Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "Casino Royale"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of Casino Royale, which I originally reviewed in December of 2006. The film relaunched the James Bond series with Daniel Craig in the lead, resulting in what I believe is the greatest run on Bond movies in the franchise’s 50 plus years. Other than a ridiculous torture scene, Casino Royale is perfect, which is why you’ll see I called it the greatest Bond film (although Skyfall challenged that title six years later).
The whole movie, and really a great deal of this Daniel Craig run of
Bond films, hinges on the relationship with Vesper Lynd.
After 44 years in Hollywood, James Bond has finally received a notable makeover. Obviously, he’s changed a bit over the years, with five different actors and various levels of campiness pervading the first 20 films.
However, with the hiring of Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to play the super spy, Bond’s gone through his most significant changes ever. He hasn’t just gone blonde; no, with Craig drinking the martinis and wearing the tux, Bond has also made a play for three-dimensionality.
While it will always remain debatable if Craig’s portrayal is as good as Connery’s iconic depiction, one thing is certain: Craig is without a doubt the best actor to carry a license to kill. Connery may have an Oscar on his shelf, but he’s got a sliver of the range that Craig, a long-time character actor who’s given great performance after great performance in films like Road to PerditionLayer Cake and Munich, brings to the table.
Turns out that range, which would’ve been unnecessary in many past Bond films, is of utmost importance in the latest Bond outing, Casino Royale. This is a Bond that screws up, bleeds (a lot) and gets down and dirty with his kills. He barely uses gadgets and when asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
Most importantly, although he’s a cold-blooded killer, he shows surprising sensitivity and genuinely falls in love. Craig pulls all of this off, but he can’t be given all of the credit. After all, the excellent script is what demands these things of his James Bond.
Like last year’s Batman BeginsCasino Royale aims to reboot the legend of its hero. The film opens very stylistically, with director Martin Campbell (who helmed Goldeneye, the best Pierce Brosnan flick) utilizing black and white, grainy film stock and obtuse camera angles, as Bond gets his first two kills to achieve double-O status.

Once the color kicks in, so does the plot. The film is divided into three acts. The first, the most Bondian by previous movie standards, has two thrilling chase scenes, and shows Bond at his smoothest, upstaging bad guys and charming one of their wives, while trotting all over the world looking to identify his mark: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Le Chiffre needs to win the pot at an exclusive poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, as he recently lost a good bit of some very bad people’s money (due to the meddlings of Bond in the first act). A great poker player, Bond gets shipped to Montenegro with an accountant named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) along for the ride.

The second act slows things down considerably, taking place mostly at the poker table. Despite minimal action, this portion is tension-packed, both at the table in interchanges between Bond and Le Chiffre, and in the fatal way Le Chiffre attempts to take Bond out of the game. The budding romance between Bond and Vesper further builds the tension.

I won’t get into the third act, other than to say it goes in an unexpected direction, showcasing a fallible Bond scraping to keep things together.

Bond hasn’t been this real since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the last time producers attempted to humanize him with an actual love interest (as opposed to a sexual conquest). It works a lot better in this film, with Craig successfully essaying a Bond that still hasn’t learned to detach himself from life.

For her part, Green cuts out a memorable character. She’s vulnerable, conflicted and, to appease the purist, beautiful. She goes toe-to-toe with Craig in their verbal bouts, and is totally believable as the woman who could melt the heart of such a cold secret agent. She’s a big reason why the romantic relationship, and thus Bond’s conflict, works so well.

Mikkelsen does a good job showing the desperation of Le Chiffre, a man with a tell even worse than Malkovich’s in Rounders. Dame Judi Dench, the lone holdover from the Brosnan days, is given much more to do this time around as M, and she’s perfectly matched with Craig. In a smaller role, the dynamic Jeffrey Wright shows up as Felix Leiter, a mainstay in the Bond tradition. It is noteworthy that Felix and M seem to be the only two returning characters; Moneypenny and Q are nowhere in sight.

Over the years, the James Bond series has adhered to a very specific formula. While a handful of the films have been good in their own right, specifically the first few Connery films, the rest have managed to coast along on explosions, babes, charm, ridiculous schemes and gadgets.

Casino Royale screws with the formula by adding a sense of reality to the world Bond inhabits, while simultaneously adding depth to the super spy himself. It’s a welcome change of pace, and the series seems to be headed in an exciting new direction with a riveting leading man. So, if you’re looking for an action film in the midst of the holiday season, Casino Royale is the film to see. It’s the best action film of the year, and the best Bond film period. A