The problem with the James Bond franchise wasn't just that it had become ridiculous — although heaven knows it had. The constant re-tooling of a character rooted in the 1960s, the peeling away of his more objectionable sexual, racial and emotional attitudes in the interest of political correctness, had drained 007 of his original, frankly abrasive appeal.
No, the real problem for the producers of the last 44 years of Bond movies was that the pictures were being supplanted by a much more intelligently-tooled product: The "Bourne" movies, starring Matt Damon. Both "The Bourne Identity" (2002) and "The Bourne Supremacy" (2004) were superior in every way to any Bond picture within recent (or, for younger viewers, living) memory. They were the work of excellent directors (Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, respectively), and they had all the classic Bond elements: exotic locales, clamorous action, beautiful (and smart) women — plus unforced emotional dimensions that the latter-day Bonds couldn't equal, try however feebly they might.
So in a way, the radically revamped Bond of "Casino Royale," based on the first of the Ian Fleming Bond books (from 1953), is an act of desperation. But while the director, Martin Campbell, and two of the three screenwriters are Bond veterans, the gamble has paid off. The new movie has none of the gleaming visual style of the original Bonds — its look is raw, and the camera-work sometimes hand-held. There are no cartoonish super-villains, and, thankfully, none of the tiresome one-liners that littered virtually all of the post-'60s films. What "Casino Royale" has instead is Daniel Craig — an actor of commanding intensity — and a commitment to walloping physical action that finally yanks the series into the 21st Century.
Craig's Bond is introduced with no fuss in an opening scene, shot in black-and-white (a nice allusion to Cold War noir), in which our man earns his Double-O number by icily dispatching a British double agent. The movie then flits away to the jungles of Uganda, where a steely character called Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is collecting suitcases full of cash from a corrupt rebel leader. ("I have provided reliable banking services for many other freedom fighters," he says, diplomatically.) Then we're off to Madagascar, and a long, furious sequence in which Bond chases a fugitive bomb-maker (Parkour star Sébastien Foucan) through a maddeningly cluttered construction site — running, stumbling, vaulting and rolling over one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another, with fire and explosions erupting all around. The two men battle each other up onto the bare girders of a half-completed building high above, and then down again, and then they hightail it to the "Nambutu Embassy," where Bond takes on everyone in sight before making off with the bomb-maker's cell phone, on which he finds the number for a mysterious outfit called Ellipsis.
Back in London, Bond's boss, M (Judi Dench again), has gotten wind of all this, and is not happy. Bond breaks into her home and extracts some highly classified information off her laptop (making us immediately question her competence as an intelligence chief). Then he's off to the Bahamas, where he learns that Le Chiffre, who has unwisely lost his dangerous clients' money on the stock market, has set up a super-high-stakes poker game to win it back. Bond determines to foil this plan.
There are complications: a Le Chiffre henchman named Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) and his knockout wife, Solange (Caterina Murino, who wears a hot-pink satin dress about as well as it can be worn without not wearing it at all). Later, as she and Bond roll around on the carpet in his hotel suite, she says she's afraid he's just using her to get close to her shifty husband. "How afraid?" Bond asks. "Not enough to stop," she says. (Solange is the traditional sacrificial Bond girl: she's doomed to die, and does.)
There follows an interlude in one of those "Body World" exhibits filled with embalmed corpses, and then a gratifyingly spectacular fuel-truck chase scene at an airport, and then the big poker game, of course, which is held in Montenegro, and to which Bond is accompanied by a local intelligence agent, Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), and a tough-minded Treasury rep named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who's on hand to manage Bond's gambling funds. Also in the house, with even more cash to kick in, should it become necessary, is Bond's longtime CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (played by yet another new actor in the role, Jeffrey Wright). The Ugandan rebel leader turns up again, too, and he's pretty miffed about his missing money. Bond cools him out in a rousing machete-fight scene in a stairwell.
I have only skimmed the surface here. (There's also an extended and fairly harrowing torture scene which is right out of the Fleming book and very hard on Bond's nether extremities.) "Casino Royale" isn't a great Bond movie, exactly — but when was the last time there was one of those? Eva Green is certainly beautiful, and she's a good actress, but she lacks a certain, uh, vividity. More problematic is Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre, a rather underwhelming villain. He has a scar over one eye, and he sometimes weeps tears of blood (for no pertinent reason), and he occasionally snorts from a metal inhaler (Benzedrine in the book; contents unspecified here). But throughout the movie, he fails to be really menacing.
Daniel Craig, however, anchors the picture with steely charisma. He doesn't seem like a new Bond; he seems like a whole new character — which is not a bad thing. Take away all the 007 trappings, and what you'd still have here would be a top-flight action flick. Is Bond back? Not completely; not yet. But Craig has taken the franchise off life-support, and it'll be interesting to see where he goes with it from here. A sequel's already in the works. Can't wait.
"Fast Food Nation": Patty Meltdown
The readers who helped turn Eric Schlosser's 2001 book, "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," into a best-seller may be disappointed by the movie that director Richard Linklater has turned it into. And critics — who found the book filled with attitude and agenda — may be surprised by how relatively innocuous the picture is (at least until the horrific conclusion).
