Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenplay: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis (based on the novel by Ian Fleming)
Stars: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre), Judi Dench (M), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter), Giancarlo Giannini (Mathis), Caterina Murino (Solange), Simon Abkarian (Alex Dimitrios), Isaach De Bankolé (Steven Obanno), Jesper Christensen (Mr. White), Ivana Milicevic (Valenka)MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S. / U.K.
Casino Royale
Bond, James BondIt seems that, each time I write about a new James Bond film, I feel compelled to quote something I wrote about the previous one. So as not to break precedent, I will offer this compelling nugget I wrote about Die Another Day (2002), the last film to star Pierce Brosnan as Her Majesty’s favorite secret agent: “James Bond is such an impenetrable cultural institution at this point that it’s difficult to imagine that anything interesting or new could be done with his character and the supercharged world of good and evil in which he works, which is perhaps why the last few entries in the series have grown steadily louder and more violent in an effort to simply blow us out of our seats, rather than captivate us with wit, suspense, and style.”

How I sometimes love to be wrong.

Casino Royale, the first Bond film in four years, does exactly that which I thought was not possible back in 2002. (But who could blame me? I was, after all, writing about a movie that featured an invisible car and a fortress made of ice.) Casino Royale does something “new and interesting” with the character by hitting the reset button on the creaky franchise and backtracking to Ian Fleming’s original vision of 007, whom he described as a “harsh, cold” man. Fitting, then, that Casino Royale is based on the first Bond novel, penned by Fleming back in 1953, which also makes it one of the first Bond films in ages to have anything to do with the author’s original novels outside of borrowing their titles and lead character.

Central to the film is the casting of Daniel Craig (Layer Cake), about whom too many Bond fanatics fretted endlessly--his look was too rough, his hair was too blonde, his eyes were too blue, yadda, yadda, yadda. The backhanded criticisms of Craig piled high before anyone had seen a foot of film, yet those who cast him clearly had the right idea because he returns to Bond the sense of edge, hardness, and ambiguity that Sean Connery originally brought to the role back in the early 1960s. This is not the first attempt to make Bond darker (the casting of Timothy Dalton in 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s License to Kill was intended to bring a level of seriousness to the character that had been all but eviscerated by Roger Moore’s increasingly sarcastic take), but it is the most successful.

Craig succeeds in doing the impossible: He takes a cartoon character and makes him human. For the first time in a long while, we sense that Bond is vulnerable. When Craig bleeds, it looks like it hurts; when he’s sweating, it looks like he’s exerted genuine effort rather than having just returned from a careful spritzing by the make-up artist. When he’s tortured, his howls of pain make it feel real even as his refusal to divulge information reminds us of why we are attracted to such characters. In other words, he mixes the fantastical and the grittily realistic, which makes James Bond seem new all over again--quite a feat after 21 official movies of widely varying quality.

Casino Royale purports to be an origin movie of sorts, starting with grainy black-and-white imagery of Bond making his first government-sanctioned kills, one of which is a grisly fight in a bathroom that ends with Bond drowning his opponent in the sink--hardly the dashing, debonair action to which we’ve become accustomed. The film then kickstarts into one of its only real missteps, which is an awful opening credits sequence that attempts to put a new spin on the Bond series’ artsy opening credits tradition by making it look like it was spit out of a PlayStation 3 (which, by the way, is just about the only product by Columbia Pictures parent company Sony not to be highlighted at some point in this film; Sony Ericcson phones and PDAs, a Sony digital camera, and, of course, a whole rack of Sony Blu-Ray players all get their respective close-ups).

The story quickly recovers, though, and takes us into the complicated dealings of a corrupt global black market. The chief villain is a scarred, scheming criminal-for-hire named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) whose activities Bond is sent to undermine. Le Chiffre’s main trade is money, which he gets by any means necessary (borrowing, gambling, etc.). Thus, the film immediately lacks one of the Bond franchise’s most tiresome conceits: a villain’s plans to take over the world, which often involves some kind of destructive mega-weapon. Bond’s goal is not to stop world domination, but to keep Le Chiffre from making tens of millions of dollars at a high-stakes table at the titular casino resort.

