Judges Brett Cullum, Jesse Ataide, Ryan Keefer, Mike Pinsky, and James A. Stewart take on the newest Bond installment with full Supreme Court style and passion.
Our review of Casino Royale (2006) (Blu-Ray), published March 13th, 2007, is also available.
James Bond: Vodka martini.
For James Bond's 21st outing in over 40 years, a change was in order. Although Pierce Brosnan was perfectly willing to don the famous tuxedo one more time for what should have been a cleverly timed 2007 release, Barbara Broccoli dropped a bomb. The producing team at Eon Productions wanted to name a new Bond and revamp the franchise, since they finally had the rights and desire to do Bond's origin. After much wailing and gnashing over who would be the next British super agent, a blond English actor was cast. On October 15, 2005, the same day Roger Moore celebrated his 78th birthday, Daniel Craig (Layer Cake) was officially named the latest actor to take on Bond. The announcement said he would go back to the beginning with Casino Royale. Yes, the series would reboot with the first Ian Fleming story and a new attitude. Gone would be Q, Moneypenny, silly lines, endless streams of nubile women, and even the striking, shadowy naked women writhing in the credits sequence. Like a stone-faced poker player, Eon gambled with a bold new vision of Bond for 2006. They came up with a winning hand. The screen's most successful secret agent still thrived, and fans rallied around the film. Casino Royale became one of the most exciting and well-done movies of 2006, and now comes the first DVD release to officially kick off the year I refer to as 007.
Facts of the Case
The plot of Casino Royale follows Fleming's first story to a degree, but more often than not the screenplay branches out on its own, as have all the Bond films. Passages lifted straight out of the written work with dialogue intact are merged with high-fantasy action sequences and bits Fleming never would have considered. Of course the 1953 novel about the baccarat duel to win misappropriated SMERSH funds could never be made modern if done faithfully, and this is not a period piece. It is played as if, after 20 movies, everything is starting right now in 2006, and the only continuity comes from Dame Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), reprising her role as M. It is divided into what feels like three acts, stretching to an unheard of 144 minutes (beating On Her Majesty's Secret Service for the longest Bond running time by four minutes).
In a stunning black-and-white pre-credits sequence, we witness Bond as he qualifies for his "00" status with two kills. He is promoted to the elite designation despite M's misgivings; she thinks it is too soon. His first job is to track down one of the world's most elusive financial backers of terrorism, a slippery Texas Hold 'Em poker addict named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, King Arthur). The trail leads him to a high-stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Intrigue and romance build up, and soon Bond is fighting for his life and that of love interest Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, The Dreamers). She comes in as an accountant assigned to authorize his backing at the high-stakes game which becomes the centerpiece of the film.
Casino Royale triumphantly reimagines the world of 007 to make it grittier and hard-edged. The team behind the franchise has come up with a fresh take on the series and produced a satisfying, mature, and emotionally rich chapter. The fantasy of Bond has come full circle, and the world has demanded the character change. He fights terrorism rather than the Cold War, is more sexually responsible, often fights hand to hand, and takes everything far more seriously. He's the Bond who cares and the man who is still struggling to suss it all out. He's not the superhero we're so used to seeing, and that makes Casino Royale unique. This Bond is more basic, more gritty, and also more of a peacock than he ever has been in the past. Who makes the grand entrance emerging from the surf in a wet suit on the beach? Not the girl, but the "double Oh!" agent in a shocking reversal. For the first time Bond is objectified like a fetish item to provide gratuitous eye candy. He shows the most flesh throughout the film from the sandy beach to an infamous naked torture scene. He's pawed and fawned over throughout the entire film, while the women leer and could eat him alive.
