Judge Dennis Prince believes many people know his name; that's why he's so surly no one has sung a song about him yet.
Our review of Casino Royale (2006), published March 13th, 2007, is also available.
M: I knew it was too early to promote you.
When Daniel Craig was announced as the next James Bond, many in the press and public expressed their disdain at his promotion to the most coveted role in motion picture lore. Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, however, knew that their franchise was in need of revitalization, what with Pierce Brosnan beginning to look as old a Roger Moore and the series formula becoming weighed down under its own excesses and missteps. In 1999, EON Productions, Ltd. secured the rights to Ian Fleming's original Bond adventure, Casino Royale, a property that had been tied up since 1954 when Fleming himself sold it for a mere $6,000 to Gregory Ratoff, whose widow in turn sold it to Charles K. Feldman in 1960. In the resolution of the legal battle between EON and Sony Pictures, Wilson and Broccoli gained control of the long-coveted film rights. At last, the true "first James Bond adventure" could be seriously adapted for the big screen, a huge gamble that could enable the series a fresh start born on a solid financial return.
In what will undoubtedly be marked as another first, Sony is releasing Casino Royale as the flagship 007 adventure mastered in high-definition via their proprietary Blu-ray format—hoping their "fresh start" in the high-def technology game might likewise pay off.
The cards have been dealt…
Facts of the Case
James Bond (Daniel Craig, Layer Cake) is treading dangerous ground with M. (Dame Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal) after having been granted Double-O status. M. begins to wonder if Bond is suitable to carry a license to kill, appearing reckless in his pursuit and elimination of two "small fish" terrorists. But what Bond hooks as little fish ultimately leads him into the covert operation of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, Prag), a ruthless financier behind a growing network of terrorist activities. Having discovered Le Chiffre's ongoing intent, M. sends Bond to Montenegro where he will play a high-stakes poker game against the criminal at the opulent Casino Royale. Bond is accompanied by department Treasurer, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, Kingdom of Heaven), a sultry operative that enjoys verbal sparring with 007. But Bond's win at the casino is far from assured. As he struggles to financially ruin Le Chiffre, James begins to discover all is not what he expected and his trust in others may well lead to an abbreviated tenure in Her Majesty's secret service.
Certainly, there's a new opportunity afforded to film franchises—the hard reset. Imagine keying the Ctrl-Alt-Del key sequence to reboot your personal computer, blanking out all that has gone before in order to grant yourself a refreshed work surface without having to bother with systematically undoing anything that had been done prior. Filmmakers and franchise owners have found the same opportunity in the form of the "series reboot." Having been executed masterfully with 2005's Batman Begins, the technique showed how easily unwanted elements from previous exploits could be wiped away in one fell swoop, an undertaking that met with audience approval. As the vaunted James Bond franchise began to wobble under the weight of its many missteps, Wilson and Broccoli determined to take advantage of the newly minted "could-we-start-again? " practice. Audiences once again approved.
Perhaps existing as one of the most hyper-scrutinized series in cinematic history, the James Bond franchise has been under the microscope since Sean Connery grew bored with being upstaged by gadgetry, George Lazenby stumbled in and out of a one-off casting, Roger Moore lapsed into uncontrollable glibness, Timothy Dalton refused to warm up, and Pierce Brosnan avoided properly filling out. Even though the series has achieved many highs over its 45-year run, it has also administered a number of self-inflicted wounds difficult reconcile over the course of the continuum (you no doubt have your own citation of cringe-worthy moments). Rather than attempt to circle back and provide fast answers via a sacrificial installment, the producers elected to "return to GO"—a good move. However, this reset required a recasting of Bond himself, always a perilous endeavor to undertake. And, when Daniel Craig was introduced as the sixth James Bond (discounting Barry Nelson and the gaggle of Bonds from the Charles K. Feldman farce of '67), the microscope was again finely focused on exposing something viral in the situation. For the Bond producers, this was business as usual.
