Casino Royale Review
The man who kick-started the Bond of the nineties with Goldeneye returns to helm what is perhaps the most controversial Bond film of the last ten years, or dare I say in the franchise’s lifetime. This is Bond re-booted, seeing for the first time how 007 came to be, with a new face onboard. Martin Campbell successfully breathes new life into the flagging series, which has been in a downward spiral since 1995’s Goldeneye, although Tomorrow Never Dies was quite enjoyable. So isn’t it about time that we had a good Bond film, something fresh and new? Would the fans be willing to embrace a James Bond adventure sans Q and his memorable gadgets and more importantly would they and the “critics” be able to get past Daniel Craig’s hair?
Casino Royale sees James Bond (Daniel Craig) being promoted to 00 status with a license to kill after carrying out two successful assassinations. M (Judi Dench) at MI6 soon appoints him his first assignment which takes him to Madagascar where he’s to track down and capture alive a known terrorist called Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan). But Bond decides to take matters into his own hand and after a heavy pursuit he causes a scandal which pisses off M considerably. Now she begins to wonder why she promoted him, but he still has a job to finish regardless, and so a lead eventually lands him in the Bahamas where he learns of a man named Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) who is linked to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) - a man who is known to MI6 as having funded terrorist organisations, thanks to his incredible gambling skills. MI6 discovers that Le Chiffre is getting ready to partake in a major poker tournament at the “Le Casino Royale” in Montenegro and they need Bond (the best poker player in the service) to attend and defeat Le Chiffre in a battle of chips in the hopes of ruining his enterprise. And so Bond sets off, this time with M keeping a close eye on his whereabouts and he’s soon greeted by agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), whose job is to make sure he gets his job done properly. But Vesper proves to be a source of interest for Bond, who can’t quite figure her out and thus begins to find her incredibly interesting, not to mention quite nice looking too. Now the stage is set and Bond must fight bare knuckle from time to time and throw gambling chips in the face of evil.
Forget Woody Allen’s completely insane film of the same name. This new Casino Royale is a brutal, hard edged action thriller that packs more of a punch than the last few 007 features have done put together. Opening with a superbly shot black and white sequence set in Prague, the movie introduces us to Bond for the first time and it’s here that it lays the foundation for the rest of the film, which essentially examines our protagonist. In fact I would say that it’s most certainly a character study; every event which plays out is there purely to develop the character that he should be, so that he can carry out his job to maximum effect. Thus Bond’s adventures become trial and error and his new status of 007 - to which he’s promoted to early on - is something that he soon learns not to take lightly. The most obvious trait written into his character is that he’s incredibly egotistical and that becomes a large part of the narrative. I find it most interesting that in twenty films we’ve never truly learned that much about James Bond. Are we meant to? I suppose that you could debate over it, but regardless in forty years we finally get to see him starting out, developing his skills and trying to shake his greater sense of humanity. Like it or not he must become hardened and even cold-hearted; certainly his attitude goes somewhat toward making this possible. So as a reboot of the franchise, then, this is a perfect way to establish Bond, but what works to great effect is that by the end of the film it feels as if he’s still learning, that he’s just started a life altering career and that quite possibly we can expect to see him develop even more.