This means that, amazingly enough, the film’s centerpiece is a lengthy card game (changed from baccarat in the book to the more contemporary Texas Hold ’Em, with the state moniker dropped for obvious reasons). Director Martin Campbell, who introduced Brosnan as Bond back in 1995 with GoldenEye, successfully makes this extended sequence pop with tension as Bond and Le Chiffre eye each other across the table, their egos at stake as much as their money. Granted, Bond is poisoned at one point and has to fight off some toughs in a stairwell at another, but otherwise the game itself is the focal point.

This is not to say that Casino Royale is lacking in action. In fact, after the opening credits, there is a chase sequence in which Bond is trying to run down a bomb-maker (played by freerunning pioneer Sebastien Foucan) in a Madagascar construction zone that is among the most riveting, enthralling action sequences I’ve seen in quite some time (at least since Tony Jaa’s jaw-dropping stuntwork in Ong-bak). The sequence’s deft physicality and respect for real stunts, rather than green-screen CGI trickery, gives it a weight and excitement that is lacking in so many other action movies. The vertiginous heights at which the action is staged and the sheer force of its energy is refreshing, and it also reflects the harder, grittier edge that Casino Royale brings to the table. More than anything, it reminds us that Bond is a complicated character, not a two-dimensional playboy.

He has his playboy moments, of course, bedding a rival’s wife early in the film and then setting his sights on Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British government accountant who goes from his chief nemesis to primary love interest. The relationship between Bond and Vesper has some real heat and pathos to it, and it also leads to a third-act tragedy that gives Bond’s antics--both violent and romantic--a more human face. We see Bond emotionally wounded, something we’re not accustomed to, and he reacts in a manner that sets the stage for the inevitable follow-up, which one can only hope maintains the same sharpened edge that Casino Royale has used to redefine a character that was in danger of extinction.

Casino Royale 2-Disc DVD Set
Casino Royale is available in separate widescreen and pan-and-scan editions.
Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • “Becoming Bond” featurette
  • “James Bond: For Real” featurette
  • Bond Girls Are Forever (2006) documentary
  • Chris Cornell “You Know My Name” music video
  • Distributor Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 23, 2007

    As would be expected, both the video and audio on this DVD are superb. The widescreen high-definition transfer is sharp, crisp, and rich in colors and detail. Contrast is excellent, especially in the various night scenes, which feature particularly dense blacks without losing too much shadow detail. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is invigorating and active, with strong, consistent use of the surround channels and great balance in terms of music, dialogue, and sound effects. The major action sequences are thoroughly enveloping, and the low end gives the many explosions a good, solid foundation.
    I noticed that, despite being a two-disc set, Sony has not even attempted to label this release a “Special Edition,” so I can only assume that a much more supplement-laden multi-disc set is in the works for the near future. Right now, we have to make do with a couple of featurettes, a 2006 documentary, and a music video.

    The first featurette, “Becoming Bond” (26 min), addresses how the producers secured the rights to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, the process by which they sought a new actor to play Bond, and then the process Daniel Craig went through in order to step into such important shoes. There are numerous interviews, including Craig, director Martin Campbell, producer Barbara Broccoli, all three screenwriters, and numerous cast members, including Eva Green, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, and Mads Mikkelsen. The second featurette, “James Bond: For Real” (23 min.), addresses what I feel is one of the film’s chief strengths: its reliance on good ol’ fashioned stuntwork instead of digital effects. The featrurette details how four major stunt sequences--the Madagascar construction site chase, the Miami airport chase, the Aston Martin rollover, and the sinking house in Vienna--were accomplished. There are quite a few fascinating tidbits here, including how difficult it is to roll over an Aston Martin and the fact that the unfinished hotel used for the opening chase had been spotted by producer Michael G. Wilson when they were filming The Spy Who Loved Me in the same location back in 1977! Also included on the disc is the 45-minute British television documentary Bond Girls Are Forever, in which coproducer Miryam d’Abo (who was Timothy Dalton’s love interest in 1987’s The Living Daylights) goes around the world to interview virtually every living Bond girl, from Ursula Andress to Halle Berry. It’s an interesting documentary, with plenty of intriguing anecdotes about working on the films and the lasting effects of being labeled a “Bond girl.” Lastly, the disc includes the music video for Chris Cornell’s theme song “You Know My Name.”

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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