Before dissecting Craig as Bond, it's important to note the significance of the screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis. Although these writers have done much updating of source material and liberally tacked on sequences of action-for-action's-sake (largely existing as assurances to the audience that this Bond is tough), they have nonetheless succeeded in presenting the story largely as Fleming had put forth. The book still makes a fascinating read today, since it allows us opportunity to see Bond as more than just an engaging attraction, the gross caricature of a suave and sophisticated (and often silly) secret agent that he has become on celluloid. The novel offers more depth to Bond in his honest reactions to the situations he encounters: a gruesome bomb explosion that nearly takes his life, a high-stakes card game where he actually loses, and an unexpected attraction to one Vesper Lynd that causes him to rethink his longevity as a Double-O. The screenwriters manage to capture all of this quite faithfully, recognizing how captivating Fleming's original narrative is, including its most wicked torture scene, carried out in the book with a cane-fashioned rug beater just as gut wrenching as the film's choice of a thickly knotted rope. The story is well suited for film treatment on its own merits and, thankfully, the screenwriting trio preserved it to a great extent in faithfully re-introducing Bond.
Since November 2006, the world has had plenty of time to see Craig as Bond and percolate over his abilities, both as an actor and as the screen's most enduring icon. Some have said his portrayal is far too serious, even vicious, yet a quick read of Fleming's novel indicates that such qualities are what James Bond is about. Fleming describes Bond as a rather unaffected character, one who partakes in all manner of self-indulgences not out of savor but, rather, in snide contempt, or so it appears. Bond is direct and decisive, infrequently given to banter and very matter-of-fact when stating his likes and dislikes. This doesn't mean he's socially inept; quite the opposite. He can become intelligently engaging, when the situation calls for it or the particular mood happens to strike him. His attention to detail in his dining choices and drink selections stem directly from the demands of working an assignment; this is mistaken as fastidiousness for the sake of vanity. Bond is not outwardly vain.
Craig's behavioral approach to portraying Bond comes off as unaffected, often insincere, and often abrasive, still with a bit of engaging charm as required or desired—as was often the case with Fleming's Bond. He's detail oriented, though not yet a connoisseur nor the worldly chap he'll ultimately become, and benefits from a bit of polish and presentation (although Vesper makes him more presentable for his casino appearance). So far, so good. We can anticipate the transformation to come and similarly expect more spoken mockery as he gains greater self-assurance in his Double-O distinction; but not quite yet.
In the novel, Bond is introduced as the senior of three active Double-O agents, presumably in his thirties (Fleming doesn't reveal this directly and only hints at the character's age in later novels), and seems to enjoy spending money as if he were aristocratic. In actuality, Bond believes his death could come at any time, so why shore up financial resources that may outlive him? Again, Craig seems very much on track here.
Physically, the "look" of Bond was long a subjective imagining that every one of Fleming's readers conjured privately and independently. As described in the book, Bond saw himself in a mirror: His grey-blue eyes looked calmly back with a hint of ironical inquiry and the short lock of black hair which would never stay in place slowly subsided to form a thick comma above his right eyebrow. With the thin vertical scar down the right cheek, the general effect was faintly piratical. Certainly, Craig does not fit the bill precisely, yet the embellishments of "ironical inquiry" and "faintly piratical" do suggest the consummate image presented by this new Bond actor (hair color and style can be adjusted if needed but isn't tantamount to the character's success). The good news is the producers elected to get far away from Connery's look, excellent and long defining as it has been, to engage the audience with the character rather than with the actor portraying him. Another good move for the Bond team.
All told, Craig seems like a good bet; money in the bank. Of course, the mark of a good Bond adventure is the saliency of its main villain. Here, the film departs from the book, albeit in a pleasing manner that has a bit of its own ironic twist. Le Chiffre is described as a portly fellow (18 stones), pale with somewhat constrained features who dresses meticulously. In the 1954 television production, a suitable Peter Lorre played the villain in an appropriate performance. Interestingly, Mads Mikkelsen starkly resembles a younger and more trim Lorre circa 1943 (see 'Ugarte' from Casablanca). Needless to say, the look is perfect and Mikkelsen brings a definite "attractive repulsion" to Le Chiffre. Equally menacing yet not wholly to be feared, this predator also existing as fearful prey to his own underwriters. Opposite Craig, Mikkelsen delivers, ensuring a good conflict will ensue…and it does.