If there’s one thing that I get bored of with regards to James Bond discussion it’s the old “Who’s the greatest Bond ever?” question. Who honestly cares? It’s like asking what the best colour ever is (which is olive by the way). Bond has never been portrayed 100% the way that Fleming originally wrote him; each actor over the years has simply brought his own personality to the role and it’s that which has kept the franchise feeling fresh from time to time, with personal preference usually coming down to the era that’s most familiar, for example the first Bond you ever saw. With that said my fave is Timothy Dalton, because he’s a hard bastard and he was probably the second Bond I saw, after Moore. So I’m not going to say that Daniel Craig is the best James Bond ever. Instead I’m going to state that Daniel Craig is simply magnificent. It’s really got my goat that over the past few months the media has been bitching about Craig before seeing even a second of footage and now suddenly the other cheek has turned with the realisation that he did indeed prove them to be wrong - and after saying that he would. So it’s with great pleasure that I have to praise Mr Daniel Craig for contributing another totally vicious Bond, while also injecting the series with a much needed sense of morality. It’s perhaps the most challenging storyline that the character has had to face. Of course On Her Majesty’s Secret Service did wonders in bringing us a different side to Bond and indeed if parallels are to be drawn then Casino Royale shares a lot in common with the George Lazenby vehicle, and to a lesser extent Licence to Kill. Bond’s morals are challenged several times and all the while he has to do the job at hand, so naturally Daniel Craig has a lot to juggle here; his emotional state contrasting against the inevitable, which is to kill or be killed. Craig imbues Bond with the perfect blend of savvy-ness, dry wit and aggressiveness, both sexually and violently, in addition to handling his egotism well and gradually toning it down toward the final act. But it’s the finer details where he really shines: his reaction after his very first kill, or his moments of reflection that just hint at the man underneath the solid exterior. Craig also shares a wonderful chemistry with Judi Dench as his boss M, who nurtures him, so to speak. She helps turn him into the man he’ll eventually become and there’s a nice repertoire of back and forth banter which takes this particular relationship to a new level. M ponders whether or not her promoting him was such a good idea and from here he needs to buck up and prove his worth. In many ways this proves to be quite metaphorical for both the character of Bond and Daniel Craig, who has carried quite the burden until now; although it’s his debut appearance he’s settled in remarkably well. And of course he’s got a great look, the perfect poker face for a film revolving around gambling. Bond has never been so effectively moulded, but then he’s not had much of an opportunity to be. Craig also walks around a lot in swimwear, so there’s one extra for the ladies.
So, Bond film. Where are the gadgets at? What happened to Q? It’s most definitely a staple part of the 007 franchise. My theory is that these elements will likely appear at a later time, that right now the only important thing is the character himself. While it’s unusual to not see rocket-firing cars and laser watches neither is it particularly noticeable, and if anything many would argue that those additions were quite silly anyway. In fact you’ll get so caught up in the majesty of it all that you won’t care. Those things may be gone for now, but Casino Royale delivers what’s really important - the action. Martin Campbell does a brilliant job in creating this new environment. There are several stunning set pieces which range from a post credit, adrenaline-packed chase sequence featuring amazing bouts of human athleticism, to a tense airport scene, before it all culminates in a thrilling Venice showdown. Where Casino Royale differs slightly is that it doesn’t overly rely on action to thrill the audience, it’s much smarter than that. As such there are several lengthy scenes in which Bond is embroiled in gambling games, which of course is a major component. It’s a huge gamble (that might be an intended pun actually) that would threaten to halt the main story from progressing, but it’s one that pays off immeasurably well. A bunch of guys sitting around a table exchanging emotionless glances for ten minutes at a time might sound boring, but Campbell raises the stakes (doh, I did it again!) and creates a tense atmosphere, and just when the viewer thinks that there can only be one obvious outcome - during the third match - it spins in the other direction and we’re left thinking “Campbell, you sly ol’ dawg.” Casino Royale is rated a 12A and to be perfectly honest I can’t envision this as deserving anything less than a 15. This is violent stuff, not in terms of blood letting, although there is some, but rather plenty of ball- breaking (sorry), arm-snapping, strangulation scenes and bullets-through-heads stuff. At this point I have to single out a very uncomfortable torture sequence involving Mr. Bond. I’m not going to spoil it for those reading, but let’s just say that it’ll have every male viewer crossing his legs. No man should have to go through that.
