Casino Royale Review
Taking a break from a particularly intense round of high-risk poker, the new James Bond, the blond and weatherbeaten Daniel Craig, demands a Martini from the bartender. When asked whether he would like it shaken or stirred, the po-faced 007 snaps back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" This one line, which has been decried by traditionalists as a betrayal of the tone of the franchise, and applauded by the less reverent as the tearing down of several decades' worth of tired clichés and stock routines, arguably sums up Casino Royale in a nutshell: a rejection of the format established for Bond films ever since Dr. No in 1962, and an effective two-fingered salute to tradition. And where better to begin this audacious reimagining of this enduring cinematic icon than where it all started, with the first "official" adaptation of Ian Fleming's initial Bond Novel, Casino Royale.
The plot, despite inventing a considerable amount of new material to bookend the admittedly slim 200-page thriller, is remarkably faithful to its literary origins. Essentially, a ruthless banker known as Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who owes a considerable sum of money to a terrorist group, enters a high profile poker tournament at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. Believing that persuading Le Chiffre to defect would be preferable to simply assassinating him, M (Judi Dench) dispatches the newly-promoted James Bond to beat him in the tournament, hoping that his defeat will lead to him seeking asylum from his bosses. However, the hot-headed spy also has to contend with the icy Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), sent by the treasury to keep an eye on both him and his finances, and a colourful array of friends, enemies and everyone in between, none of whose agendas are what that initially appear to be.
First up, a confession: I am not what I would consider a Bond fan. I've read Fleming's original Casino Royale novel, and have seen several of the films, a number of which I've enjoyed, but I don't join in the fervour every time a new installment is announced, and many of the gimmicks that dedicated fans consider to be part of the whole Bond experience are the elements that I find tired and clichéd. As such, the decision to break with tradition and offer a drastically different type of Bond film probably has a lot to do with why I enjoyed it so much - fans of the franchise may hate it for exactly the same reason (although, of course, many, many Bond fans enjoyed the film immensely).
From this layman's perspective, therefore, Casino Royale is a very good film - one that comes extremely close to being excellent, in fact, with a handful of relatively minor problems holding it back from being a top-tier effort. My main bone of contention with previous entries in the series, has been their campness, something which has affected every single Bond film that I've seen, including the two Timothy Dalton outings, which I hold in high regard and consider in many ways to have been forerunners for this latest outing. For many fans, the campness is part of these films' appeal; personally, I found it grating at best and severely disruptive at worst, the sort of nudge-nudge wink-wink tomfoolery which prevents me from being fully absorbed by the action. This, I suspect, explains why Roger Moore is my least favourite Bond.
Casino Royale is no Roger Moore romp. It's the first Bond film I've seen that is completely straight-faced. That's not to say that there isn't humour in it, but the humour is subtler, derived not from Bond foiling the terrorists and parachuting down to Felix Leiter's wedding all in one swish movement (a particularly cringe-inducing moment in the otherwise commendable Licence to Kill), but rather from various dry retorts that, while self-conscious, ultimately serve the characters rather than playing to the gallery. There is genuine wit in the dialogue, in particular Bond's initial meeting with Vesper, in which the two agents size each other up and perfectly deconstruct each others' personalities.
This change in tone is partially due to the script, but also in no small part to the casting of Craig as Bond. Back when various actors were being touted as successors to the bland Pierce Brosnan (not a fan, sorry), I immediately latched on to him as my preferred choice (although the alternatives, ranging from Hugh Jackman to Orlando Bloom, meant that there really wasn't much of a contest as far as I was concerned), and was most pleased when he got the part. People, however, were criticising the choice before they even saw a frame of footage: Craig was deemed to be too ugly, too unsophisticated, and, seemingly worst of all, blond. Craig is certainly nothing like any of his predecessors, but, in my opinion, he comes the closest of all to making Bond seem human. Dalton was tough, sure, but I always saw him as more an attitude than a real person. Craig, in contrast, doesn't really have the sophistication of some of his predecessors, but this "blunt instrument", as M puts it, lives and breathes in a way that the others, for me, didn't. Having read Fleming's novel, my overall impression is that the Bond appearing on the screen is recognisable as the same Bond that appeared on the page: cold, ruthless, sexist, driven.
