Casino Royale starts at the beginning as James Bond (Craig) takes his first baby steps as a Double O agent. His first assignment is to track down a terrorist cell in Madagascar but he’s a bit of a loose cannon and things quickly go awry. Bond’s superior M (Judi Dench) is soon regretting giving the arrogant Bond the promotion. Nonetheless Agent 007 takes it upon himself to follow a lead to the Bahamas and discovers that all nefarious dealings point to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) a nasty fellow who has money ties to terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre is planning to raise money in a high-stakes poker game at the Le Casino Royale in Montenegro—and Bond gets in to beat him at his own game. Along with a hefty bankroll M also sends the beguiling accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep Bond in check. They are skeptical of each other at first but as the danger escalates it becomes apparent there is a growing attraction—and affection—between them. Natch. Can these two crazy kids make it work immersed in the cutthroat world of international intrigue? Well this is Bond after all—and we know how he ends up. Craig absolutely gets it. Whatever doubts people may have had when Craig was first announced as the new Bond are washed away in the first few minutes of the film. Sure if Casino Royale was anything like the last few Bond movies then maybe the understated Craig wouldn’t have fit in as well. But this is a different Bond. The British actor plays him not as the icon we’ve come to know but as a flawed man warts and all who flies by the seat of his pants isn’t necessarily refined and yes can even fall in love. Craig also raises the acting bar. His brief scenes with the impeccable Dench for example simmer and pop unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Bond film. Danish film star Mikkelsen (Pusher) is quite effective as the main baddie with a particularly gruesome physical malady while the always good Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) shows up as CIA Agent Felix Leiter. The one weak link unfortunately is Green (The Dreamers). She certainly looks the part of a “Bond girl ” but her Vesper is supposed to be whip-smart able to engage in witty banter with 007 and the French actress can’t quite pull it off. Craig needs more of a challenge. Too bad Judi Dench isn’t 30 years younger; she would have been perfect. Casino Royale the first book in the Ian Fleming series is basic Bond 101. Director Martin Campbell--who helmed Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan’s first and probably best foray into the franchise--strips it of all the far-fetched gadgets (save for a few new-fangled PDAs) and over-the-top action sequences leaving just good clean action devoid of any invisible cars armored Russian tanks and the such. Oh wait Bond does use a bulldozer at one point but that comes briefly in the middle of a rather extensive and hair-raising foot chase. It just proves action can be just as riveting without having to completely suspend your disbelief. Casino Royale is also rare in that it shows how Bond became THE James Bond the one we’ve seen in countless movies over the years in the stylish tuxes drinking the martinis driving the Aston-Martins and bedding all the beautiful women. Casino Royale breathes new life into the franchise and one can only hope they can keep up the good work without once again lapsing into the ridiculous.
The key ingredient to any Bond flick is the quasi-plausible globe-trotting plots where on more than one occasion you are asked to suspend your disbelief. This is particularly true for Die Another Day where reality assuredly takes a back seat--almost too much. The action starts in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is on an undercover mission to stop a war-loving North Korean colonel--but is found out. Cut to a high-speed hovercraft chase (is there anything James can't drive?) where Bond seemingly dispatches the colonel but ends up being captured and tortured. Agent 007 gets out and soon finds himself on a quest to find the person who set him up. All points--including some rare diamonds and a tie to genetic engineering (Note: This is one of the many moments where you say "Oh come on!")--lead to millionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his ruthless right-hand man Zao (Rick Yune). They eventually show him firsthand an ultimate high-tech global-warming device capable of starting WWIII if used properly. But let's not forget about the Bond girls. James hooks up with Jinx (Halle Berry) a beautiful but deadly American agent and Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) Graves' personal assistant who is much more than just someone's flunky. It all culminates to an explosive showdown.
The dashing and good-looking Brosnan embodies the true spirit of the suave British super agent--except this time around he is finally showing a little wear and tear. Don't get me wrong Brosnan still looks great doing the stunts and wooing the women but he's getting a little long in the tooth for all this spy stuff--and it slightly detracts from the movie. Interestingly Die Another Day is one of the first times you get to see Bond tortured and beaten. It is perhaps one of the more real moments Brosnan has ever had as Bond and the 49-year-old actor handles the chores well. But it may be time for him to hang it up and move on (and the actor admits this). Berry plays the buff Jinx with relish. This Oscar-winning beauty takes your breath away from the first time you see her coming out of the water Ursula Andress-style but she manages to kick some major butt throughout the rest of the movie and loves every minute of it. Pike as Miranda Frost is another rough and tumble beauty who can spar with the best of them. It's nice to see the Bond girls getting tougher and tougher. The villains are adequately over-the-top. Stephens (who is British thesp Maggie Smith's real-life son) as Gustav Graves has a truly menacing snarl which he uses to full advantage while Yune (The Fast and the Furious) as sidekick Zao makes Goldfinger's Oddjob look like a pussycat. Judi Dench as M and John Cleese as Q always add a nice element.
Along with grandiose plots the other key factor to a good Bond movie are the action sequences. They must be fast-paced highly implausible but nevertheless spectacular. Die Another Day doesn't disappoint. Even the opening credits have a unique feel. As Bond is being tortured women dance seductively around him while Madonna belts out the theme song--it's well done. New Zealand director Lee Tamahori (Along Came a Spider) starts the film off with a pretty exciting surfing sequence (is there anything Bond can't do?) and continues the trend with the hovercraft chase scene.The best part of the movie however takes place in Graves's lair an ice palace in Iceland where Bond has to do some fancy driving on ice to escape the bad guys and rescue the damsel in distress. The entire chain of events looks amazing (save a scene with Bond parachute-surfing around--icebergs? Come on!) Day also pays homage to several early Bond films including Dr. No Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. It's the lag time between the action where the film falters. There is far too much pontificating in this Bond film. Better to just keep to the business at hand. Only the last action sequence seems too far off-base from reality even for a Bond movie. I say that intellectually but it still keeps you on the edge of your seat watching. You can't help it.