Bond pictures naturally revolve around the main character and how much we believe in the male fantasy being portrayed on the screen, especially when a new actor accepts the role. Sean Connery was 32 when he strolled onto the screen in Dr. No, George Lazenby was 30 for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Roger Moore was a decidedly older 46 when Live and Let Die premiered, Timothy Dalton was 43 when he took on The Living Daylights, Pierce Brosnan was 42 in Goldeneye, and Daniel Craig was 38 for this outing. There were many naysayers for Craig as the film was being produced (which is also a tradition started with Connery, who beat out English actors such as David Niven and Roger Moore), yet Craig pulls off the role in a winning way. He is what makes Casino Royale work, and the film rests on his shapely broad shoulders. Craig was mainly known as a stage actor early in his career (similar to Dalton's legacy), and he plays Bond more brutishly naive than we've ever seen him. He's asked to reinvent the character rather than simply reinterpret him. It's a refreshing switch from the smarmy knowing spy Moore and Brosnan portrayed. Craig has soulful eyes, a rocking body, and an intensely scrunched face that suggests anger and intensity almost the whole ride. He broods, pouts, and kicks ass. Eon Productions was impressed enough to green light another installment with Daniel Craig at the helm. Could we finally get "Risico," "Quantum of Solace," or "The Hildebrand Rarity" up on the screen (all short story titles from Fleming not yet used by the franchise, which stopped using official Fleming names after The Living Daylights)?
Yet where would James be without the support of his Bond girls? Just as Bond himself was retooled, the women have decidedly more sophisticated roles as well. In this film we get French actress Eva Green, previously best known for her work in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreaners. She is a special agent of the British treasury who walks in with a nice swagger from the start. She's tough and aggressive, but always feminine. Putting Bond in his place comes naturally and so does falling for him. She looks a little heavily made up, but is given great wardrobe choices. We never even get to see her in a bikini and she's always dressed to the nines, like our fantasy of women involved in espionage. Green plays her moments well enough that we love her as much as Bond does by the end. She comes close to being one of the most believable "equal matches" for James (my heart will always belong to Diana Rigg for her portrayal of Tracy for that honor). A brief fling is seen early on with Italian pageant queen-turned-actress Caterina Murino, who plays the wife of a mark for the agent. She doesn't last long, but cuts a nice profile riding a horse in a neon green bikini.
The script is polished with a nice character arc for Bond, which includes the dangerous romantic elements of getting tangled with Vesper. Going back to the origin gives the writers a chance to develop Bond's peculiar quirks, and we're given reasons for his later behavior which are believable. Everything seems grounded in reality, even if we do get a preposterous bit of action business now and then. The villain's plan is surprisingly understated and realistic; he's just funding terrorists rather than plotting world domination from outer space or inside a volcano. Bond's approach to take him down is equally more simplistic. At one point during the climactic poker game the British spy doesn't mind his cover is blown, and still tries to take Le Chiffre down with a simple winning hand rather than a gadget or supreme battle. This Bond relies on brain and brawn to win, not clever witty repartee and gizmos.
In what's sure to be the first of many releases, Sony does an excellent job with Casino Royale from a technical standpoint. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is as solid as you'd expect for a movie this recent and then some. Everything is delivered crisply, although the movie looks a touch darker than when it was in the multiplex. Perhaps the contrast has been increased for home theatres to make it more dramatic. There are no problems with digital noise or aliasing. The five-channel surround track is a punishing use of all speakers. It's an active mix that could only be surpassed by the Blu-ray release or a future DTS treatment. The bass and fury of many sequences will cause a little trouble for those with a simple stereo setup. This will be a demo-worthy title in your collection to show off any expensive setups.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a two-disc set, the extras are rather paltry. First up is a featurette which chronicles the casting and development of Daniel Craig as well as the story of the legal struggles for the Casino Royale title and story (it was not part of the original deal with Ian Fleming, who had sold the tale for an American television production back in the '50s). We also get a featurette that offers a glimpse at the stunts, which were largely done practically to avoid the criticisms of relying too heavily on CGI. On this collector's set is a revamped version of the classic documentary Bond Girls Are Forever, which seamlessly adds a new segment featuring both French actress Eva Green and Italian beauty queen Caterina Murino. We've seen all of it before, except for two minutes with the latest Bond girls. Finally there is a music video for Chris Cornell's grungy title anthem "You Know My Name." It relies on a lot of movie clips, interspersed with the wailing rocker flashing his baby blues to compete with Daniel Craig's. Trailers for Casino Royale are not included; however, we do get glimpses at some other big Sony releases such as Spider-Man 3 and a new edition of Spider-Man 2. All in all, we're missing a commentary on the feature proper, and these documentaries are nowhere near the extensive looks offered by re-releases of other Bond films. Could a double dip be far behind? Throw all your chips in for that bet.
