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CLASSICS: Casino Royale (2006)

November 8, 2012

 

(originally written on November 21, 2006)

written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, & Paul Haggis (screenplay); Ian Fleming (novel)

produced by: Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson

directed by: Martin Campbell

rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity).

runtime: 144 min.

U.S. release date: November 17, 2006

DVD/Blu-ray release date: March 13, 2007

 

The 21st James Bond movie is set out to reboot the franchise by bringing the iconic character back to his roots. Based on the first Ian Fleming novel published way back in 1953, “Casino Royale” (no relation to the 1967 film of the same name) is a suspenseful and exhilarating film, the first to actually show us the Bond that Fleming created. In a back-to-basics approach similar to what Christopher Nolan did with “Batman Begins”, this Bond is rugged, arrogant and making mistakes along the way. Like the new actor playing him, Bond is a green agent here, before he would become the suave spy we’re come to expect. The result is a movie that relies on character over gadgets, filled with breathtaking action and intense drama. While “Casino Royale” holds on to some familiar Bond conventions, it also thrusts us into new territory by starting at square one.

But first, we get a dose of familiarity, with a traditional opening sequence that precedes the equally traditional stylish opening credits. This black & white scene takes place in Prague and shows Bond earning his double-0 status which requires an MI6 agent’s first two kills. Right away we see that James Bond (Daniel Craig) is serious and resourceful as well as brutal and deadly.

Right after the credits we go to a Ugandan rebel camp to have the villains of the film introduced. LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) leader, Steven Obanno (Isaac de Bankolé) meets with the mysterious Mr. White who introduces him to a tall, pale man with a scarred left eye named Le Chiffre. He arranges for Le Chiffre to bank $101,260,000 for Obanno. From this meeting, we gather that all three are either working for or associated with a larger, unnamed terrorist organization.

Bond is next seen in Madagascar, working with an amateur agent as they track down Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan), a free-running bomb-maker, hired by Le Chiffre. An amazingly frenzied chase breaks out through the city streets and seaside construction area that includes a harrowing fight scene atop a crane that ends in a confrontation in the Nmbutu Embassy where Bond winds up killing the bomb maker. Unknowingly caught on camera, Bond’s mission causes uproar with the media, incorrectly claim the bomber was unarmed. Bond is reprimanded by M (Judi Dench), whose anger at Bond’s thoughtless actions only increases after he breaks into her home to use her personal computer in order to access files on the suspects. There’s a refreshing interaction between M and Bond here that shows the beginning of a respectful working relationship between two bulldogs, something we haven’t seen yet in any of the previous films. Despite having played M in all the Brosnan Bond films, Dench still fits nicely and brings a different dimension to the character.

Bond finds out that Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) is a private banker who uses Alex Dimitrios, a government contractor, as a middle-man for many of his jobs. Against M’s wishes for him to lay low for a while, Bond tracks Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) to the Bahamas. He drives up to a gorgeous resort in a 2007 Ford Mondeo IV. Not a typical Bond car, but that’s the point. His confidence and swagger doesn’t come from what type of car he drives (although he does eye a beautiful 1964 Aston Martin in the parking lot, eventually acquiring it), but more from some deeper drive hidden behind Craig’s steely, penetrating blue eyes.

 

 

Craig exudes an infectious arrogance and humor as he infiltrates the hotel security system in pursuit of Dimitrios. We see him work his charm on Dimitros’ wife, Solange (Caterina Murino), who knows full well he’s using her to get to her husband. That doesn’t stop either of them from rolling around in his beach-view suite. But, where previous Bonds would have had his way with the girl right quick, this Bond catches the next plane to Miami as soon as she tells him that Dimitrios is Florida bound. He’s nice enough though to leave her with room service.

He trails Dimitrios to the Body World exhibit in the Miami Science Center, which provides a tense, well-paced confrontation that ends with the end of Dimitrios. Bond then follows Carlos (Claudio Santamaria), a henchman who grabbed a “drop-off” bag from Dimitrios which results in a very physical, white-knuckled action sequence at the Miami airport runway involving an oil tanker and an explosive ending. Le Chiffre loses the LRA money due to Bond’s intervening of a terrorist plot to destroy a prototype of a valuable aircraft being unveiled at the airport.

Le Chiffre then sets up a high-stakes poker game involving wealthy professional gamblers at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to win back the money. The main card game has changed from that in the novel, they play no-limit Texas Hold ‘em instead of Baccarat (although, in the film it is referred as “Tenez Les Cartes”). It’s a change made to include a broader audience and increase the elegance of the film. Bond is selected by M, as he is the agency’s best card-player, to bankrupt Le Chiffre. Without his capital, Le Chiffre’s creditors will come after him, and M believes he would be willing to divulge criminal secrets in exchange for MI6 protection.