And, of course, the "Bond women" on hand are as beautiful as ever. Eva Green is sumptuous and smart as Vesper Lynd, a woman who seems to be able to handle herself in light of Bond's assailing nature, actually inciting a bit of toe-to-toe confrontation with the agent she's underwriting. She never becomes a "girl in distress"—as has been seen in many other Bond exploits—and maintains a certain behavioral connection to the character in the novel, also smart and attending yet never fully immune to Bond's advances. The series provides the usual "sacrificial lamb" in the form of the stunningly attractive Caterina Murino as Solange, wife to the murderous Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) who, as fate would have it, loses a pristine 1964 Aston-Martin DB5 to Bond in a poker game (the film offering a very obvious wink of self-reference to the audience).
Returning as "M." is Dame Judi Dench. Many believed the actress, though accomplished, should likewise have been "re-set." In hindsight, this would seem to have been the preferable course of action, returning the role to a crusty gentleman who would steer and frequently stifle Bond without need to perpetuate the "misogynistic dinosaur" novelty of Goldeneye. Surely modern audiences know that James Bond lives in a "man's world" and makes the most of the women his world has to offer, neither of these elements requiring explanation nor alteration to feebly accommodate the more tired notion of "political correctness." This is a minor quibble with the casting yet one that will need to be addressed sometime soon as Dame Dench is clearly aging.
Recognition is certainly due composer David Arnold. He has masterfully delivered a pervasive Bond atmosphere through a score that is well beyond anything in his previous franchise efforts (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day). Arnold meticulously channels former Bond maestro John Barry, not by way of outright mimicry, but rather through the manner in which he employs elements of the title song plus obscure references to the original James Bond Theme. Delivering alternately moody and explosive arrangements that dutifully serve the on-screen action and emotion, he magnificently presents a Bond underscore that acts as a key character in its own right (as a good Bond score should). And, with regards to Chris Cornell's title song, "You Know My Name," it works remarkably well in this context, lyrically and sonically. The former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman delivers an excellent performance, providing respectable vocal range and variation while imbuing the piece with plenty of machismo requisite to the film's overall intent (similar to the way in which Tom Jones belted out "Thunderball"). Composer Arnold had co-written the song with Cornell, thereby ensuring it never sounds miscast simply as a commercial rock song that would promote the singer and CD sales over the substance it's intended to represent. By including the appropriate Bond tone, texture, and production values, Arnold and Cornell deliver a powerful number that properly secures the composition in a respectable place among the oeuvre of better Bond title songs.
With regards to the film's arrival on DVD, Casino Royale is an important release for the Blu-ray format. Sony has gambled high stakes with this high-definition alternative, one that serves as an affront to the DVD Forum's own HD DVD designation. But, like the undeterred gambler seated defiantly across the table, Sony has continued to throw in its blue tiles in belief that its high-definition technology will ultimately collect the pot of red tiles bet by the opposing DVD Forum. In this regard, then, Casino Royale might be Sony's "all in" wager, arriving as this year's most anticipated high-definition release and unmistakably trumpeting its control of the entire James Bond catalog. You won't find Bond titles available on HD DVD, so long as the home entertainment's "cold war" continues to simmer.
