New Bond's Stormy Virility Trumps Connery and Moore

Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by

Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming, happens to be the 21st James Bond movie, as well as the very first that I would seriously consider placing on my own yearly 10-best list. Furthermore, I consider Daniel Craig to be the most effective and appealing of the six actors who have played 007, and that includes even Sean Connery, from his (and the franchise’s) debut in 1962 with Dr. No, through From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967) and, after a one-picture hiatus, Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

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Curiously, that single non-Connery hiatus Bond, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—with the much-underrated George Lazenby as 007 and the exquisite Diana Rigg as the Italian countess he loves, marries and mourns—is actually my second-favorite entry in the series. Certainly Roger Moore was a comparatively lightweight Bond with his seven appearances in the series: Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985).

Mr. Moore was succeeded, briefly, by Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989). Actually, Mr. Dalton came the closest to Mr. Craig in projecting stormy virility, and it was rumored that he did most of his own stunts. Still, Mr. Dalton’s vehicles were considered impediments to the flagging but still profitable property. Pierce Brosnan stepped into the breach with Goldeneye (1995), ably directed by Martin Campbell, who was to direct Casino Royale more than a decade later. Indeed, Mr. Brosnan was graced with unusually ambitious directors for his next (and last) three films in the franchise: Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Michael Apted’s The World Is Not Enough (1999) and Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day (2002).

My recurring problem with Mr. Connery’s Bond vis-à-vis Mr. Craig’s—admittedly in retrospect—is that, though Mr. Connery was the coolest and smoothest of all the Bonds, his coolness and smoothness would curdle over the course of a movie into a smug facetiousness. I must hasten to add that this wasn’t true of most of his non-Bond roles.

Of course, Casino Royale has been adapted from Fleming’s first novel about 007, and so the character can profit from the vulnerability of a novice agent pitted against an ever more evil world. Bond’s relationship with his superior, M (Judi Dench), in London gets off to a rocky start when he blows up an African embassy in Madagascar after a spectacular pursuit of an agile bomb-dealer named Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan). The joke is that the whole city seems to be under construction, enabling Bond and Mollaka to exploit every unfinished construction site and skeletal edifice in their chase. The grim-faced Mr. Craig has already been introduced as a deadpan killer with a sense of humor about his comparatively new vocation, but it is a dry-as-dust humor that he purveys. I must confess that at first I couldn’t tell him apart from the villains in the crowd scenes—and this is good for a supposed undercover agent. As he flits about with seeming effortlessness from Madagascar to the Bahamas to Montenegro to Venice for the movie’s watery climax—part of the franchise’s formula—he never loses control of a character who manages to be stoical and feverish at one and the same time. Even when he is poisoned to within a heartbeat of death, and then later tortured in the most imaginatively painful way, some irreducible part of Mr. Craig’s Bond remains on the alert.

The poisoning occurs during a titanically high-stakes poker game in a Montenegrin gambling casino—a sequence that seems unusually prolonged, possibly to justify the title of the film and its opening playing-card credits. (There are spoilers to follow, so readers of tender sensibility should avert their eyes here.) After the high suspense created by visual cues attesting to the hypnotic power of kings and jacks, Bond finally wins his showdown with the arch villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), with a low-black-card straight flush beating Le Chiffre’s high-card full house. It helps that Le Chiffre is afflicted with an ocular problem that causes him to shed tears of blood; it also helps the film that Mr. Mikkelsen is slightly better looking than Mr. Craig, making the battle between good and evil onscreen visually more complex.

From her first briefing of 007, M makes it crystal clear that no ideological issues are involved in Bond’s hunt for arms merchants in the bomb trade; the only motive for Le Chiffre, his cohorts and even his enemies is money. This disclaimer neatly severs Casino Royale from the never-ending war on terror, both here and in Britain, which may be a good thing for the film—Bond is thereby released from getting an uncharacteristically patriotic gleam in his eye as he disposes of his antagonists.

What distinguishes Mr. Craig’s Bond from all the others, except Mr. Lazenby’s, is his expression of both passion and grief after winning and losing Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, who seems for a time to have betrayed him—though, as it turns out, she has saved his life, not once but twice. The relationship begins on the comically sarcastic note that always bodes well for any movie relationship. Vesper displays a flair for the veiled insult, and Bond responds with a faintly amused curiosity. But he has been chastened by a previous affair that has gone badly for the married woman he recklessly bedded. The world he lives in is too dangerous for him to lightly contemplate another romantic adventure, but the rush of violent circumstances drive Vesper and Bond into each other’s arms, where they remain until their prior alliances rise up to engulf them. That Bond so convincingly retains his composure and sang-froid throughout all the horrors that ensue is a testament to Mr. Craig’s abilities as an actor, and to Mr. Campbell’s astuteness as a director.

