Sunday, November 26, 2006

Movie Review: Casino Royale

On Filmspotting--one of my favorite podcasts--the co-hosts, Adam and Sam, talked about the trailer for the newest James Bond film, Casino Royale. The trailer starts out in black and white with grittier, more realistic scenes of the new Bond, Daniel Craig, kicking butt, followed by color scenes depicting the kind of sprawling action set pieces, chases and such for which the Bond franchise has become famous.

The question the Filmspotting hosts had is that the black and white segment looked interesting, while the color action sequences looked like more of the same from a franchise that has become stuck in a rut of flavorless, unbelievable, over-the-top action. It was not promising to learn that this new Bond would be directed by Martin Campbell, director of the previous Bond's debut, 1995's GoldenEye. GoldenEye was the very image of Bond mediocrity--not an unpleasant film, but rather safe and generic. So what was it going to be: a new direction for Bond or more of the same?

The answer, happily, is a new direction for our favorite British spy. Casino Royale does a Batman Begins to the Bond franchise, re-starting it, showing an origin story of sorts, and bringing the franchise away from camp and toward a more realistic focus. The plot of Casino Royale is simple. There's a criminal called Le Chifre who's a financier for terrorist organizations. He winds up owing his clients a ton of money, so he organizes a high-stakes (like, $10 million per head) poker tournament to make the money back. The new Double-O agent, James Bond, is sent out to make sure Le Chifre loses the tournament, so that the Brits can squeeze him for information on his terrorist contacts.

That's it. There are no death rays or invisible cars in this film--not even the old laser beam-in-a-watch. When this Bond takes a beatdown--or, even more surprisingly, when he kills someone--there's copious blood and a lot of dry cleaning involved. Not to mention fewer one-liners.

This all works with Craig in the lead, for all the same reasons that so many folks thought casting Craig was a disaster. Craig's face, handsome, but craggy and worn even at the age of thirty-eight, reflects the fact that many of the things Bond does aren't pretty. He's the first Bond since Sean Connery whose presence could really be considered menacing. At the same time, Craig's face is expressive enough that he can show the newbie awkwardness with which Bond first dons his signature tux or registers his first kill. Oh, and the guy's cut like a piece of granite, which helps sell those fight scenes.

His supporting cast is a mixed bag. Eva Green is terrific as the first Bond girl ever to have a realistic reaction to someone being killed in front of her eyes. Dame Judi Dench is predictably gruff as M, the only cast member from previous films to reprise her role in Casino. However, Mads Mikkelsen doesn't really register as Le Chifre--a stony poker face is requisite in poker, I suppose, but not such a big advantage in acting.

As much as I enjoyed Casino Royale, it wasn't perfect. There are some serious pacing problems for the film, which is nearly two and a half hours long. As Brother T says, it suffered from Return of the King's problem, where the movie looked like it was over, then started up again, three or four times. The action sequences, some of which were innovative and exciting, often ran a bit too long.

But the length of the film is somewhat justified by all the exposition they pack in between those action sequences. The main body of the movie is based around the poker tournament, the development of the relationship between Craig's Bond and Green's Vesper Lynd, and lots and lots of talking. It was great to see a Bond film in which they actually bother to develop characters, and I'm happy to say that the most tense sequence in any Bond film in at least a decade has absolutely nothing to do with guns, explosives or fighting. That's pretty cool, and well worth a few slow spots in the film.

Recommended, highly recommended if you're a Bond fan. A few random notes:
  • Since it is a vital part of any James Bond film, I have to remark that the opening credits sequence was very disappointing. The playing-card motif looked like something out of the 60's, just without the comforting silhouttes of nude women. Chris Cornell's theme song was just bland, the most forgettable entry since Sheryl Crow's song for Tomorrow Never Dies. Why doesn't someone just put Portishead on retainer for this job? They can't possibly do a worse job...
  • It's nice that someone remembered that James Bond is supposed to be a spy. During the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan tenures, the character morphed into a paramilitary man of action, who didn't seem to have much use for snooping around in other people's affairs, preferring to stick with violence and extreme sports.
  • Martin Campbell has one of the stranger resumes I've ever seen for a director. It includes one movie--a 1991 made-for-cable effort called Cast a Deadly Spell--which I absolutely love, and another--1988's Criminal Law--which is one of the most befuddling and disjointed disasters I've ever seen (Gary Oldman's performance in Criminal Law is so over-the-top that the film is a so-bad-it's-good classic). He directed some of the best episodes of one of the best TV series ever (in season one of Homicide: Life on the Street), as well as some middling, but reasonably enjoyable, action films like the Mask of Zorro and No Escape. The guy was all over the place.

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