Not only that, he is surrounded by interesting, believable characters, played by capable actors, including the excellent Eva Green as Vesper, and the understated Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre. The biggest surprise, for me, being Judi Dench's M. Initially, I had expected to find her distracting, given that, as a holdover from the "old" Bond world, her presence would destroy the semblance of a true reboot. The writers develop a believable and even touching relationship between her and Bond, setting her up as a mentor and him as a reluctant student. The scene in which she finds him having broken into her house is incredibly effective, establishing her as having a grudging respect for him, while demonstrating that he is under no illusions as to the dangers of his profession. "I understand that double-0s have a very short life expectancy," he responds when she rebukes him for being too reckless with his "over-developed trigger finger". This line, I feel, goes a long way towards explaining why Bond is the way he is, and indeed, co-writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis have managed to rather cleverly craft Fleming's first Bond novel into a solid all-round "origin" story.
The film is also violent - appropriately so, given the grimmer tone as compared to its predecessors. This is a Bond who bleeds, and the various action sequences are extremely raw and physical in nature, especially in the full unexpurgated cut released in various territories (more on this later). Rather than seeing Bond cut his way through an army of faceless villains, director Martin Campbell instead concentrates on a small number of frenzied and extremely personal one-on-one fights, which, unusually for what is essentially a summer blockbuster, attempt to convey that killing someone isn't quite as easy as it might seem. Some people have criticised the amount of punishment that Bond seems to be capable of taking (in particular a scene in which, after suffering a cardiac arrest, he promptly gets to his feet and returns to the ongoing poker game), but personally the only moment to which I really objected was in the first major action sequence, when he actually runs straight through a concrete wall (a little too close to the realm of absurdity for my liking). The effects technicians have pulled away from the CGI and - let's face it - stupidity of Die Another Day (invisible car, anyone?), deliberately returning to audacious yet believable physical stunts and practical effects. Part of the thrill of pre-CG stunts is the knowledge that someone is really there, often taking considerable risks in the name of entertaining the audience. Many of the stunts in Casino Royale, especially the building site chase and the Venetian climax, must have been augmented by computer effects, but they look authentic and the adrenaline rush is most definitely there.
For all its strengths, though, the film has definite problems, particularly the third act. Although some have pointed out that it feels like an unnatural extension after most of the loose threads have already been tied up, I was far more troubled by the dialogue. Throughout the second act, Bond and Vesper are sniping at each other, and work well in this mode. Once they fall head over heels in love and start telling each other this every time they open their mouths, the whole thing rapidly descends into Mills & Boon territory. It's not enough to completely derail the film, but it does cause the plot to flatline for a good twenty minutes, at precisely the point at which many viewers will feel that it has reached its natural conclusion. Additionally, David Arnold turns in a predictably bland action movie score which, while gaining points for incorporating elements of the title theme on various occasions, is otherwise as forgettable as they come.
Casino Royale ultimately constitutes a much-needed retrenching of the series that abandons the farce and increasing stupidity of recent instalments in favour of a more realistic, low-key thriller that still retains the glamour and spectacle of its predecessors. It lacks the various catchphrases, gadgets and stock characters (Q and Miss Moneypenny don't appear at all - something which is also true of the novel) that have become mainstays of the movie series, but I for one didn't miss them. These gimmicks have been retained, with few exceptions, for an impressive run of twenty films. It's therefore not unreasonable to expect something fresh after all this time. Casino Royale strips away the formula and delivers a more sincere interpretation of the source material - the "reboot" the franchise so desperately needed.
One of the reasons for the lengthy delay in this review being published is the amount of time it took me to track down an uncut version of the film. The UK release is widely known to have been cut, removing a single shot and line of dialogue from the infamous torture scene, but the US release of the film is often erroneously believed to be uncut. It is in fact, far more heavily cut than its British counterpart, with two key action sequences being heavily truncated, removing a considerable amount of their intensity and also, in one instance, resulting in some glaring continuity errors. (I have compiled a detailed and spoiler-intensive list of the cuts made to the US release here.) I initially bought the US version, and was saddened to say the least when I discovered how heavily cut it was. Then, based on misinformation from a Sony Pictures insider, who had categorically stated that the only cut releases of the film on Blu-ray would be the US, UK and German releases (the German release is actually uncut), I purchased the Korean release, only to discover, to my horror, that it was exactly the same disc that had been released in North America, right down to the "Made in the USA" text on the disc art. Eventually, I was able to track down the Region 0 Finnish release, which, like the versions released in the rest of Scandinavia and Australia (using, it would seem, the exact same disc), is completely uncut, and is considered to represent Martin Campbell's definitive cut of the film.
