Friday, March 16, 2007

Casino Royale

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikellsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Caterino Murino
Running Time: 144 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

I have a confession to make: I've never been a Bond fan. From the silly opening credits, to the stupid theme music, to the silly gadgets, the campy one-liners and the women named after female body parts. The only actor I ever liked in the role was Sean Connery and I actually felt a great deal of sympathy for him having been saddled with it. The latest incarnation of Bond asks us to forget all of that. In fact, it asks us to flat-out pretend it never happened.

We're back at the beginning and this Casino Royale is a faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming's source material, not to be confused at all with the 1977 Bond spoof of the same name starring Peter Sellers. I always thought it was ironic that they made a parody of the Bond films since they were really just parodies of themselves anyway. This isn't. In an effort that likely made the Bond producers' heads explode, they actually managed to greenlight a 007 movie with a shred of intelligence that actually takes itself seriously. That's a reason to see the film, but not THE reason. The whole thing works because of Daniel Craig's performance. I would say he's born to play James Bond, but that would be an insult because he's capable of so much more than that as an actor and here creates a Bond completely unlike any of his predecessors. In other words, he's a complete bad ass.

The movie starts off with Bond being assigned 00 status even though M (a returning Judi Dench) doesn't think he's anywhere close to being ready and lets him know it. From there the movie actually has us worried that it will follow the traditional James Bond non-stop action and no plot formula it's mastered for years. There's a spectacular sequence involving a scaffold chase and later an attempt by Bond to stop a bombing at the Miami Aiport. Where the movie goes next though, is surprising and ends up setting it apart from every single Bond movie before it. There's actually an attempt (and a largely successful one at that) to bring depth to the story and characters. To build suspense. To make James Bond an actual person, instead of the wisecracking cartoon character we've been tortured with for the last three decades.

Like most of the Bond films he must bring down a world renowned terrorist (a baddie named Le Chiffre played by Mads Mikkelsen) but now things are a little more interesting. To do it he must enter a poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Oh and he can't lose because if he does he's basically funding terrorism. No pressure. Along for the ride, watching his back and the money is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Fans of Bond will be surprised just how little action there is as a lot of this movie takes place at the poker table.

Much effort is put into building not only tension, but developing the relationship between Bond and Vesper. For once I got the impression the Bond girl was actually an important part of the story and not just there for decoration. The romance develops between the two happens in a way that's believable and subtle, two words I never thought I'd use in a review of a James Bond film. It helps that Green gives probably the best performance ever from a Bond girl (although I'm not too sure how high a compliment that is). It was almost as if the filmmakers finally woke up and realized that it was okay to finally make a Bond movie that was gritty and realistic with characters who have actual feelings and motivation.

At times though, they almost got too carried away as there were long stretches during the film where absolutely nothing was happening. At almost two and a half hours the film goes on for about a half hour to forty minutes too long. Also, you're likely to spot a plot twist toward the end of the film coming from miles away. Those are minor complaints in the broad scheme of things and a small price to pay for watching the best Bond outing in decades.

Casino Royale was directed by Martin Campbell and Paul Haggis has a writing credit on it, which isn't a surprise since he seems to write everything we see these days. It's beautifully shot in exotic locations, has a great feel to it and technically the most well made of all the Bond pictures. The film just drips in cool from it's lead character to the atmosphere surrounding him, and takes the best elements from the 60's era Connery Bond films, while wisely removing the campy qualities. The opening credit sequence (which in previous Bond movies have been unbearably cheesy) is visually amazing and Chris Cornell should have been giving an acceptance speech on Oscar night for his original song, "You Know My Name."

After viewing the special features on this 2 disc special edition release (which includes a documentary on all the actresses to play Bond girls) I was reminded just how awful some of those Bond movies have been. Worse than I remembered them, if that's even possible. This movie didn't have much competition, but still it's quite good. Like those other films it's mindless entertainment, but with much better writing and a performance from Daniel Craig that elevates the material. He has the ability and the opportunity that other actors playing Bond didn't to show vulnerability. How many other Bonds can you remember actually falling in love and being brutally tortured?

This is a change the series needed desperately and it boggles my mind it wasn't done sooner. Maybe it's because they couldn't find the right guy who could pull it off. It took a while but they finally found him in Craig. He's the reason to see this movie. No one else can do the role justice and every second he's on the screen he proves it. He's now stuck (for better or worse) playing Bond. I say for better or worse because he's undeniably incredible at it, but we all know someone with his talent should playing roles with more depth to them than this. I hope he chooses to do other things because he's too good to be locked into this his whole career, despite the fact that for now it's a blast seeing him try. But at least the series is finally, for the first time in a while, heading in the right direction.

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