This isn't the only time we've had a reboot of the Bond franchise, nor is it the first time they've attempted a harder take on the character with more Fleming in the mix. Isn't this all really a return of the Timothy Dalton era all over again, but with a slicker production? Interestingly none of the production team really has changed. The producers, screenwriters, and composer remain the same team that has been working on James Bond since the start of Pierce Brosnan. The director Martin Campbell was there for Goldeneye, which was a great installment for Brosnan (my pick for his best). These are the usual suspects doing their jobs slightly differently. I wonder if the tone will continue this skillfully over the next installment. There are elements that bug me about this Bond, and they are of the traditional variety.
There are flaws in the movie despite all my raves. Le Chiffre was one of the most colorful Bond villains in the books, and urban legend has it Fleming based him on occult master Aleister Crowley. Mads Mikkelsen is a quite famous Danish actor, but his part seems subdued in the film when compared with the other Bond bad guys. Sure he cries blood, but in the end he's not memorable for much other than what he can do with a rope and a wicker chair. Logic holes are plentiful, and we have to suspend our disbelief in several key sequences. Bond is still not a franchise in which clues add up or the situations feel completely real. The film is 20 minutes too long, droning on in a third act. As much as I love Judi Dench, I'm not sure why they decided to keep her as a holdover from previous entries. Everyone else is gone or recast, and we even have a new Felix Leiter coming into the picture. Since the movie's a clean break from the Brosnan era, it would be time to reinterpret her role as well. Dench does make M slightly harder, but she's the same hard-as-nails boss prone to one-liners. Her appearance is fine and she acts the hell out of it, but her gender sucks the "daddy issue" material from the novel. If we're going to be more faithful to the series, M is a father figure, not an indulgent mother who allows Bond to do whatever he likes while pretending to disprove.
There's no denying the mix of Bond and commerce, even when reinventing the franchise with a more serious tone. As my good friend and fellow judge David Johnson says, there's plenty of the "00—shill" (best said with a Connery accent) to be found. Companies got a great deal having Daniel Craig instantly make their latest product look super-spy sexy. In one early sequence Bond drives a Ford (in a what-the-hell moment!), we see Sony products prominently on display from computers to DVDs, and Omega watches get a shout-out. Bond is still a franchise loaded with commercials and product placement. Seems Bond is always assigned to take out the bad guy and display new exciting consumer items as well. Daniel Craig may be gritty and tough, but he's the first Bond with a deal to sell us all underwear.
Casino Royale is a good James Bond movie, and one of the few that can stand on its own and claim its place as a good solid film on its own terms. Despite any nitpicks, this is one of the best Bond movies in several decades. The story makes sense and the characters arc in a natural way. Die Another Day still reigns financially as the most profitable Bond, but it was seriously overwrought with ridiculous elements and an incomprehensible plot. Thank God for the idea to go back to basics for Casino Royale, even though they certainly could have chugged along with Bond being what he has become. This film feels fresh and dangerous, and returns the series back to its rightful place as the flashiest and best action movie your hard-earned dollar can buy. Bond is an enduring archetype that has morphed through four decades and half a dozen actors. He's always hopefully in step with the times, and this one seems primed for the terrorist era. Making Bond brutal and having him fall in love have made him human and allowed us to care about him instead of simply seeing him as fantasy. He's still a steely angel of death, but one that we have begun to understand. Daniel Craig's Bond isn't ready for cocktails as much as he's ready to go nine rounds with his fists.