Having viewed the US/Korean, UK and Finnish discs, I have come to the conclusion that the video quality on each is identical, at least to the naked eye.
When Blu-ray discs first trickled on to store shelves last summer, Sony found themselves on the receiving end of a considerable amount of negative buzz for the lacklustre nature of many of their initial titles - an embarrassing situation to be sure, given Sony's key role in the format. The failings of these titles can be attributed to many issues, most notably the use of poor quality masters (in the case of titles such as The Fifth Element and House of Flying Daggers) and their reliance on the dated MPEG2 format, refusing to adopt (probably for financial and political reasons) the more efficient and technologically advanced AVC and VC1 codecs. With Casino Royale, which arrives less than a year old and with an AVC encode on a 50GB dual layer disc, these issues are out of the window, and the result is what is arguably the best transfer yet from Sony (who have, despite their reputation, done some astoundingly good work in high definition).
This is a beautiful transfer in every way. Right from the grainy, monochromatic opening sequence, the level of detail is extremely impressive - indeed, on a couple of occasions I actually ended up pausing the film to admire the sheer amount of visual information on display. The most astounding of these is a shot on the train journey to Montenegro, where Bond and Vesper are sitting opposite each other as they eat dinner. The level of detail is so high that you can actually read the labels on the wine and water bottles on the table, despite them being several feet away from the lens. The encoding is also superlative across the board, with the densely animated opening title sequence serving as an excellent example of what the next generation codecs are capable of.
The English audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 Kbps) and uncompressed PCM 5.1 flavours, with no optional dubs provided on this Scandinavian/Australian release. As a Playstation 3 owner without an HDMI receiver, I am unable to listen to the PCM track in anything other than stereo, so I had to content myself with the Dolby track, which in any event sounds very good, albeit lacking the complex audio design of, say, Constantine in TrueHD, or even Serenity in Dolby Digital-Plus. I was a little disappointed that the track was only encoded at the standard DVD rate of 448 Kbps, rather than the more common 640 Kbps or 1.5 Mbps found on most high definition discs, but there are no noticeable problems with clarity, and the bass in the action sequences is very impressive.
Subtitles are included in English, English HoH, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Norwegian and Swedish. For some reason, the only subtitle languages available on the menu for me were Finnish, Greek, Norwegian and Swedish, but the other languages can be manually selected using the Subtitle button on your remote control.
The extras, unfortunately, are about as basic as they come, positively screaming "double dip". The 27-minute Becoming Bond focuses on the decision to cast Craig as Bond and the steps taken to dramatically change the tone of the series. It, and its partner in crime, the 25-minute James Bond: For Real (an exposé on the stunts), are both glossily produced and well-edited, and do attempt to dig a little deeper than the standard EPK featurettes we usually get with releases of modern films, but they are still, for the most part, fairly superficial. The 49-minute Bond Girls Are Forever, meanwhile, really offers nothing more than a light and fluffy look at Bond's various female sidekicks through the ages. A music video is also provided for Chris Cornell's rather forgettable title theme, You Know My Name. It's a rather aimless video that seems to have been put together by using whatever footage from the film was lying around, combined with shots of Cornell crooning and strumming his guitar.
In a nice touch, the two made-for-DVD/Blu-ray extras (but not the made for TV Bond Girls Are Forever and the Cornell music video) are presented in 1080p high definition (with MPEG2 encoding), despite the inclusion of some upconverted 480i clips.
Click the image above to view the full 1080p frame
Despite the lack of decent bonus material on this release, I suspect that most people will be more than happy with the sumptuous image quality and solid audio. For Bond's first high definition outing, Sony have certainly come up trumps, and I only hope that future releases in the series will be able to come close to matching this quality. Provided you import an uncut copy, and don't consider in-depth extras to be an essential part of the viewing process, it's hard to go wrong with Casino Royale on Blu-ray.
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