The book, which is documentary in nature, might have worked better as a documentary film. But Linklater and his co-scriptwriter, Schlosser, have structured the material into a multi-level drama, teeming with characters who are loosely interrelated within a collection of linked stories. In the beginning, we see a group of Mexicans being walked through the sweltering desert and, illegally, across the U.S. border by a Mexican people-trafficker, who delivers them into the hands of a Mexican coyote (Luis Guzmán), who drives them off to the fictitious town of Cody, Colorado, where they are hired, illegally, by a giant meat-processing factory called UMP. There, they work at soul-deadening minimum-wage jobs slaughtering cattle and manning the conveyer belts that bring hacked meat and bloody guts streaming out from the killing floor. These jobs are so exhausting, and the verbal and sexual abuse to which the employees are subjected by a vicious shift boss named Mike (Bobby Cannavale) is so demeaning, that some of the workers are driven to take amphetamines in order to keep going (or, in the case of female employees, to have sex with Mike in order to keep their jobs).
Then there's Don (Greg Kinnear), a marketing wiz with the giant fast-food chain McDonald's — oops: I mean, "Mickey's" — whose executives have discovered that the meat they're receiving from the Cody plant is contaminated with "fecal matter." Don is dispatched to Colorado to investigate. There, at a local Mickey's, he meets Amber (Ashley Johnson), a teenage counter girl, and her boss, Tony (Esai Morales). Tony is a man who feels that he has realized the American dream — by dint of hard work, he now owns his own fast-food restaurant. And he wants to promote Amber, telling her that she, too, can work her way up in the Mickey's hierarchy.
But Amber is having second thoughts about the business she's involved in. She has taken up with a group of student radicals (among them first-time screen actress Avril Lavigne, playing a girl named Alice) who are determined to strike a blow against the UMP plant, which is surrounded by huge pens filled with cattle. Amber suggests the students cut the fences, shoo the steers out and "let them wander free." One night they do just that — but then discover that the cattle have no interest in escape. "They're not going anywhere!" the baffled Alice shouts. "Don't you want to be free?" Amber asks an uncomprehending cow. "Next time," says one of the angry radicals, "we'll bring cattle prods." The mission has been a complete bust. "How come the bad guys always win?" Alice whines.
As an indictment of the fast-food industry, the movie seems to miss its target almost completely. Responsibility for the unlawful hiring and exploitation of illegal immigrants, and for quality-control meat inspection, belongs to various arms of the government, like the departments of Labor and Agriculture and the INS. (When the management of Mickey's detects contamination in its beef, it doesn't just ignore the information, it sends Don to check it out.) Similarly, collusion between politicians and the meat-packing industry to circumvent health standards (something alluded to in the film) is a matter for prosecutors, not burger-makers (unless the burger-makers are complicit). And anyone who thinks the use of energy-boosting drugs is exclusive to overworked meat-packing employees has probably never known a long-haul trucker.
Ultimately, the movie's objection to fast food seems mainly aesthetic — how can people eat this awful stuff? The film portrays fast-food consumers as witless hicks, and its showbiz condescension is sometimes breathtaking. In one slumberous scene, Amber's Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke) recalls when the first Mickey's opened up in town, and how cool everybody thought it was. But then, he says darkly, came the deluge: Wal-Mart, Wendy's, Hardee's, KFC, IHOP, Target. (Target?) True, these are businesses rarely patronized by filmmakers, actors and other well-heeled celebrities, but coming from Pete, a blue-collar guy who might be expected to appreciate their low prices and convenience, such castigation rings tinny. In another scene, two of the Mexican workers — Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her boyfriend, Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) — have strolled out one evening to sample the cornucopia of local fast-food franchises. On the way home, Raul says, happily, "Next week, we'll try pizza." The implication here is that these are benighted people, desperately in need of the sort of culinary edification that might best be provided by ... well, by the men who wrote this movie.
The picture's most startling scene, however, in terms of pure elitist entitlement, is the one in which Don drives out to a sprawling ranch owned by a grizzled character named Rudy (Kris Kristofferson), who's meant to embody the bedrock values of the Old West. Don admires Rudy's enormous spread, which stretches as far as the eye can see. Then Rudy leads him to a low hill, over the top of which he sees, in the distance, a new housing development, perched right on the edge of Rudy's property. "Local ranchers lost control of the land," Rudy grumbles, "because they sold it to real-estate developers."
This scene almost beggars response. Local ranchers didn't "lose control" of the land. They voluntarily sold land that they owned to developers, who in turn built houses on it in which people with less money than Rudy now live. Rudy objects to this because, essentially, they're spoiling his view.
Near the end of "Fast Food Nation" there's a grainy sequence (it looks like guerrilla footage) in which animals are slaughtered in the meat-packing plant. We see them stunned with guns before having their throats slit, their hooves chopped off, and the hides ripped from their bodies. There's a closeup of a freshly-skinned cow skull with its popped, lidless eyes peering out at us. It's a scene with powerful holocaust overtones, and it immediately brings to mind the vegetarian mantra, "Meat Is Murder." Carnivores in the audience might well reconsider their dietary habits, at least briefly.
Vegetarianism is an honorable moral stance (Linklater is a vegetarian himself), but it's not clear why the horrors of the slaughterhouse should be laid exclusively at the corporate doorstep of the fast-food industry. What about the $50 sirloins served in big-city steakhouses, or the $150 cuts of Kobe beef to be found in fancy Japanese restaurants? The movie trivializes important issues — especially the mistreatment of immigrant laborers — by jamming them together to mount what feels like a class-based assault on the inexpensive hamburgers eaten by people with not a lot of money and not a lot of time to spare. At heart, the film is a vegetarian manifesto — a worthy enterprise, perhaps, but, with its overabundance of characters designed to make predictable polemical points, not much of a movie.