Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

I'm a James Bond freak. I own every one of his movies on DVD (except Never Say Never Again or the original Casino Royale with Woody Allen in it). I can't really explain my loyalty to this series, since it has had more low points than high. I'd say I'm a fan of Bond more out of habit than enthusiasm.

Habitually, I was at the first showing of Casino Royale on Friday and based on it, I'm once again enthusiastic about the series...

So it's a "good" James Bond flick?

In the entire canon of cinema, Casino Royale rates as merely "good". But Bond movies require they be rated on a special curve and as a Bond film, it rates as "bloody fucking excellent." It's directed by Martin Campbell, who turned in the last quality James Bond film with Goldeneye eleven years ago. Casino Royale trumps Pierce Brosnan's debut, is better than both of Timothy Dalton's entries, and may be the best Bond film since For Your Eyes Only, which in itself was a "reboot" from the series cornier excesses.

The more I think about it, Casino Royale may be even better than For Your Eyes Only. I'd say it's as enjoyable as The Spy Who Loved Me, even though it's difficult to make comparisons between the cold seriousness of this picture and high camp of the Roger Moore era. Amongst the films, Casino Royale is most analagous to the underrated George Lazenby helmed On Her Majesty's Secret Service, though it's clear that the film is trying to draw its inspiration directly from the cold, aristocratic assassin of the Ian Fleming books.

I take it you think Daniel Craig is a pretty good Bond then...

I do. Provided future installments don't take the unfortunate nosedive in quality that Brosnan's films did, he may come up just below Connery. Craig's portrayal of Bond is 180 degrees away from Roger Moore's English dandy and he throws a punch as good as George Lazenby. His dark intensity is similar to Timothy Dalton's, but Craig is more convincing as a ladies man (and is fortunately not saddled by some silly political correctness that insists his character be concerned with things like AIDS). While it's too early to tell on the strength of one film, I think it's safe to say that Daniel Craig will rate high in the pantheon of actors portraying James Bond.

I hear all this stuff about this being a "reboot" of the Bond series. I thought you only rebooted computers...

Well, to certain extent, the Bond films "reboot" themselves each time they hit the screen. While all are parts of a larger mythology, none of them carry over much continuity and are all essentially stand-alone pictures. Still, over forty-four years and twenty-one films, the conventions of the series are almost beyond cliche. The standard Bond film is stale as hell, and Casino Royale adds a much needed injection of character into the series.

The film it is most often compared to is last year's Batman Begins, which successfully explained the motivations of Bruce Wayne and made the idea of a guy fighting crime in a rubber suit almost plausible. Batman Begins also pulled the franchise back from the buttshots and nippled Batsuit retardedness that the previous films wallowed in.

While Casino Royale purports to be one of the early adventures of James Bond, it's not as successful at deconstructing its hero's motivations. I'm not too bothered by the fact since Bond is less a character with a specific history than one with broadly drawn behaviours. If Casino Royale had been a mere checklist of how he got his taste for martinis, it would be nothing but dreadful fan-service. While Casino Royale attempts to show the genesis of his disposable relationships with women, that part is actually the least compelling part of them film.

All right, then how is this Bond better than the other Bonds?

For one, it's the first Bond film in a long time to be, if not believable, then at least plausible. No electrified cybernetic suits worn by genetically altered villians that control satellite lasers (I wish I was exaggerating there, but the last entry in the series actually had that). The villian, Le Chiffre doesn't want to destroy the world, he just wants to make back some money he lost trying to short some airline stock before some African dictators chop off his head.

On first glance, Le Chiffre (played with reedy creepiness by Mads Mikkleson) seems hardly a match for Bond, at least compared to the larger than life villians the series frequently provides. Yet, he's also the most sympathetic of all Bond villians, being that he's mostly out just to save his own hide. Le Chiffre is more like a ferret seeing the world slowly close in on him, and is dangerous because his back is against the wall. He also gets the most painful torture scene in any of the Bond films. I won't spoil it, but it's the type of stuff that would make Jack Bauer cringe and Freud snort another line of coke to take the edge off.

The action scenes are also welcome change. The Pierce Brosnan Bond films too frequently became an exercise in seeing just how much shit could possibly be blown up. While Casino Royale still uses more blank ammunition than the first three Bond films combined, it's action seems more centered around suspense than pyrotechnics. Instead of the same, boring, gadget car chase, we get treated to Bond having to catch a bomber (who also happens to be a free-runner) on foot through an African city.

Most importantly, the plot doesn't seem to be just an excuse to jump from action scene to action scene. Even though Casino Royale is one of the more violent (if not the most violent...that honor goes to Licence to Kill) Bond films, it also works hard to try and resurrect the tuxedo coolness and glamour of the Connery movies. His major confrontation with Le Chiffre takes place over a game of Texas Hold 'Em instead of with firearms...