There is no doubt James Bond will return, and what of "Bond 22"? As of this writing the rumors are swirling the film will be a direct continuation of Casino Royale and will include a cameo from Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. Seems she had a secret that will lead Bond into his next mission. All of this may or may not come to pass, but thanks to the reinvention of Daniel Crag as Ian Fleming's James Bond, we care again.
Guilty of restoring my faith in the producers of the world's longest and successful spy film franchise. Bond is reborn.
Only James Bond Lives Twice by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky
When we meet James Bond, in the first chapter of Ian Fleming's 1953 novel Casino Royale, he wears a mask of propriety. This is a seasoned operator, an agent "used to oblique control" and constantly calculating all options. On the surface, his eyes radiate "warmth and humour," but when he sleeps, "his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold."
This is not the wisecracking charmer we are used to from years of movies: handsome actors parading around playing secret agents as if Cary Grant had taken up arms against Soviet aggression. Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, particularly the early ones, are racist and misogynistic. Bond is a cruel man whose peculiar tastes (note his directions for his personal martini: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.") mark him not so much a connoisseur as a man who establishes his identity by his appetite. "I hate small portions of anything," he tells his friend and CIA confidant Felix Leiter, "particularly when they taste bad."
But bad taste is part of Bond's world. It is violent. It is full of anxiety over race (Live and Let Die is particularly cringe-worthy). Women are either threats or toys to be used and discarded. (While the new movie of Casino Royale might add a tinge of regret over Vesper Lynd's fate, the Bond of the novel does not equivocate: Bond's "professional mind" only sees the destructive consequences of her actions and recoils in anger.)
If you read those early Ian Fleming novels, you catch the tone right away. Bond is an extension of the pulp tradition, refitted for the Cold War. In hardboiled detective novels, we see this cruel sort of man all the time. Ruthless, racist, misogynistic—a product of the pulp audience's anxiety in a world made too big and confusing in the '20s and '30s. The hardboiled detective is a right bastard, but his opponents—seedy perverts and psychopaths usually—are much worse by comparison. There is no moral high ground in the pulp tradition.
The novels have a few gangsters and madmen among Bond's adversaries, but the crime lords of the pre-WWII detective novels have been replaced by the Soviet Union. SMERSH, Bond's nemesis in the early books (Le Chiffre is their moneyman in Casino Royale), is specifically an assassination bureau. The West—British and American intelligence—is nominally "better" in the Bond novels because they only employ a handful of agents (the 00 designation) as professional assassins. We are the good guys only by degrees. (The new Casino Royale also includes a black Felix Leiter, a tough female M, and more sympathetic treatment to Vesper Lynd's plight in order to mitigate some of the darker aspects of the hardboiled style.) Later in the series, when SMERSH no longer seemed credible as an enemy—I mean, how many times could they miss killing one British agent before looking like a laughing stock?—Fleming would replace them with the cartoonish SPECTRE and supervillain Blofeld.
Casino Royale and the other early Bond novels were, like so much popular culture of the 1950s, reactions to the Cold War, even in their use of hardboiled tropes from decades before. And now, the Bond franchise circles back on itself: Le Chiffre in the new Casino Royale is the moneyman for terrorists, the new ruthless foreign enemy about whom we can be anxious. So we need a hero almost as brutal and cold as they are, but with just enough irony that we can accept him as one of us. We need James Bond.
Daniel Craig: From Character Actor to Sex Object by Judge Jesse Ataide
Amidst all the bellyaching a year or so ago about the merit of the little-known, unconventionally handsome Daniel Craig replacing the foppish Pierce Brosnan in the coveted role of James Bond, I had the opposite concern—would the world's most famous film franchise overwhelm the career of a little-known but supremely talented character actor? The 2004 British gangster film Layer Cake was more than enough evidence that Craig could pull of a role of this type, but gone would be the idiosyncratic thespian of such flawed but interesting projects like Enduring Love, Sylvia and The Mother, and in his place, another bland, blonde superstar in the Brad Pitt mold.