Bond is assisted by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who, unlike the book, works for Her Majesty’s Treasury, as well as Mathis. Within the first few hands, Bond purposely loses to Le Chiffre so he can identify any tells, and believes Le Chiffre’s scarred eye twitches when he is bluffing. During a one-hour break, Bond and Vesper go to Le Chiffre’s room and finds out that Le Chiffre is being confronted to give back the money. The two LRA creditors then fire at Bond, who has no choice but to attack them, which ends at the bottom of a stairwell where both of them are killed. Bond then gives Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) the job of explaining the two bodies. Bond cleans up, returns to the game, and eventually believes he has caught Le Chiffre in a bluff. Bond puts it all in, but Le Chiffre has the better hand, and Bond is busted. Vesper refuses to provide the money for the rebuy, so a desperate Bond grabs a knife with the intention of killing Le Chiffre.

He is stopped by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who has also been playing in the game, but is not confident in his ability to win it. He promises to stake Bond’s rebuy in exchange for the CIA taking the collar on Le Chiffre. Bond returns and his aggressive play unnerves Le Chiffre, who instructs his henchwomen, Valenka (Ivana Milicevic) to poison Bond’s drink. When Bond realizes this, he leaves the table and rushes to the medical kit in his company car. MI6 is able to identify the poison using telemetry from a vitals monitor implanted in Bond’s arm, and Bond takes the antidote but must use a defibrillator to jump-start his heart or it will stop. He passes out before he can do this, but luckily Vesper finds him and saves his life. Le Chiffre is shocked when Bond returns to the table, leading to one final hand for all the chips. After Bond narrowly wins the game, he and Vesper are captured and tortured by Le Chiffre, but a mysterious representative of one of Le Chiffre’s creditors, Mr White, arrives and kills Le Chiffre.

Some time later, Bond awakens in a hospital, his wounds nearly fully healed. He believes Mathis is a double agent, after Le Chiffre plants doubt in his mind through mind games and mental torture. Bond assumes Mathis told Le Chiffre Bond knew his tell, and that allowed Le Chiffre to bankrupt him the first time.

Impressed by his resolve, Vesper lets down her guard for Bond, and the two fall in love. Bond even tenders his resignation letter to M via email while the two holiday in Venice. During a moment after she leaves their hotel room, M calls Bond and says the money has yet to be transferred to the MI6 account. Bond realizes Vesper has betrayed him, and quickly looks at the text messages on her cell phone, which she conveniently left behind. He calls his banker, who tells him the funds are being withdrawn as they speak. Bond rushes to the town square.

As Vesper carries the money to meet her contacts, Bond chases after her to prevent the handover. The ensuing gun battle culminates in a thrilling finale where a Venetian building collapses atop Bond, Vesper and the terrorists. Mr White escapes with the money. Despite Bond’s efforts to save her, Vesper commits suicide by locking herself into a lift that submerges underwater, and though Bond manages to get her out, she fails to be revived, leaving Bond heartbroken. A hardened Bond proclaims to M “The job is done. The bitch is dead.”

 

 

M rebuffs him, speculating the only reason he and Vesper were left alive when Le Chiffre and his henchmen were killed was because Vesper offered to give the terrorists the money, and she left her cell phone hoping Bond would follow her. M says Vesper’s involvement probably eliminates Mathis as a suspect, but Bond tells her to continue to “seat” him in case he also was a double agent. M tells him they have no leads as to the money’s whereabouts, but Bond is able to track down Mr. White (Jesper Christiensen) using Vesper’s mobile phone. The film ends with Bond shooting out Mr. White’s kneecaps, then standing over the man and, before killing him, speaking his iconic phrase: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.”

Like many, I had gotten quite tired of the conventions one expects in a James Bond film. Car. Gadgets. Girls. Drinks. Locations. Clever one-liners. Villains. All of which is fine, but not mixed in to the stories of twenty films. Sure, they’re enjoyable but after a while, it gets a tad old.

Although I liked most of the previous Bonds (in order: Connery, Lazenby, Brosnan, Dalton, and Moore) and the films, some (“Goldfinger” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) more than others (“The Man with the Golden Gun”), the moment that Roger Moore took over the series, Bond became a jokey superhero in a dinner jacket. A guy who never flinches because he knows that he’s sure to come out in his favorite position: on top. That’s fine, I guess.  That’s where the great spoofs like the Austin Powers movies mostly came from. But something had to be done to restore the original intent of the character.

