothed tiger died off.
The first half of Casino Royale is full of happy surprises. The Bond tropes are all there, but in the script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (and—wow—Paul Haggis), they’re rearranged to catch you off guard. The opening bit with 007 firing into the gun sight and the blood running down the frame is cunningly delayed. “Shaken, not stirred” gets a twist of something acid. “Bond. James Bond” is saved for a special moment. The villain is not the usual Blofeld-like wannabe world dominator but a financier called Le Chiffre whose milky eye weeps blood. He’s played by the amazing Dane Mads Mikkelsen, made up to bring out his liver lips and Munchian cheekbones—the clammiest actor alive. When Bond sits opposite Le Chiffre at a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro’s Casino Royale, Mikkelsen clicks his rectangular plaques as if he’s a new breed of praying mantis. He’s bloodcurdling.
He needs to be, since Casino Royale mysteriously front-loads the big action set pieces and then settles into something considerably more cerebral—and a wee bit anticlimactic. (Le Chiffre deserves a better comeuppance.) Even at its most languorous, though, the movie never loses its pulse—and it never lost my goodwill. You can always ogle the luscious Eva Green (best known for Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), whose Vesper is teasing, angry, and vulnerable in madly unpredictable proportions. You can study Daniel Craig as Bond searches for a rakish comeback and comes up short. No, this is not a design for all Bond pictures. By all means, let’s have the gadgets, the super-villains, and the hero who can tell you not just the vintage but the side of the château where the grapes were grown. But let’s also have the joy of rediscovering all that.
In one scene, Vesper presents Bond with a tuxedo for the casino. He slips into it and regards himself in the mirror—he can’t believe how beautifully tailored it is. I hope Craig finds more moments like that in Bond. And I hope he gets to wear that tuxedo again and again and again.
Even more welcome than a new Bond is a new Guest: a semi-improvised comedy from Christopher and his ensemble of soulful clowns, among them Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean—big winners who love playing big losers. For Your Consideration is a behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of a very, very bad Deep South ethnic Jewish lesbian family drama called Home for Purim. The joke (apart from Yiddishisms spoken in a drawl) is that a report posted on the Web sparks Oscar buzz that races to all corners of the industry—leading to talk-show appearances by the pathetically not-hot stars and the arrival of a studio executive (Ricky Gervais, the picture’s exchange student) to push for less “in-your-face Jewishness.”