Texas Hold 'Em? Bond plays Baccarat! What the cock is up with that?

If that bothers you, then the fact that the first car we see him drive is a Ford will probably make you run for the door.

Even though I'm sure the gambling scenes would make an expert at Texas Hold 'Em cringe (I cringed at all the expository dialogue used in those scenes to explain what's happening to those of us who aren't experts) I don't think it's inclusion in Casino Royale is just to cash in on the current poker craze. Baccarat is more a game of chance than skill. It would be akin to claiming to be "skilled" in choosing red or black on a roulette wheel. There is much more skill involved in playing poker successfully. Add to that the fact that baccarat is hardly accessible to the general public and I see its inclusion as utilitarian.

Just thank your stars they didn't decide to make James Bond gay (no shit, that is something that was seriously considered at one point). Not that I'm a homophobe, but a gay Bond would be as wrong as a straight Frank N' Furter.

Right then. So what about the Bond babes?

Well, when it comes to raw physical attributes the Bond series doesn't have much problem picking out hotties. However, Bond girls need to know how to act as well, something the producers seem to forget on a regular basis. Take Denise Richards; a perfectly attractive woman in all respects. But as a Bond girl, she makes me want to gouge my eyes out.

The Bond girl has had many incarnations, as either pure eye-candy, the villianous seductress, and occasionally as his ass-kicking equal (Michelle Yeoh did that so well, having her get rescued by Bond in the end was one of the more unbelievable moments of Tomorrow Never Dies). The more empowered incarnations of the Bond girl are typically used to shut up feminists who carp about the inherent "sexism" of the films, but they need not worry. Even the more passive of female characters (ex. Tatiana in From Russia With Love) are often compelling in their own right.

Bond girls come in pairs, and Casino Royale is no exception. The first one, Solange (played by Caterino Murino) is the wife of a terrorist who gets seduced by Bond in order to extract information about her husband's plans. Though the movie makes it maddeningly unclear whether Bond even bones her before scooting off to Florida to foil the plot, it doesn't matter much. Solange is only good for a single plot point, before she unceremoniously joins the ranks of 007's many doomed lovers.

The main girl here is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who is sent along with Bond to ensure that he doesn't blow the entire Royal treasury as he tries to break Le Chiffre at poker. Vesper is hardly one of the more asskicking Bond babes, but seeing how Halle Berry turned out in Die Another Day, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, for a Bond babe, Vesper is a surprisingly meaty role. While her attraction to Bond is a foregone conclusion, at least it unfolds in the form of dialogue that's actually engaging instead of just the witless trading of double entendres. There is some actual chemistry between Vesper and Bond, something that's been sorely lacking in the Bond series for awhile.

Unfortunately, that chemistry doesn't make it any more believable in the end that Bond would quit MI6 in order to sail around the world with her. This over-long sequence towards the end of the movie makes it immediately apparent to even an unsaavy viewer that there will be a plot twist and that Vesper is toast. This whole domesticating of Bond has been done before in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (for all his faults as Bond, Lazenby cradling his dead wife's body in the car is still one of the best examples of the character's humanity in the entire series) and it doesn't successfully sell how Bond becomes a cold-blooded agent, especially since he's been pretty cold blooded through the entire film. Casino Royale preserves the famous last sentence of the novel, but unwisely has M try to take some of the edge off it through explanation.

Despite what you may hear about this movie, Casino Royale is not particularly deep psychologically. But seeing as it's a Bond film, even attempting it is welcome change.

Any final nitpicks?

Yep. Can't sign off without mentioning that Royale has one of the most disappointing credits sequence in a long time. Not only is the title song (sung by Soundgarden crooner Chris Cornell--let that rattle around in your brain for awhile) disappointing, but substituting the usual nude silhouettes for heavily rotoscoped scenes of Bond brawling just doesn't feel the same or look nearly as cool. Yes, I'm being a typical male here, but Bond films are nothing if not thinly disguised male fantasies.

Still, while I like to nitpick, I must assure you that Casino Royale is worth your time seeing, even if you're not a rabid fan of the series. It isn't a super-radical departure from what has come before, but Bond films typically try to reflect the decades they inhabit. Casino Royale is a mean 21st century update for what is turning out to be a rather mean decade and I hope the future Bond films of Daniel Craig carry on in the same fashion.

Click here to see my review for the previous, craptacular Bond film Die Another Day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review... I loved the film. I just wonder with the kind of expectations we will all now have for the next, will it ever be able to live up??

2:38 PM  

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