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GUNNING FOR A NEW 007 `CASINO ROYALE' TAKES JAMES BOND BACK TO THE BEGINNING.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

`Casino Royale'' not only marks the debut of the sixth actor, Daniel Craig, to play the English super-spy. It also makes a radical turn away from the often ridiculous recipe that has served the James Bond series well through much of its 20-film, 44-year run.

The 21st official 007 movie sports a more realistic, even psychologically complex, approach. There hasn't been a Bond this plausible and character-based since the second movie, ``From Russia With Love,'' starring Sean Connery way back in 1963.

And ``Royale'' is something of an origin story that shows how James Bond came to be the perfect, unflappable killing machine we've known and loved since 1962's ``Dr. No.''

``Our series from time to time needs to be rebooted, not only with just a new actor but sometimes to change direction,'' says Michael G. Wilson, who with his stepsister Barbara Broccoli inherited control of the Bond films from their father, Albert Broccoli. ``I think with the last film we found ourselves getting too far away from the basics.''

Though the last four, Pierce Brosnan-starring Bonds had been the most popular entries in the franchise's history, something was definitely amiss with 2002's ``Die Another Day.'' Despite its monetary success, the movie was derided by many as having virtually run off the road, particularly when the Bond movie gadget fetish reached the invisible-car stage.

``Once the car is actually totally invisible, then you're in the realm of fantasy,'' adds Robert Wade, who with writing partner Neal Purvis, scripted the last two Brosnan episodes and ``Royale.''

``The net result was way over the top. People enjoyed it, but there was no way of going bigger than that without going into cartoon land. So it was definitely time to bring it back (to the beginning).''

Conveniently enough, this realization coincided with Wilson and Broccoli's EON Productions finally gaining the film rights to ``Casino Royale,'' the 1953 novel in which author Ian Fleming first introduced Bond. Albert Broccoli and his partner Harry Saltzman were only able to make movies out of Fleming's subsequent novels, and ``Royale'' had been made outside of the official series as an Americanized TV episode and a bad 1967 spoof starring Peter Sellers, David Niven and, yes, Woody Allen.

The book followed Bond on one of his first missions, in which he played a life-and-death game of cards with a Soviet money launderer name Le Chiffre and nearly gave up the spy trade for the love of his life, treasury agent Vesper Lynd.

The new movie updates the story to modern times -- Le Chiffre is now a financier for international terrorists, and instead of the Baccarat variation Chemin de Fer, the high-stakes gamble is a game of Texas Hold 'Em -- but sticks closely to the book's plot and questioning mood.

It dials down everything we've come to associate with the Bond series. High-tech wizardry is pretty much limited to Sony consumer product placements.

The villain is out to save his own skin, not destroy continents. Action scenes are generally more personal, and brutal, than the can-you-

top-this stunt spectaculars of decades past. And while the dialogue is certainly sophisticated and witty (``Crash'' Oscar winner Paul Haggis did a script polish), the quips that regularly sprang from the mouths of Connery, Roger Moore, Brosnan and others have been banished. At one point, Craig's Bond even claims not to care whether his martini is shaken or stirred.

``I wasn't going to become involved unless there was a lot of de-ritualizing,'' says Craig, a well-regarded, serious actor who's known mainly for his heavy dramatic work in such films as ``Sylvia,'' Steven Spielberg's ``Munich'' and the recent ``Infamous.''

``If this franchise is going to go on, it has to adapt. There has to be a face-lift. There's some humor in it, but it's very dry. The familiar beats are there, but they've been (messed) with. It's an altogether different beast.''

To bring this reverse-engineered Bond to the screen, Broccoli and Wilson turned to Martin Campbell, the director of the first, series-reviving Brosnan entry, ``GoldenEye'' (1995).

``They always drag me out of the closet to reboot the system,'' the British filmmaker jokes. ``There were certain tonal things that just didn't fit in with this more realistic movie. You couldn't have (gadget specialist) Q, you couldn't fit those rather wincing lines in. And Daniel is a much tougher, meaner Bond than we had in the past. And the idea was that this was his first mission: He has some rough edges, he makes his mistakes.''

But will the public accept this less-perfect, more human Bond?

There have already been months of resistance, in British tabloids and on the Internet, to the casting of blond, pugnacious-looking Craig as the debonair fantasy figure. Perhaps more crucially, will generations raised on the utterly escapist formula that has dominated the series since 1964's Bond III, ``Goldfinger,'' go for a 007 who bleeds, feels and in some ways fails?

``People always wonder what someone's going to turn out like and how they'll do the part,'' producer Wilson says with a shrug about the Craig controversy. ``We were very confident, we had done a screen test with him and seen all of his films. And he really dedicated himself to it, went into training, gained some weight. But a lot of the public did have doubts about him, and we'll have to see how they respond to him.''

Glenn Whipp contributed to this story.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

Spying the differences

Many changes have been made to the James Bond franchise with ``Casino Royale.'' Here's a brief and in no way complete rundown of the way things used to be and how they are now.

Then: Tall, dark and suave.

Now: Broad, blond and bleeds; though he does take genital torture with impressive aplomb.

Then: Villains command secret armies, out to conquer world.

Now: Villain owes terrorists money, out to stay alive.

Then: Bond girls disposable bimbos (even the rocket scientist).

Now: Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) brainy, emotionally complex and can break a superspy's heart.

Then: Shootouts on skis, runaway hydrofoils, spaceships, underwater armadas ...

Now: Free-running foot chase.

Then: Baccarat.

Now: Texas Hold 'Em.

Then: Jet packs, ultra-lasers, invisible cars.

Now: GPS-connected defibrillator.

Then: Judi Dench as M, earning big paycheck with all the talent in her little finger.

Now: Judi Dench gives her last scene everything she's got.

Then: Preferred martinis shaken, not stirred.

Now: ``Do I look like I give a damn?''

-- B.S.

Uncommon Bond

Traumatic as the long, drawn-out recasting of James Bond was, it was necessary for ``Casino Royale.''

A younger actor was needed to play the unformed Bond, as well as one whose take on the role isn't firmly established in fans' minds.

Nevertheless, those who've worked on the Pierce Brosnan Bond films find the whole situation unfortunate.

``Pierce was very successful in the way he portrayed it, no doubt about it,'' says series co-producer Michael G. Wilson. ``But you couldn't make `Casino Royale' with Pierce, based upon him making four before. It was difficult for us to come to that conclusion on a personal level with him. It was strictly a decision about the direction that we had to take the series to keep it alive in the future.''

``He always wanted a little more character, perhaps a grittier, tougher Bond,'' says Martin Campbell, director of both ``GoldenEye'' and ``Royale.'' ``And of course, the irony is that it went to Daniel Craig, who immediately made it his own. But I did talk to Pierce about two weeks ago, and I must say he was incredibly relaxed. Whatever problems, if he had them, about not getting it seemed to be long past. He was very gracious toward Daniel.

``He hadn't seen the new film, by the way,'' Campbell adds.

-- B.S.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Agent of change

Daniel Craig shakes up the Bond franchise

(2) no caption (Daniel Craig)

(3) Sean Connery

(4) Daniel Craig

Box:

(1) Spying the differences (see text)

(2) Uncommon Bond (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 17, 2006
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