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Friday, March 27, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2006)

21. Casino Royale

After “Die Another Day” left the James Bond series in tatters, the only thing left to do was rebuild. For the first time in the series’ forty year-plus history, Eon Productions was doing a complete continuity reboot. The Bond we had been watching for four decades was being discarded. This was a new Bond, with a clean slate. A legal settlement with Sony, which involved trading the franchise rights to Spider-Man, finally gave MGM access to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, “Casino Royale.” What better story was there to relaunch the long-running series? With a new actor in the part, “Casino Royale” became a big success and completely redefined James Bond for a new generation.

A newly minted 007 agent, his licence to kill just earned, James Bond is sent on a mission to investigate a bomb maker in Madagascar. The man is working for Le Chiffre, the broker for a covert terrorist organization. Le Chiffre’s latest plan involves exploding an airline company’s new plane prototype, sinking their stocks, and making his group a lot of money. When Bond ruins that plan, Le Chiffre is in sudden need of a lot of cash or face extermination by his own group. He hopes to win the money back during a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale. Bond is on his trail, determined to beat the villain at cards.

Because this is a new Bond, even the opening credits sequence to “Casino Royale” breaks the series’ established conventions. There are no nude silhouettes of dancing women. Instead, the credits juxtapose Bond’s status as an assassin with gambling images. Thus, the background is the green of a poker table. The faces of playing cards flash over the screen. Bond shoots hearts and clubs from his gun. His opponents tumble to the ground, exploding into scattered shapes. The cross-hairs of a gun morph into spinning roulette tables. Finally, as two zeros are shot into a 7 card, Bond steps out of the shadows, revealing the face of a stone-cold killer. The accompanying song is “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell. Cornell’s hard rock style and gravelly vocals weren’t well received by everyone. However, the lyrics accurately, beautifully described Bond’s mindset as a cold blooded gunman. The music builds fantastically to an intense finale. It’s a great opening.

At the time, Daniel Craig was a relatively unknown character actor. “Layer Cake,” a British gangster flick that was not widely seen, was his most prominent leading role. However, one important person that did see “Layer Cake” was Barbara Broccoli who immediately decided he must be Bond. There was some silly objections to Craig’s casting. However, most of those concerns were put to rest when people actually saw “Casino Royale.” Craig does not play Bond as an effortlessly cool secret agent. He is those things, in a way. He delivers a sarcastic smirk and well-time line fantastically. Mostly, he’s an unstoppable bad ass, fighting brutally to dispose of his enemies. He has the ability to seduce beautiful women but he does so only in service of his job. His big blue eyes are steely, hiding the heart of a cold killer. His Bond is dark, psychologically damaged, and stuffs down his soul in order to do what he must. Though some successful parallels can be drawn to Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton’s Bond, it’s a unique take on the long-established character. For these reasons and more, Craig remains my favorite take on 007.

After the CGI-assisted excesses of “Die Another Day,” “Casino Royale” re-commited itself to realism. The film is low on gadgetry. The closest things to gadgets the movie has is a tracking microchip injected into Bond’s arm and a defibrillator built into Bond’s awesome car. Though there’s a quiet humor to Craig’s take, Bond does not crack a single one-liner in the film. The sci-fi contrivances of the previous film have been abandoned for a serious, focused story of espionage. It’s a major course correction for the Bond series, taking the series further back then its cinematic roots. The film closely follows Ian Fleming’s original novel, further solidifying its commitment to making the most serious Bond adventure yet.

That tough tone is established early one. The first scene is shot in stark black-and-white. Bond confronting a dirty MI-6 agent is cut with Bond exterminating a mark in a grungy bathroom. The fight is brutal, both men being tossed through doors and walls. After killing the guy, we cut back to the present where Bond coldly plants a bullet in the agent’s head. Throughout the film, 007 does a lot of spying, sneaking around and following leads. He is focused on the mission. However, he’s also still learning. His tendency to let things get out of control, leading to big explosions, is the result of inexperience, not business as usual. He makes mistake but always keeps fighting, his gaze straight ahead. His ability to read people comes in handy during the poker match. Bond’s real good at killing but his will to succeed and ability to understand his opponents is what makes him a great agent.

If “Casino Royale” features a serious, hard Bond, its villain also plays with expectations. Le Chiffre appears at first to be an expected Bond villain. The scar over his eye, and his tendency to weep blood, follows Ian Fleming’s tendency to give his bad guys deformities. However, Mads Mikkelsen gives Chiffre an unexpected quality. After loosing his money, he has an air of desperation about him. His life literally depends on beating Bond at poker. He is repeatedly threatened by his own employers. At the end, his face is caked with sweat as he looses more hope, time running out. Just to emphasize how fallible Le Chifree is, he frequently huffs on an inhaler. Yet the character never looses his sense of executing coolness. Though fully human, he’s still a serious threat to Bond. This is a testament to Mikkelsen’s ability as an actor, who creates a fully formed character that is still a viable villain.