Just as a bold bet must be soundly backed by a strong playing hand, Sony has likewise committed itself to deliver Casino Royale in stellar fashion. Thankfully, it's a hand shrewdly played. The transfer here is delivered via a 1080p / AVC encode that performs admirably, to be sure. The source print is pristine, as should be expected, allowing full attention be given the high-definition performance. The image, therefore, is sharp, distinct, and generally deep. The color is rich and full, manipulated to varying hues as desired by the filmmakers. Black levels are deep and avoid the dreaded "black crush," preserving shadow details without inky obscurity. Ultimately, the detail levels are high and visually engaging…and yet they're not quite eye-popping. This is to say you won't be outright awed by the picture quality, when approaching it with the high expectations of high-definition. It gains dimensionality at times yet alternately embodies a slightly flattened appearance. From the perspective of faithfully representing a film look, that's where this transfer succeeds and, honestly, it should not be penalized for doing so. Nevertheless, with all the hyperbole being thrown back and forth across the high-definition tableau, Sony may be attempting a high stakes bluff where it could be called to show. In this regard, as good as the image looks, this one doesn't consistently perform in the touted realm that goes "beyond high definition." Expect more bets to be placed in this wager.
Besides image quality, the Blu-ray format has also promised high performance in its audio content and here the result is to be applauded. The preferred PCM 5.1 Uncompressed surround track performs very well, making the most of the film's excellent sound design. As soon as the film begins, you'll know the entire soundstage has become engaged and is standing attentive. The pre-titles sequence shows off how effortless the aural dynamic can shift from a contained and subdued dialog between Bond and the treacherous Dryden, exploding into jagged and jarring life during flashback sequences of Bond's first kill. With this, the stage is set for an engaging experience that delights your ears throughout. The action is perfectly supported by the robust audio track, one that shifts effects around you in a smooth and natural manner, often delivering an absolute claustrophobia as they close in around you (evidenced by the crumbling building in Venice). The low end is excellently engaged, too, adding jolting thumps to your chest with every gun shot and explosion, even the revving of the Aston-Martin DBS's throaty engine. The dialog is largely clear, but does become somewhat challenging to discern on several occasions.
Released day and date with the two-disc Standard Definition DVD, prospective betters will like to know if this Blu-ray disc can cover its wager. Easily enough, yes. This disc contains all content being released in the two-disc SD edition so fans will not feel cheated (at least, not until the first of many "next dips" are unveiled—see all other Bond DVD issues as evidence). The bonus content begins with a 27-minute documentary, Becoming Bond, a largely promotional and borderline apologetic piece that discusses the search and casting of a new Bond. The filmmakers are relatively candid about their nervousness in casting Craig as part of this back-to-the-basics approach to the series. Craig, too, is quite anxious, as revealed in the behind-the-scenes footage captured during the first day's shoot. The expose offers a good retrospective, giving foundation to the underlying concept and creation of the film yet it doesn't offer too many details about the overall production. Next up is the 24-minute stunt-centric piece, James Bond: For Real. This documentary provides a look at the manner in which the film's different action sequences are carried out, all with minimal amounts of computer-generated trickery (a hallmark of the Bond series; hair raising stunts actually undertaken by dare-devil stunt people). Most compelling aspect of this piece is the focus on Free Running athlete, Sebastian Foucan, the freelance bomb maker Mollaka, who gives Bond the run of his life. Following this is the 2006 televised special, Bond Girls Are Forever, in which hostess Maryam d'Abo (Kara Milovy of The Living Daylights) interviews the gamut of former "Bond girls." This is an interesting piece in that it embraces the completely Bondian attitude of womanizing, one that is routinely castigated as misogynous and (surprise!) socially archaic. In amusing juxtaposition, this documentary reveals how many of the former Bond girls still bubble in their excitement of having been included in the exclusive membership (Jill St. John candidly asserts, "No one wants to give up the mantle of being a 'Bond girl' and if they say they do they're lying'). The extra features wrap up with a music video of Chris Cornell performing the title song. Oddly enough, while there are several Blu-ray trailers included, none are for Casino Royale.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So much works well in Casino Royale yet some things are a bit awkward in ways that defy the Bond aura. As presented in the time and space of a new millennium, one that aggressively imposes its new beliefs and biases everywhere (including film), the Eon team has sacrificed several original elements that long served as signatures to the Bond universe. Upon buying into the Bond sensibility, audiences have long expected and outright enjoyed the social indiscretions committed over the course of the gentleman spy's exploits. Here, though, certain refinements dare to undercut the essence of the character and his world:
The poker game—for that matter, the entire mise-en-scene of the casino—appears oddly sterile and a bit stagnant. What's missing? International flavor. The filmmakers' choice to replace the original Baccarat Chemin de Fer game with Texas Hold 'Em is almost inexcusable. While the five-card poker variant will likely be more familiar to movie-going audiences, the mystique of Baccarat, with its shoe of six card decks, oval cut, each card dispensed by the hosting banker (banque) to the challengers seated around the table, is far more intriguing. The attending croupier adds to the activity, announcing the hands in contention—Huit a la banque, Et le Neuf—then gracefully retrieving spent cards with his swift spatula. And, whether out of desperation, denial, or determined persistence, missing is the players' verbal indications to continue on as they declare, "Suivi." Sadly, all of this is missing from Casino Royale and the film's high-stakes standoff feels noticeably flat for it. In the novel, Fleming employed Bond to fully explain the rules of play of Baccarat to Vesper (and, therefore, to the readers) in a sequence that's still engaging to this day. A sequence like this could have easily been included, giving audiences the thrill of the game and retaining the worldly feel of the Bond mythos. This isn't a fatal modification to the story, but does leave Bond aficionados feeling a bit underserved.
