CASINO ROYALE

Review by Mark Walters

 

Anyone who knows me well can tell you I'm a huge James Bond fan.  Aside from owning all of the movies, which I've watched way too many times, I've also amassed a large collection of original theatrical posters and promo items from the past outings.  My first Bond flick in the theater was A VIEW TO A KILL.  I was too young to realize how corny those Roger Moore outings had become, but I still have a soft spot for that particular installment.  Following Moore was Timothy Dalton, who I've been a strong supporter of.  Dalton embodied the character the way author Ian Fleming created him to be.  But the scripts Timothy was given either lacked proper supporting characters, or were just too much of a departure from what audiences were used to with his predecessor.  While many still feel that Sean Connery was the only perfect incarnation of 007, hardcore Bond fans to this day herald George Lazenby's one and only outing in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, saying that film is the best overall portrayal for the beloved character, and the best story from the big screen outings.  After Dalton's second and last film LICENCE TO KILL in 1989, there was a five year gap before Pierce Brosnan took over the role, initially meeting with critical and fan praise, but ultimately digressing into lackluster by-the-numbers scripts.  His last outing DIE ANOTHER DAY started out promising in its first hour, and seriously lost steam in its second.  So producers decided to really mix things up, and despite the financial success of the last four films, drop Brosnan and hire a new face for the classic character.  While many speculated that Clive Owen would win the role, the part eventually was given to Daniel Craig, who has appeared in films like ROAD TO PERDITION and MUNICH, and turned in an impressive lead performance in LAYER CAKE.  Craig is about as far as you can get from what's come before, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Initially there was a lot of cynicism on the part of both fans and critics.  But word has it that Daniel is just what the franchise needs.  CASINO ROYALE represents the beginnings of Bond.  This is how 007 became the man we all already know.  So the question on everyone's mind is "Does it work?"

CASINO ROYALE opens with James Bond (Daniel Craig) making a hit on a corrupt contact of the British government.  This leads into another mission where he's assigned to observe a bomb maker named Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan).  The mission gets sloppy, and his boss M (Judi Dench) orders Bond to lay low for a bit.  But far be it from 007 to stay out of trouble.  Information from his recent mission leads him to a man named La Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who is using the money of various terrorist groups in poker games, where he always wins, thus helping to finance terrorism.  M decides that since Bond is already in the middle of everything, he should find his way into a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, with hopes of thwarting La Chiffre's plans.  Along the way he is assisted by a lovely agent named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and another agent named Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), who seems to know all about what's happening in these secretive card games.

 And it's good!  I'm happy to say that this outing works on a whole lot of levels.  Craig is James Bond, period.  Gone is the suave pretty boy that Brosnan brought us, and forget the charming sleekness that Connery created.  This James Bond is simply a bad-ass spy who will just as soon kill you as look at you.  He's serious, he's deadly, and he's determined beyond belief.  This is what Ian Fleming created.  This is James Bond.  Craig has a steely-eyed stare that pierces through you with every glance.  He's sure of himself without coming across as cocky.  The action scenes, particularly the hand to hand fight scenes, are impossible to imagine with another actor.  Pierce could never have done what Daniel does here.  His performance is exactly what it should be, and all the naysayers should shut the hell up right now.  You also have to keep in mind that this is Bond in his earliest stage.  He's not entirely confident with all of his actions, and he's not afraid to resort to violence when strategy fails.  I love this 007.  I loved him in the books, and I'm glad to see he finally made it to the screen the way Fleming intended.  Now for the rest of the cast.  Mads Mikkelsen is creepy enough as La Chiffre.  While his appearance may seem un-shockingly familiar for these movies, he sells it with subdued perfection.  There's not a lot of exposition with him, but what is there works.  One particular character trait involving his bad eye is creative and memorable, and should definitely make an impression in the hall of Bond villains.  This is a guy who is strictly business, and isn't afraid to do his own dirty work.  But oddly enough, unlike Bond baddies of the past, he's essentially a pawn in him own business, and it's in his best interest to do his job well in order to protect his own life.  Judi Dench gets some nice character moments as M, showing some of her frustrations with Bond outside of the office, and exhibiting a more human side, regardless of how cold her orders are while being given.  She's the best she's ever been in this role.  Eva Green is a great Bond girl, despite being pretty by the numbers with her character.  There's a great emotional transformation used here, and we're shown for the first time the damaging psychological effects of witnessing Bond's violence.  I've always wondered why some of the previous Bond girls accepted 007's shocking actions with little or no reaction.  This is a much more realistic type of damsel in distress, and it's refreshing, much like Craig's take on his character.

