An Agent Of Change

James Bond (Daniel Craig) falls for a British agent played by Eva Green in
James Bond (Daniel Craig) falls for a British agent played by Eva Green in "Casino Royale," the 21st film in the franchise and the first with a blond Bond. (By Jay Maidment -- Columbia Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

Nobody does it tougher.

Reinventing James Bond as a kind of Navy SEAL with an attitude problem, "Casino Royale" turns out to be cracking good entertainment, as well as a fresh start for the perdurable 21-picture franchise.

Daniel Craig kicks major maximus as a Bond who'd never use a computer where a punch will do; he's lean and athletic and fast, and the movie takes great advantage of his beauty in motion, particularly his on-the-dead-run. Besides being the first blond Bond, the first Bond under 40 since George Lazenby, and the first Bond to look like Steve McQueen, he's seemingly the first Bond to actually bleed. His face frequently looks like it had a close encounter with a lawnmower; fights leave him sodden in unpleasant liquids of his own manufacture as well as physically spent and far into oxygen debt.

That stands in direct counterpoint to the majority of post-Connery Bonds, especially Roger Moore but also toward the end Pierce Brosnan, who always seemed such lightweights that you suspected all that hair spray had soaked into their brains and turned them into fashion models. Hmmm, you mow down 400 Russian border guards with your trusty AK-47 and you don't even muss your mane?

That hair symbolized everything that was wrong with late-issue Bonds: Beyond their unbelievability, they stood for a figure completely unrooted in any sort of reality. The movies had become almost decadent in their removal of Bond from the physical world: He was a kind of male fantasy conceit grown stale and prissy, sited amid big, dull special effects that were always right up to last year's standards.

Director Martin Campbell's version astutely restores Bond to a real world -- note I say, a real world, not the real world. This movie is set, say, one remove from the possible, instead of, like those last few, 20 or so removes. Thus, this Bond fights and bleeds and can be tortured, but his pain endurance is a fantasy, as is his recovery time. He moves like a running back on sinews of steel -- fast, evasive, believable -- but he makes a few inter-building leaps that ignore the rude physics of gravity. He shoots well (much gun stuff), but it would have been nicer if he missed once in a while. Just once in a while.

Yet the movie also has a number of extremely shocking moments -- shocking, that is, in their tenderness, their tragedy, their human dimension. The scenes between the cool Craig and Iron Mistress M (the brilliant Judi Dench) really crackle with hostility; did Edward Albee fly in for secret rewrites? There's a moment where a young British agent is first exposed to the incredible violence of the world she's elected to enter, and she collapses in her clothes in the shower. Gently, Bond goes and holds her, not because he's on the make but because he loves her and knows she's in pain. Later there's a drowning death that has a tragic, nightmarish quality, a so-close-yet-so-far sensibility that will haunt you just as it haunts Bond.

Maybe these human moments exist because the film is derived from Ian Fleming's first 007 novel, published way back in 1952. It is said by many to be the most "realistic" of his books, the one in which he was a real novelist as opposed to the later ones where he was sticking to his highly profitable formula. Regardless, they do make this Bond slightly human; you care about him, as the movie -- essentially a kind of origins piece even though it's set in 2006 -- watches the new 00-level promotee find his place in the world, his style, his voice and possibly even his pathologies. "You're not much on empathy, are you, Bond?" notes the acidic M. Craig makes you believe in a supremely confident physical animal, more athlete, really, than agent, who ultimately turns into a seasoned, dependable professional -- without, by the way, saving the world.

The plot, in fact, is short on saving the world, as it is on magic gizmo boxes (okay, a big airplane is saved by attaching a magic gizmo box to the terrorist trying to blow it up; but on the other hand, a Venetian palazzo sinks into the canals, so in a cost-benefit analysis, it probably comes out the same).

Now, about that plot. Hmmm, wish I could explain it to you, but first I'd have to explain it to myself. It makes some sense, though a number of the connections were made so fast you more or less have to take them on faith.

We open with Bond's first two kills, which appear to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie: They simply establish tone, as one is a fistfight in a men's room so brutal and bloody that it tells you right away you're in a different part of the forest from the boys with the hair spray and the pancake. Then Bond's off to Madagascar to prevent a terrorist attack, and the movie gives up one of the best gags in years. Someone has discovered a stuntman named Sebastien Foucan who is given the role of a bomb-carrying bad guy. Once his cover is blown, he takes off through the city streets with Bond in pursuit, a chase that ultimately ends in (and destroys) a construction project. It's like watching Troy Vincent chase Terrell Owens through a collapsing game of Chutes and Ladders. Foucan is phenomenal: To watch him gymnasticize his way across the screens is astonishing. Imagine a human Road Runner, beep beep.

Hmm, by one of those vague connections -- lots of cellphone message-checking seems to be involved -- Bond ends up in the Bahamas, then follows a suspect (I'm not sure who) to Miami, where that suspect gives something (I'm not sure what) to a terrorist who is going to blow up Douglas's biggest super skybus. The point, apparently, is to depress airline stock prices at the behest of a terrorist financier named Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), so that after the blasts, when airline stocks plummet, the terrorists can buy low, then sell high. When Bond destroys their moneymaking scheme, Le Chiffre is desperate for the money he has lost, so he sets up a high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em tourney in Montenegro. Naturally Bond penetrates as a high-end gambler, his mission to win the tourney and break Le Chiffre's bank.

Now, as a man who isn't sure if two of a kind beats a queen and a jack, I can say I had some problems following the intense card-playing sequences. The millions of poker fans out there won't, and I'm guessing they'll see the movie six or more times. During this period, it should be added, numerous other things are going on: Bond falls in love with British agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, fabulous, beautiful and intelligent), has a heart attack (induced by drugs) and has a machete fight with two African assassins. Still to come are a car chase, a torture sequence (tough, but it gives the director another chance to rip Craig's shirt off), that sinking palazzo, as well as a final shootout.

Half an hour too long (it drags when Bond and Vesper go off on a lark) and with a few too many villains we really can't place in the plot, "Casino Royale" nevertheless proves that you seldom go wrong if you make a movie that leaves you stirred, not shaken.

Casino Royale (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, including a scene of torture, as well as sexual content and nudity.

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