Though a young agent, James Bond is still a womanizer. He easily seduces Solange, the wife of one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen. Caterina Murino is gorgeous in the part. However, her role is small and, typically, she ends up dead soon. The main girl throughout “Casino Royale” is Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green. Craig and Green share an immediate chemistry. The two meet on a train and spend their first scene sizing each other up. There’s a lot of humor but the two are obviously interested in each other. At first, the bond they share is light-hearted flirting. However, a sturdier connection quickly forms. A touching scene, something Fleming’s Bond would never do, has Bond comforting Lynd in the shower after she nearly dies. It’s a dynamite performance from Green. Her exotic beauty, including those piercing eyes, hides an innate vulnerability.

Since this is a brand new Bond, “Casino Royale” fills out its supporting cast with new faces. Except for one. Smartly, the producers kept Judi Dench as M. Whether or not this is meant to be the same character from the Brosnan film is a question for continuity nerds. She treats this Bond differently anyway. She’s harsher to Craig’s Bond, having a lower tolerance for his bullshit. However, she also sees his value as an agent, sharing a strangely maternal bond with her top agent. Another new face is Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. Wright’s Leiter has a coolness and a confidence well suited to the character. The character’s role is fairly limited, save for putting up money for Bond so he stay in the game. However, Wright is a welcomed addition. After the character not being around for four movies, it’s nice to see Felix again.

“Casino Royale” works best as a thriller but it still features some great action sequences. The movie actually begins with a great chase scene. Bond pursues the bomb-maker through the streets of Madagascar. The man, seemingly a parkour expert, leaps up walls and around structures. Bond isn’t as skilled. However, his determination sees him through. My favorite bit comes when the bomb maker swings gracefully over a wall. Bond, however, crashes right through it. He doesn’t have time for that shit. An earlier moment, when he takes chase in a bulldozer, also nicely displays Craig’s low-tolerance for nonsense. A stand-off in a museum is nicely tense, 007 never breaking character even when a knife is pointed at his chest. The scene builds towards a struggle with the terrorist, inside the front seat of a tanker truck, careening towards the plane. Bond and his adversary struggle against one another, both coming dangerously close to being tossed from the vehicle. Meanwhile, cop cars get tossed aside by an in-coming jet or harmlessly run over by the bigger vehicle. The pay-off to the scene is fantastically engineered and catches the viewer off guard.

In contrast to its action-packed first half, the second half of “Casino Royale” is all about poker. It’s a testament to the film’s strengths that these scenes are no less exciting. Now, there’s still some action. Bond grapples with a pair of killers inside a cramped staircase, nearly getting cut with a machete and tumbling over banisters. His opponents poisoned him, leading to a last minute attempt to revive himself, an incredibly tense moment. For the most part though, it’s all about poker. The script and Martin Campbell’s direction are so well coordinated that even someone like myself, who has no understanding of the game at all, can easily follow the action. The player’s shifty-eyed observation of each other and game of wills is as captivating as the fight scene. And just in case you lost interest, the film wraps up its second act with an impressive car crash and a sickeningly intense torture scene. That torture scene, with its bruised testicles and knotted rope, is probably some of the most disturbing, uncomfortable stuff to ever make it into a PG-13 blockbuster.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t end with Le Chifree’s defeat. Instead, “Casino Royale” goes on a bit further. We see Bond and Vesper recovering from their ordeal. He declares his love for her and the two have a seemingly idyllic happy ending. Anyone familiar with Fleming’s book knows what comes next. The love of Bond’s life betrays him before killing herself. The movie includes a tense fight-scene in a collapsing Venice home, featuring nail gun murder and tossed bodies. However, the emotional climax of the film comes when Vesper dies in Bond’s arms. He speaks the infamous line from the novel, about “the bitch" being dead, but his hurt and pain is obvious. In “Casino Royale’s” final seconds, he properly introduces himself as Bond, James Bond, the theme song roaring in on the soundtrack. This is it, guys, the birth of the Bond we know, the cold-hearted blunt instrument, building a wall of violence and national loyalty over a wounded heart.

“Casino Royale” features great performances, a beautifully realized romance, some fantastic action, but maintains a thrilling, intense tone throughout. Though the longest Bond movie yet at 144 minutes, the pacing is constantly barreling ahead and never falters. This new dark n’ gritty Bond was obviously influenced by the Jason Bourne series. But it one-ups that franchise at its own game, proving that there’s only one king of the cinematic spies. I’ll go ahead and say it: “Casino Royale” is the best James Bond movie yet made. It’s serious film making but still wonderfully entertaining yet also surprisingly touching. [Grade: A]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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