Although the Casino Royale at the Hotel Splendide is as lush and ornate as one would expect from a typical Bond setting, the element that is likewise missing is that of cigarette smoke. The wispy curls that wave and waft about the characters' faces, usually causing them to squint and look askance at one another to dramatic effect are noticeably missing as well, as are the hazy clouds that hover just above the tables of play thickening the air and adding a visible representation of the sort of tension that similarly permeates a high-stakes setting. Bond, originally, was an incessant smoker himself, partial to a Balkan and Turkish blend made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street, each bearing the distinction of three gold bands. (In the original novel, Bond inhales up to seventy cigarettes a day.) Presumably, smoking has been excised to strike accord with modern-day changes in public ordinances not to mention pressure from special interest groups that would charge the film is "marketing" smoking to young people. Understandable though that is, it leaves the casino space oddly stark and practically lifeless here. Again, not a fatal flaw but one that should be duly addressed by the Bond team through possibly diffusing casino interiors, darkening the setting, or even lowering the casino ceiling to offer the sense of claustrophobia that a layer of cigarette smoke previously imposed.
Lastly, this Bond is afflicted (as were its predecessors) with a seeming need to pre-pay its production costs through glaring product placements. If there was ever confusion about Sony Corporation's stake in the whole Bond realm, it becomes all too clear in this latest outing. While the Sony name has been spotted as far back as 1967's You Only Live Twice—see the closed-circuit TV transmitter in Aki's Toyota 2000GT—the brand is heavily played here, almost exclusive to any other manufacturer's offerings. Cell phones are featured prominently, the Sony Ericsson brand intentionally in frame during close ups. Laptops are also clearly featured, the only brand being Sony Vaio. Elsewhere, a Sony flat-panel computer display is easily visible. Most amusing, though, is the deliberate scene that showcases the emerging Sony Blu-ray disc media and player. Product placement isn't foreign to a Bond film—Moonraker was one of the worst offenders—yet hopes would run high that a return to the original novels might dispense with such commercials, allowing the film to sell itself (and it most surely will).
As a film, Casino Royale succeeds mightily in the face of its well-chronicled history and despite the few misgivings noted here. It establishes a solid foundation for taking James Bond forward in a sensible direction. Hopes are running high that the filmmakers will avoid past mistakes and resist modern-day pressures to make Bond "millennium friendly." Bond is Bond, and his blatant machismo, unapologetic style, and irresistible sensuality have charmed readers and moviegoers for over half a century. Arguably, it's a recipe that works and, even though it may tempt to shake some onlookers, it should remain unstirred in its preferred presentation.
As a Blu-ray disc, Casino Royale has decidedly thrown down the gauntlet to the opposing HD DVD faction. Neither player has left the table and, therefore, this promises to be a long standoff of betting and raising until one side becomes completely bereft of funds. It will be an interesting game to observe.
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