People might think that my guiding mantra for Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and most other movies as well) happens to be cherchez la femme. But change that to aimez la femme and I’d plead pleasurably guilty, even as I wholeheartedly recommend Casino Royale as one of the best pictures of the year—not that it will need much help at the box office.

Southern Belles

Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning, from her own screenplay, gives Ashley Judd her best role since she sizzled in the 90’s in Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise (1993), Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and John McNaughton’s Normal Life (1996). Ms. Adams shot her country-folk character study in North Little Rock, Ark., where she grew up, and it shows in her lack of malice and condescension toward her subject. For that matter, Ms. Judd grew up in eastern Kentucky, and so there isn’t much that the film’s protagonist and its writer-director don’t know about the real-life background from which plaintive country music springs.

We are introduced very quickly to the disreputable, one-night-standish side of Ms. Judd’s Lucy Fowler in a disheveled motel bedroom by the dawn’s ugly light. Lucy is trying without success to kick out a growly pickup that she has slept with, and so she dresses quickly and leaves him hurling insults at her for not showing more early-morning interest in him. Then a strange thing happens: She walks into the motel office and insists that the night’s frolic be put on her bill, even though her “date” has gallantly paid for the room in advance. We thereby learn economically that Lucy brings different pickups to the motel on a regular basis, and thus are spared the necessity of enduring too many of these grubby nights and early mornings.

Our next surprise comes when Lucy drives for what seems like an eternity to the neatly kept cottage that she shares with Kim (Laura Prepon), an apparently nice girl who clearly gets along with her even though she doesn’t go for Lucy’s brand of night-crawling and heavy drinking.

Our third surprise comes when we suddenly see Lucy in a hard hat, surveying a field with her boss, Owen (Stacy Keach), and discussing a shady civic ordinance that will cost Owen’s firm a considerable amount of money. Lucy’s job, it turns out, is that of a contractor involved in building cement foundations.

We are gradually becoming more interested in this unexpectedly self-supporting and self-sufficient woman, who is apparently battling some mysterious demons. She is certainly not the usual female victim of society’s shortcomings encountered in movies, but rather a spunky single woman who can dish it out and take it, too. But why is she so tormented?

We learn very gradually that Lucy’s mother is dead, and that her father, Lowell (Scott Wilson), is a heavy-drinking recluse who has never gotten over the guilt he feels for having driven his wife to an early grave through his womanizing. Lowell has never been able to communicate with his daughter, and he never manages to do so here—that would be too easy and sentimental. He does allow Lucy to accompany him to church for Sunday services, where they listen to a preacher talking intimately about Jesus without seeming ridiculous.

Finally, Lucy runs into a one-night stand named Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) who seems to promise more. He persuades her to go frog-fishing with him, then cooks the frogs for Lucy and Kim back at their place. The two women make very comical faces upon tasting this strange “delicacy,” which they never really considered a culinary treat from the outset. Somehow, this trivial setback seems to be a forerunner of deeper problems between Lucy and Cal.

Later, when Lucy returns to her favorite hangout, the Forge, where she drinks to the strains of country music on the jukebox and shoots pool with another older father figure in her strangely chaperoned existence (at least until she manages to pick someone up for another brief encounter), she bumps into Cal again—just as the old “date” we saw in the beginning begins pawing at her for an encore. She resists and Cal intervenes, and gets into a brawl with the man—which unaccountably infuriates Lucy. She then agrees to go off with another, less aggressive suitor, and Cal leaves in disgust.

But then comes the final surprise, which clinched the movie for me: When Lucy gets in the stranger’s car, she bursts into tears—and the stranger politely asks her to get out, because, as he says perceptively, she obviously has unfinished business with Cal, and he doesn’t want to get in the middle of it. He then drives off alone. I can’t remember ever seeing such a demonstration of generosity on the part of filmmakers toward an easily stereotyped minor character in a movie.

Unfortunately, Come Early Morning seems on the verge of disappearing into the flood of holiday-season releases. I was drawn to the movie, which happens to be Ms. Adams’ directorial debut, because I remembered the intelligence and feeling of her brilliant performance in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997). If and when Come Early Morning ever resurfaces on DVD, order it immediately—and while you’re at it, order Chasing Amy too, if you haven’t already seen it, and enjoy a dandy double feature with two country girls of enormous talent.

New Bond's Stormy Virility Trumps Connery and Moore