I consider myself a casual fan of the James Bond franchise—I've seen about half of them over the years—but watching Casino Royale I was immediately struck by the fact that the sex god (as Bond always is) has finally become the sex object. Sean Connery's smooth sophistication and effortless sex appeal made him the golden standard for Bonds, but even he can't compare to the overpowering sexuality that Craig brings to the role. For is there another Bond whose body can compare? Director Martin Campbell certainly seems well aware of the fact, and he gamely gives the audience more than a few eyefulls. As a result, the typical tried-and-true (but now extremely tired) formula of using beautiful women as "Bond girls" to justify leering over female flesh has been turned on its head, and it is now Bond who has become the object of the camera—and the audience's—unflinching gaze. This comes to its climax, of course, when Craig takes on the role Ursula Andress made infamous becoming the breathtaking beauty emerging from the clear ocean water. I distinctly remember gasps from the theater audience during this sequence—mine included.
Allowing Bond to become a fetishized object was certainly a massive risk on the filmmaker's part because the film could quickly have become an exercise in narcissism and endless self-absorption. It seems Craig should once again can be credited for avoiding this, as he seems almost completely unconscious of his sex appeal, which is further undercut by the glimmers of emotional vulnerability that occasionally flash across his steely blue eyes. Also aiding in this process is the inspired pairing with rising international star Eva Green: she's certainly a stunner, but doesn't quite hold up to the high bar of Bond girl physical perfection (too many freckles, too much forehead). But she is impeccable where it counts—the chemistry between her and Craig crackles with intensity, both sexually and emotionally.
When all is said and done, Casino Royale takes the character of James Bond to fascinating new territory, and after watching it, my fears about the direction of Craig's career have been put to rest. Or maybe like everyone else I just don't care anymore because I can't wait to see where Craig takes Bond next.
Daniel Craig is good, but he's no Sean Connery by Appellate Judge Jim Stewart
Remember when spy movies were more about washing up on the beach for a romantic interlude with Ursula Andress than about chasing and fighting? Sure, James Bond's still got the beautiful woman at his side, the high-stakes card game, the beach (briefly), and the martinis, but Daniel Craig isn't Sean Connery.
I don't mean that to knock him. I enjoyed Casino Royale a lot. Instead of trying to play Connery's version of Bond, Craig appears to be the first Bond actor to try something new. Pierce Brosnan's movies may have had more action than earlier Bond epics, but he still evoked Connery's style of cool.
There's enough of the original Ian Fleming story to make it familiar to Bond fans, with aspects of both Casino Royale and On Her Majesty's Secret Service included. However, it's a bare-bones version of the story, putting the emphasis on action and danger. There are nods to Bond's martini-loving history, but you get the feeling that Craig will never just sit around sipping drinks. He's also lying low in the quipping department. After all, this is serious stuff.
Craig plays Bond as a man of action. Putting him through his high-speed paces in two set pieces—one a parkour chase through a construction site early on, the other a race to stop an airport explosion—cemented that idea. The replacement of the familiar ending, with Bond heading off into the sunset with a beautiful woman in his arms, with one more job for Bond leaves us with the idea that Craig's Bond is always on duty. This Bond is briefly distracted by a romantic break, but even that leaves us thinking he'll be a more alert agent next time around.
There's a little of Matt Damon's Jason Bourne there, as I've seen noted elsewhere and watched for myself in The Bourne Supremacy during its recent cable TV run, but Craig's high intensity and slight nods to his predecessors help him carve out his own characterization. You wouldn't find Bourne getting sick in the men's room after the hit that earned him his license to kill. Bourne doesn't seem to show that much pain, either; Craig's Bond wears his scars and wounds on his face, and screams with pain when tortured. The stark, noirish black-and-white filming of the opening scene might have been overkill, though, since audiences were already getting the idea from Craig's uneasy performance.
Those of us who grew up watching Sean Connery's James Bond and the slight variations in the hands of Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan will always toast Connery as the best of the Bonds. I'm too used to the shaken, not stirred coolness and gadget demonstrations from Q to ever think otherwise.
