Bond. Blond Bond.

Daniel Craig is right full hair to 007 saga.

By Steve Burgess 17 Nov 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday. Read his previous articles here.

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ReBonded: 'Casino Royale'

So now there's a new blond Bond. In Casino Royale, British actor Daniel Craig takes over the venerable franchise. Going blond can be fun. But dark roots can be a problem, too. How do you deal with those?

Easy. You just blow them away. With Casino Royale, the managers of the Bond franchise attempt to simply wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Ian Fleming's 1953 novel was the first in the series, and so director Martin Campbell and a team of screenwriters have come up with a sort of "Bond Begins" movie. Slightly confused fans will have to figure out that although Casino Royale is based in the present day, this is a parallel universe where there have been no previous Bond adventures. Sean Connery never existed, never mind George Lazenby.

Some of us might call that a positive thing. No slight intended to Connery, but his iconic 007 character, and the music, and the hotties with the locker-room-giggle names, have long obscured the mediocrity of the actual Bond movies. Even the better ones are rather second-rate thrillers, and almost all are burdened with a lot of cutesy camp and formulaic nonsense. Movies like The Bourne Identity/Supremacy have demonstrated how the same sort of material can be executed in far superior fashion. Occasionally the Bond franchise has attempted to modernize with darker themes. But the films are captive to their own hoary traditions. Casino Royale represents the most determined attempt yet to reinvent the Bond wheel.

The results? As a confirmed Bond agnostic, I'd say: Not bad at all. And it all starts with Craig.

Suave to menacing

Counting David Niven (from the original 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale), Daniel Craig represents James Bond, 007.7. The star of the UK gangster flick Layer Cake was an inspired choice as the new -- pardon me, the first -- James Bond. On first sight, his permanently curled lip and almost pug face make it appear that MI5 has begun hiring soccer yobs. Eventually it becomes clear that he dresses up well, too.

Craig's Bond leans away from the suave Roger Moore/Pierce Brosnan model, toward a menacing physicality. It would be easy to say that he's more like Connery. He is, in the sense that Craig displays the same lack of refinement that originally made Fleming object to the casting of Connery in the 007 role (Fleming changed his mind after Dr. No came out).

Mostly though, Craig is his own Bond. He makes a believable killer, although it's harder to buy him as a vulnerable lover boy. Thankfully, that part of the plot is short-lived.

In the first big set piece it's clear the filmmakers aim to present a more physical hero. A long, raucous foot chase through a Madagascar construction site is all about speed, agility and athleticism. No cigarette boats or gadget-laden sports cars. This is not your father's, or Roger Moore's, Bond.

No world-conquering super villains, either. The target here is Le Chiffre, a nasty international financier played by Mads Mikkelsen (not a bad Bond name in itself). There are suitable Bond touches -- a convenient malady allows Le Chiffre to weep bloody tears -- but thankfully we are not introduced to yet another cackling maniac with a dream.

Hold the cheese

While Campbell clearly wants to offer a more grounded sort of action thriller, there are traditions that must be dealt with. No sense trying to make a brooding meditation on international relations in this framework. You still have to be Bond.

For the most part, Casino Royale succeeds in scraping off layers of cheese while remaining true to the fast-cars-and-pretty-women formula. The movie incorporates aspects of Ian Fleming's introductory Bond novel, with plenty of updating. (It's a cinch Fleming had never heard of Texas hold 'em, the game Bond plays instead of baccarat.)

Eva Green gets a central role as Vesper Lynde, a government agent assigned to manage Bond's gambling money. One modern development has helped make Fleming's plot more screen-friendly: the popularity of TV poker makes it easier to emulate the novel by focusing on the tension of the card game itself. (A complaint: even though Bond is heard discussing the importance of psychology in poker, this movie, like so many others, suggests that the best card players succeed by being ridiculously lucky. A chimp could win with the hands these people get.)

Campbell and co. have fun along the margins -- check out the scene where someone asks a flustered Bond how he wants his martini. And keep an eye out for Virgin Airlines mogul Richard Branson being frisked at airport security.

Straight guy

For the most part though, Casino Royale succeeds by playing things relatively straight. The film's style is encapsulated in one crash scene. Over the course of the Bond series innumerable vehicles have given their lives in vaulting crashes and flaming fireballs. They're like dance numbers in a musical. Casino Royale features a vehicle wreck on a dark highway that is both breathtaking and compellingly real. It keeps you in the movie instead of taking you out. By the finish you may feel you've been kept in a little too long -- do we really need a 144-minute Bond film at this point? -- but I'm guessing there will be few complaints.

Casino Royale does not offer realism. No one expects it to. But it does offer hope that a new, blond Bond-shell will breathe life into a very tired tradition. If they keep making Bond movies like this, I may not wait for them to turn up on the late show.

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