I was pleased that the producers decided to go back to character and plot rather than high-tech gadgets and visual effects, two issues that were most criticized in the last Brosnan entries “The World is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day”. They went for character before in one of the better Moore films, For Your Eyes Only”, but then went back to silly, improbable plots. I mean, come on….would James Bond really go undercover as a clown like in Octopussy? Sigh. Additionally, EON productions admitted that they relied too heavily on CGI effects and accomplished the stunts in Casino Royale “the old-fashioned way.”

I have no problem with Daniel Craig. He’s excellent, actually. He’s the most physically fit Bond but he’s not the best looking at first glance. It’s that reason my wife cannot believe he’s Bond because he’s “butt ugly”, as she says. Many people will initially think this, but Bond was never meant to be a gorgeous man. I find Craig to have the most expressive and interesting mug out of all the Bond actors. It’s his cold blue worn eyes that pull viewers in and that mouth that puckers into a scowl that exudes a permanent irritability. Craig can flip that when he flips on the charm, delivering a boyish grim brimming with mischief. It’s the closest to a Steve McQueen Bond that we’ll ever get.

There’s also the gripe to that this Bond is blond, which sent many die-hard Bond fans reeling.  I’ll be honest, I had a problem with that, at first, but Craig but that to rest. Those scoffers might as well complain about his height too. At 5′ 11″, Craig is the shortest actor to play Bond (with Connery being the tallest at 6′ 2″) and he’s the first Bond actor to be born (1968) after the series started (1962).

Regardless, watching Craig as Bond in the movie, I was sold. He is James Bond. Not because of his looks, but because of his attitude and the way he carries himself. He plays this early Bond the way Fleming intended as M so flatly “a blunt instrument.” Like the producers, this Bond makes mistakes and learns from them. There’s a gruffness and bold swagger present, but Craig manages to convey some rare characteristics for 007: rage, fear, vulnerability and love – clearly bringing a humanity we’ve really seen in the franchise. It didn’t take much effort on my part to appreciate that. 

Some of my favorite moments in “Casino Royale” aren’t the impressive action sequences or clever back and forth between Bond and M. It’s when Bond cleans up after taking out the guys on the stairwell and also during the torture scene. In each scene, Craig is showing us a bloody but not beaten Bond and his range there is apparent.

That being said, the rest of the cast was well-selected. Judi Dench is always a rock and if they were gonna keep any of the actors from the Brosnan films it should be her. I don’t miss Q or Moneypenny. They’re quite unnecessary at this point in Bond’s retconned reboot universe. Eva Green (so great in “Kingdom of Heaven”) was great as well. She’s probably one of my favorite Bond girls, next to Diana Rigg’s role as Tracy from OHMSS.  Green isn’t a mere trophy. She intelligent, vulnerable, and sees right through Bond and still falls for him. Yet there’s still something a little off about her. Green plays it all perfect.

Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre is plenty creepy with his bloody left eye and Hitleresque-hair yet he was never really was threatening enough. At least that plays into  the overall plot. It was good to see Wright as Felix (he’s no Jack Lord though), a wonderful actor, one who I hope is utilized even more in future films.

Composer David Arnold scored the last three Bond films and does a great job with this one, accompanied by Nichola Dodd. Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame) worked with Arnold on the song “You Know My Name” which plays during the  traditional opening title sequence. It’s the first theme song since 1983’s “Octopussy” to use a different title than the film, and Cornell is the first male performer since a-ha (in 1987’s “The Living Daylights). It is only the fourth Bond theme (after the opening medley of “Dr. No”, the instrumental theme from “OHMSS” and “All Time High” from “Octopussy”) to make no reference to the title of the film.

As far as Bond themes go, I liked it. I’ve heard some I haven’t. Then again, I’m a fan of Cornell’s previous work so it wasn’t a hard sell. I mean it was better than Madonna’s song from the last one. In fact the last song I liked was Tina Turner’s from “Goldeneye” (also directed by Martin Campbell). Of course,  it was also great to hear Monty Norman’s classic “James Bond Theme” during the closing credits.

So, where does the franchise go from here?Casino Royale” is the first Bond film to take its title from an Ian Fleming novel or short story since 1987’s “The Living Daylights” “and the first to be directly based on any of Fleming’s writings since 1989’s “License to Kill”. Here’s hoping they stay away from remaking some of the  other classics. I can’t imagine them agreeing to retool “Goldfinger”.

Whatever happens next, I hope they take their time in developing what they have here – a Bond that exists in a believable world. Like Bond and his martinis, I could care less if the next film is shaken or stirred as long as it goes down as good as this film did.

 

 

 

RATING: ****

 

 

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