However, Craig's kinetic Bond adds a shot of adrenalin to the series that viewers won't easily forget. If the Bond producers stick with him for a while and keep the quality up, it won't be long before a generation thinks of Craig, not Connery, as the Bond to match.
An eye to the future of the Bond franchise by Judge Ryan Keefer
Let me first start off by saying that I really, really enjoyed Casino Royale. I thought that Daniel Craig (Munich) did an exceptional job. The stunts (particularly the pre-credits opener) were outstanding, and the opener was one of the most exciting sequences in any Bond film, bar none. And in this film, adapted from Ian Fleming's novel by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Die Another Day), along with some presumed polishing by Paul Haggis (Crash) and directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye), Craig's Bond is a reboot for the franchise.
Remember when people absolutely freaked out at every little move Craig made before and during the production? As a relatively less fanatic person when it comes to cinematic "mulligans," I can say that a lot of people did well to lower the bar as much as possible on Craig, so that any performance would wind up being a good one. Imagine that he did turn in a good performance, one that strips him of any Roger Moore cheekiness, or Pierce Brosnan stoicism, or any of what Timothy Dalton did, and gives us a Bond that maintains a lot of the cold-hearted viciousness that the character lacked since the heyday of Connery. In a surprising twist, the new Bond also gives us a look inside his soul, into a killer who is aware of just how lonely he is despite the dance that he and Vesper do throughout the film. And the sequence where Bond is tortured lacks any amount of humor towards the villain, and comes out more as hate and vengeance, which was something that was missing in the character for ages. So for the fanboys out there, please, cool your jets next time, OK?
However, Paul Mavis did allude to something in his review that I wanted to flesh out a little bit. He talked about the problem of going back to basics when Dalton tried it, but I'd even go a bit further and suggest that producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (and to an earlier extent, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman) seem to do this same thing to us every time they introduce a new Bond? Think about it, the best Bond film with Moore for my money was probably Live and Let Die, where not only was the aversion to ask for a vodka martini was repeated in Casino Royale, but the stunts played just as large a role in that film. Plus, it was a film that took chances, as not only a mainstream feature, but a James Bond film where the title character dabbled in elements of the blaxploitation genre and was considered daring for its time. Saltzman and Broccoli had waited for years to land Moore and once they did, they gave him as much of the stage to play with as possible. However as Moore got more accustomed to the role, the quality of the average Bond film started to decline, perhaps because Moore was more of a flirtatious joker as opposed to Sean Connery's take charge mentality. And when it got to the point where even Moore was tired of it, that's when the viewer was subjected to A View to a Kill and Octopussy. After Moore came the Dalton years, which, let's face it, were easy come, easy go. Enter Pierce Brosnan who again, was someone that the Bond producers had been courting for years at this point, so why not give him the run of the land? His was the story of a fellow double O agent (played by Sean Bean, Ronin) who felt betrayed that James left him during a mission and swore revenge. It also included a pretty cool opening sequence. And as the Brosnan era wore on, there were another several Bond films of erratic quality, including Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough, which may be best known for having Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist.
So what's the common thread through all of the Bonds that proceeded Connery? They all started off strong. Very strong, but they all floundered, some as soon as the second or third film in the actor's tenure.So what's so different about Casino Royale? Well the stunts, combined with Craig's performance make for some promising headway. And since Craig is signed to a multi-picture deal as Bond and is the second-youngest after Connery to take the reins (for Bond aficionados, no, I'm not counting George Lazenby), I think the era of making a standalone Bond film might have to go the way of the Berlin Wall. If you really want to get back to basics, let the character evolve over a multi-film story arc. Right now, Craig's Bond is still a little bummed that he was betrayed by a hottie who worked inside MI-6, and while he might want some payback, his prime job of getting things and killing people is still at the forefront, so there might be some reconciling to do in his head. He appears to be a ways from achieving the elite spy status that others have achieved, so why not let him work for it?
It seems to make sense, the future of the world's most recognizable action hero is at stake, so let's hope that Wilson and Broccoli are like normal people who really have learned from past mistakes and are bold enough to truly take Bond into unforeseen territory.
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