James Bond
Casino Royale

Starring: Daniel Craig
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
RRP: 22.99
CDR 43508
Certificate: 12
Available 19 March 2007

Newly promoted to Double-0 status, James Bond sets out on his first assignment. It takes him to Madagascar, the Bahamas and eventually Montenegro to face Le Chiffre, a ruthless financier under threat from his terrorist clientele, who is attempting to recoup his funds in a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale. M places Bond under the watchful eye of Treasury official Vesper Lynd. At first sceptical of what value Vesper can provide, Bond's interest in her deepens as they brave danger together. Le Chiffre's cunning and cruelty come to bear on them both in a way Bond could never imagine...

The last time the Bond franchise was re-launched, eleven years previously with GoldenEye, I found the result to be a little wishy-washy for my palate. It sat on the fence in terms of its depiction of Bond. Is 007 a fully rounded character or some kind of superhero? Is his womanising deplorable or enviable? The makers of GoldenEye, including its director Martin Campbell, seemed to want to hedge their bets and have things both ways.

Now Bond is being re-booted again, following a hiatus of four years. Once again, Campbell has been commissioned to helm the debut of the new Bond, this time played by Daniel Craig. This is a much more confident production than GoldenEye was, and a far riskier venture, though I still detect an air of indecision...

The movie is being hailed as a return to 007's roots, an adaptation of Ian Fleming's very first novel. The franchise is being reset to year one, depicting a Bond only recently promoted to Double-0 status and still decidedly rough around the edges. Casino Royale starts off in black and white, without the famous gun-barrel sequence in its customary position. In this film we see 007 don a tailored dinner jacket for the first time - and with some reluctance - and he doesn't care whether his vodka martini is shaken or stirred. There's no Moneypenny or Q, and very few gadgets in evidence: just a cutting-edge mobile phone and an Aston Martin equipped with a computerised glove compartment. The humour is there, but this time it is dry and dark rather than cheeky or cheesy. And there's no hi-tech villain's base to get blown up at the end.

I would talk about the baddies having more realistic, down-to-earth goals than your standard Bond foes and consequently posing a more believable menace, but in fact this isn't so radical for the series. For example, Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill was a powerful drugs baron, while Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies was a ruthless media mogul.

The production team shy away from going the whole hog in terms of their adaptation of Fleming's first book. The film is set in or close to the present day rather than the 1950s. This isn't, therefore, the origin story of the character we have been watching on our screens for the last 40-odd years but rather some newer version of him. Exciting action sequences are still very much in evidence, particularly during the first half of the movie, the plot of which is entirely original. The second half is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, even down to the structural flaw of an ending that is hampered by an overlong and badly placed romantic interlude.

Running contrary to the "year one" ethos is the presence of Judi Dench as M. With every other recurring character from the series either recast or removed, I am forced to wonder why the role of M was not also recast. She doesn't seem to be playing the exact same character - her M used to be disparaging of the Cold War (and Bond as a relic of it), but now she says she misses those simpler times, and her language is coarser than we are used to - so why keep the same actress? Don't get me wrong, I think Dame Judi is great, but her participation muddies the waters in a way that could prove confusing to casual viewers, making it unclear whether this film is a fresh start or the continuation of a series.

On the other hand, her presence could be taken as evidence of a long-held fan theory that there has been more than one spy called James Bond. Her promotion of the agent in this movie could represent the initiation of only the latest in a long line of agents (one for every actor who has played him) to operate under the code name of James Bond. It would certainly explain how he suddenly got younger between 1985 and 1987!

Though the standout performances are those of Craig and Dench, Eva Green more than holds her own as the aloof, understatedly sexy Vesper, though it is possible to detect a trace of her French accent even though her character is supposed to be British. Mads Mikkelsen rather underplays his role as Le Chiffre, though there's no denying the chilling quality he exudes. However, as an asthma sufferer, I must express my annoyance as yet another screen character fails to use an inhaler correctly! Le Chiffre will have gained little benefit from his reliever because he never holds his breath after taking it. Oh well, at least he doesn't spray it into his open mouth like a breath freshener, as I've seen some people do!

While I'm whinging, this two-disc so-called "collector's edition" contains fewer special features than most of the previous single-disc Bond DVDs. There is less than two hours' worth of features here, including the making-of documentaries Becoming Bond and James Bond: For Real, both narrated by Rob Brydon (whose voice-overs I cannot take seriously after his work on Flight of the Conchords!). Meanwhile, Maryam d'Abo (still one of the loveliest Bond ladies of them all) presents the retrospective Bond Girls Are Forever. Plus there's the music video to Chris Cornell's excellent theme song, "You Know My Name". But no deleted scenes and not even an audio commentary. Anyone care to bet that there'll be an "Ultimate Edition" at some point in the not-too-distant future?

Despite my above reservations, I do like Casino Royale a lot. As a fan of the Timothy Dalton Bond films, I appreciate the efforts of Campbell, Craig, and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis to make 007 more human and the franchise less fantastical. Here, as in Licence to Kill, we see Bond getting injured in a gritty and realistic way. I can only hope that the success of this movie will lead to a widespread reappraisal of the woefully undervalued Dalton movies.

In the meantime, the Daniel doubters (myself among them) have largely been silenced by the merits of Bond's latest adventure, the most daring in years. A right Royale treat.

Richard McGinlay

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