Last time, in “Die Another Day”  we saw the Bond franchise speeding towards certain demise, descending from its characteristic “over-the-topness” into the murky swamps of undiluted camp with lesbian sword-fighters, castles made of ice, invisible cars, a satellite emitting death rays, a villain with diamonds embedded in his cheek and dialogues so full of double entrendes, you would think that Dada Kondke was ghosting the script from the great beyond. There was talk of spinning a Modesty Blaise-type “female Bond’ series based on the Hale Berry character from “Die Another Day” because the men in suits with the cheques had figured it out: the Bond mystique was gone and the cold-war warrior had outlived his times (just like CPM’s Harkishen Surjeet). There were unconfirmed rumours that the Bond franchise would shift to Ooty and Gunmaster G9 (the secret agent who fights mad locust armies, calculator-wielding bionic men and who can hit any G-spot within 9 attempts–hence the G9) would take over the mantle of the man with the license to chill.
And then “Casino Royale”  happens. Martin Campbell takes over the reigns after being shunted out after “GoldenEye”. And Pierce Brosnan gets replaced by Daniel Craig. The result is indisputably one of the best instalments of the 21 movie series—in fact I would go even further and call it one of the most satisfying action movies in recent memory.
I went in with serious misgivings however. Despite not being terrible enamoured of the Bond movies in which he acted, I had nonetheless been a great fan of Pierce Brosnan as he was the picture-perfect embodiment of the Bond ideal—-cynical, ultra-meterosexual British dandy, the kind of man who actually means it when he says: ‘drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above 38F is like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs’, a man who can stop an entire Soviet Army division without creasing his impeccably tailored suit. I was sceptical as to whether the more plebeian-looking Daniel Craig would be able to fit into Brosnan’s polished shoes and bring the suaveness and style that had been epitomized by his predecessor.
He does not even try to. And that what makes ‘Casino Royale’ so refreshing. Throwing away the done-to-death, formulaic trappings of the quintessential Bond movie, Martin Campbell re-invents James Bond—-not so radically different that you would feel cheated but distinctive enough for you to realize that a deliberate detach has been made. Here James Bond bleeds, he is vulnerable, he avoids all kinds of juvenile double-entrendes and unthinkably has his choice of dinner jacket corrected by a female agent. And what’s even more jaw-dropping is that in a particular tense point of the movie when a bartender asks Mr. Bond whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred, Bond says: “Does it look like I give a damn?” What next? Bond sipping Haywards 5000?
It is this conscious attempt to stay off the beaten path that makes ‘Casino Royale’ so enjoyable. If you are going in expecting to see a typically lavish, long-drawn-out action set-piece just before the credits roll, you will be pleasantly disappointed by the brevity and brutality of the opening sequence. If you are expecting silhouettes of sexy ladies dancing seductively in the opening credits…forget it. If you think there will be people hanging from the Eiffel Tower or a kidnapping in the Vatican or an assault on a nuclear silo, then you are mistaken. Of course that does not mean there are no spectacular action sequences—-my favourite being a chase through a construction site in Madagascar—it is just that their spectacularness is less defined by their location but more by their picturization. And unlike most modern action movies, ‘Casino Royale’ realizes that real drama is not realized through grand explosions, fast chases and high body counts. The most dramatic and exciting moments take place in relative stasis—around a poker table where the protagonists face off against each other, with millions of dollars and their very own reputations at stake , where the power of a piercing glance or the action of the gambling chip being placed on the table packs as much punch as that of a bullet from a silenced Beretta.
The credit for making most of ‘Casino Royale’ work has to go to the new Bond, Daniel Craig. Exuding barely-suppressed violence and physical strength (unlike Pierce Brosnan), he cannonballs through the action scenes but is savvy enough to pull himself back and rely on the glance, the smirk and the well-delivered line during the non-action ones. Bond’s nemesis (who sheds tears of blood–perhaps from watching too many Shahrukh movies) is also a vast improvement over last time’s villain Toby Stephens whose evil facial contortions were exactly identical to the “Oh God spare me” expressions he sported when he made love to Amisha Patel in “Mangal Pandey–the Rising.” The production quality is top-notch and special mention must be made of the credits sequence, which is exteremely original and visually stunning.
Summing up, I announce with great joy that, thanks to clever direction and a re-imaging of the Bond persona, 007’s license to thrill has been given a fresh lease of life.
Mr. Bond is back, oh gaon-walon.
And this time, he is taking no prisoners.