And being the Bond film it has to feature loads of glamorous locations and Bond girls, both of which it delivers in spades, although one glamorous lady fails to make an appearance. That’s right, good ol’ Miss Moneypenny is nowhere to be seen. Still, we get enough eye candy: Le Chiffre’s girl Valenka played by Ivana Milicevic is absolutely gorgeous and the voluptuous Catarina Murino keeps Bond on his toes for a while. But it’s Eva Green who opens up the narrative as main love interest Vesper Lynd, which significantly alters the course of the film. From her introduction onward a romantic bond between she and, err, Bond is formed and it’s played out rather well. Martin Campbell occasionally deviates and becomes quite invested in fleshing out this blossoming romance, primarily because the final act is so dependant upon it. While Craig and Green gel on screen there are a few soppy lines thrown in, though thankfully it’s kept quite minimal, but certainly makes things loud and clear and captures the right tone. Again Campbell works quite cunningly from a solid enough script.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Vesper becomes vital to the film’s outcome and after a clever twist which leads us to believe that the film is over he introduces an entire new act which takes place in Venice. Suddenly the flags start waving, it seems so incredibly sign-posted in that it’s bound to echo On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s exact sentiments. It does so in many respects; we know for sure it’s inevitable that Vesper must die and we presume the set up will see her assassinated. However, things take a dramatic turn and events play out a little bit different than expected when she reveals her true self.|
And what of James Bond’s diabolical arch-nemesis? Bond sure has had a lot of scar-faced enemies hasn’t he? Some have been imposing and quite mad, while others have failed to light up the screen. Mads Mikkelson isn’t half that bad. Early on he appears to be another vapid figure with lots of cash, who we soon learn is funding terrorist groups, but his progression is quite impressive, particularly in leading up to his sadistic torture routine, which makes him far more sinister than we might have otherwise imagined; he truly does cause Bond a lot of pain, both physically and mentally and as such proves to be a very big threat. Fans of the franchise will also be pleased to know that Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) returns in a well staged scene, which is most welcome and should hopefully lead on to bigger things.
Being naturally updated for a new audience Casino Royale’s political undertones pay attention to certain world events, while dabbling in yet more terrorist plots. They’re never intrusive, quite skilfully tackled in fact, although they’re there to point out very real threats surrounding us today. Likewise passing comments about the state of the government may rile some, though it can’t be said that they’re not amusing. Most of these are throwaway moments and it’s where Casino Royale happily derives much of its straight humour from. There’s nothing pretentious in how it handles its material, after all this is still about one man hunting down the bad guy and the writers aren’t too concerned in bogging it down with the obvious, which to their credit prevents it from ever becoming a dull exercise. In all though it’s tightly written and doesn’t lose sight of the main objective. Paul Haggis must surely have carried out most of this, because I find it hard to believe that co-writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade - who were responsible for the shit-fests The World in Not Enough and Die Another Day - could turn themselves around so dramatically. Even saying that, Haggis has overcome his rubbishy script for Crash. But wait, this isn’t meant to be an insulting review. Sorry chaps, at least you’ve learned your lesson.
(Those films were still naff though).
There are Bond films that you can be overly cynical toward and others which work just too damn well to even care about their flaws. Casino Royale falls into the latter category. After twenty features it’s proven that the Bond franchise can still offer plenty of originality. Rebooting the series was a perfect idea and now we can finally see Bond as he was meant to be seen. Will we witness a proper series from here, one that evolves and shows our characters growing even more? Who knows, but one thing is for sure; Daniel Craig is a damn fine Bond and he’d be smart to stick with it for a while. We’re onto a sure-fire winner here; a movie that’s genuinely intense, witty and finely paced.
With that said I’m not sure if it’ll please everyone. This is as dark as we’ve seen the franchise get (right up there with Licence to Kill) and those who grew up enjoying the outlandish, comic book nature of the previous films may find that Casino Royale has dispensed too much of the ridiculous in favour of grit and brawn. I for one, as a fan of the Bond series welcome this new change and I can honestly say that whilst much of the familiar is gone it still retains the essence of the series and places plenty of emphasis on entertaining the audience. Finally - those who have never been a fan of the James Bond movies might just find themselves being converted from here on in. This isn’t just a great Bond flick; it’s one of the best action films to have surfaced in a long time.
Why does everyone hate Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”? I thought it was quite good, especially with the excellent credit sequence. Oh well…
Sorry for the word-happy spree.