There are some nice supporting performances.  Caterina Murino is strikingly sexy as Solange, the unsatisfied significant other to one of Bond's case leads.  She's not in it much, and doesn't have a whole lot to do, but still makes quite an impression.  I love Giancarlo Giannini, and I'm glad to see him back on the big screen.  He's a nice choice for a frequently used contact to our hero.  I'm also glad to see the always great Jeffrey Wright as CIA operative Felix Leiter, a classic character from the franchise.  He's used sparingly, but has a very appropriate impact on the story.  I'm hoping there's more from Jeffrey as Felix in the next few films.  It's a character that sadly disappeared in the Brosnan outings, and I'm really glad they've brought him back into the fold.  Look for a cameo by producer Michael G. Wilson as a corrupt police chief, and a "blink and you'll miss it" cameo from Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson.

There are only a few action sequences, but they deliver plenty when they occur.  The crane fight early on with Sebastien Foucan is incredible, and a great way to kick things off in the story.  We see Bond's determination in this sequence, and it's conclusion tells us a lot about his character.  Another chase at the Miami airport is intense and yet another effective reinforcement of what this 007 is all about.  About an hour into the film is where we end up at the casino, and we're there for quite a while afterward.  Some might find this part of the film a bit drawn out, but keep in mind this is what the story revolves around.  This in many ways is where Bond becomes Bond.  It's where he first gets his tux, and faces off with a major baddie in a game of wits.  There are some interesting exhibits of character throughout the casino segments, and in many ways this is the film's biggest strength.  Director Martin Campbell, who previously did a great job with Pierce's first outing GOLDENEYE, does a terrific job making this Bond film very stylish without being over the top.  It may not be as flashy as what we've seen before, but it's solid as a 007 movie, and Campbell should be commended for his work here.  He knows when to turn on the adrenaline, and when to pull back and just show us the characters being who they are.  Composer David Arnold complements the story with his inspired score.  Arnold has previously provided Bond scores reminiscent of John Barry's phenomenal work, but this time he's nailed it.  It's like Barry for present day, and it's exactly what this new Bond requires.  And that title song by Chris Cornell?  Many panned it when it was released a month or so ago, but once you hear how David Arnold incorporates it's sound into the score, you'll find it too works for this movie.

 So are there any weak points?  A few, but not enough to ruin the experience.  I was shocked to see no gun barrel opening... well at least not what we're used to.  The opening credit montage isn't quite as impressive as I'd hoped for, though it ends well.  And the runtime is a bit long, not unusual for a Bond film, but two hours and twenty-four minutes can be risky.  Could they have shaved some of that down?  Absolutely.  But as it is I really enjoyed this outing.  It's not the best Bond film ever, but it is really, really good.  And Craig is a big part of why it works.  I don't know that I could've accepted Clive Owen in this particular film.  That's not to say he wouldn't have made a good James Bond, but the producers knew what they were doing with Daniel.  I think 007 fans will be pleased, and moviegoers will enjoy what's presented here.  There are some definite issues that hardcore fans can't help but consider.  For example the timeline, seeing as how this "first outing" takes place in present day, so we have to ignore the dated properties of previous outings.  And then there's M, who was brought in by Judi Dench with GOLDENEYE, and even specified there as a replacement.  But here she's supposed to be the one who gave 007 his status?  I understand that producers wanted to include her for audience familiarity, but some creative writing could've helped things make a little more sense.  I would've liked the concept of James Bond being more like a code name, given to various skilled agents over the years, which would've explained the different men playing the role over so many years.  That kind of storytelling could've also allowed for an incredible cameo of Sean Connery passing the torch to the new "Bond" in this film.  Just think of the possibilities.  They could've had the new Bond enter a darkened room at the end to meet the first name holder, who gives him a bit of friendly advice.  Too bad I don't write these things.  Look at this as a beginning of a new era.  Where it goes from here is anyone's guess.  This story sets things up for sequels nicely, and could potentially allow what follows to be appropriately connected with this story.  I look forward to more of this Bond.  They've set the bar high, now let's see if they can keep it there.

BIGFANBOY.com score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, I give CASINO ROYALE a 9.


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