Having recently acquired double-0 status British secret agent James Bond is sent on an important mission, entering a high stakes poker game organised by Le Chiffre, financier to world terrorists. Vesper Lynd is Bond's MI6 partner and provides the cash for a make or break game which, if Bond wins, will see Le Chiffre not only out of pocket but at the mercy of the terrorists he owes money to. Can 007 keep his head and emerge victorious while his relationship with Vesper takes a less professional turn, a relationship which will have far reaching consequences for Britain's best secret agent.
You would've had to have been shipwrecked on a remote desert island for the past 12 months not to know that the James Bond franchise was returning in a more realistic style in keeping with the tone of Fleming's novels and with Daniel Craig as the man at the end of the gun barrel. A controversial choice for some he is one of the few pleasures in a film that fails to fully satisfy as either a Bond movie or an action blockbuster. Opening with a daring and stylish precredits sequence shot in moody black and white we find Bond on an assassination mission talking with his target intercut with flashbacks to his first brutal kill, an opening that explicitly sets out the fact that this will be a different 007.
Every so often the James Bond series is given a revamp, it happened when Timothy Dalton was given a licence to kill, it happened after the cosmic capers of Moonraker in the more down to earth For Your Eyes Only. In similar fashion Casino Royale eschews the more fantastical elements of its predecessor, Die Another Day, in an attempt to breathe new life into the franchise with a more faithful version of Ian Fleming's creation. This change in tone is best exemplified by Daniel Craig who portrays 007 as a more fully rounded character, a newly promoted agent complete with his own flaws, a "blunt instrument" as M puts it on his way to becoming the secret agent fans recognise from previous films. Having said that he is still capable of crowd-pleasing feats of heroics as in the adrenalin pumping free running pursuit that kicks off once the opening credits have rolled. It's a masterfully directed and thankfully CGI free set-piece with 007 hot on the heels of a terrorist bomb maker, racing through a building site, vaulting over scaffolding and trading blows on top a crane in a dizzyingly realised high altitude fight scene in suitably exotic Madagascar.
If only the rest of the film had lived up to this bravura opening as, an explosive chase scene at an airport aside, Casino Royale is one of the most uneventful Bond movies in the series. With Judi Dench reprising her role as M and Eva Green giving a strong performance in the vitally important role of Vesper Lynd the acting is faultless, indeed the quieter character driven scenes work well in presenting the development of Bond's character. The problem is that these scenes take precedence over anything resembling an exciting narrative and there is the sneaking suspicion that Casino Royale is little more than 144 minutes of back-story. It grinds to a halt at the midway point once 007 reaches the poker table and apart from a late and lacklustre set-piece in Venice the second half is relatively action free.
Bond's quarry, the terrorism funding Le Chiffre, also fails to live up to the legacy despite being given a customary physical quirk like all the best Bond villains, in this case a scarred eye from which tears of blood are shed. Returning to the more realistic nemesis of the novel could potentially add a sense of very real danger for our hero but he's rather unmenacingly brought to the screen by Mads Mikkelson. More accurately Mikkelson has very little to work with as, bar a torture scene expertly adapted from the source material, Le Chiffre has little impact and doesn't make for a particularly threatening adversary. This Bond is also sans gadgets, there is no Q on hand to provide him with helpful technological wizardry, and instead must rely on his wits. Well he has his mobile phone, which gets overused in some of the film's rather obvious and obtrusive moments of product placement.
Choosing to make a more faithful adaptation of Fleming's first 007 novel is certainly a good idea, and taking Bond back to his beginnings to reinvigorate the series should have been a success, indeed Daniel Craig imbues the character with a swagger and determination that makes for an appealing Bond. Unfortunately the 21st film in the series is an overlong affair that runs out of steam well before the finale. The poorly conceived script is the main culprit, loading the front end of the film with all the action resulting in an uninvolving third act. The darker tone does work but by also tampering with the structure of the series and exorcising practically all the elements that make a Bond film distinct from the average action blockbuster what remains is just that, an average action blockbuster. With a more engaging script that can successfully marry the spirit of previous Bond exploits with this grittier edge and maintain a better balance between high-octane thrills and character development hopefully the best is yet to come because, as the closing credits state with reassuring familiarity, James Bond will return.