Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Casino Royale: The Review

I saw Casino Royale for the first time on Saturday night. I'll see it at least once more, then advance purchase the DVD, and make a final judgment as to how it stacks up with the fabled 007 series. I can say this, though: you will not come out of the theater feeling as though you'd be happier setting $8 aflame to see what it smells like. And that's better than you can say for most movies these days.

Let's break down "Casino Royale" by the essential categories.

Originality - Prequels are a tough sell for the brain. On one hand, they expect you to forget everything you know about the character and understand that they're starting from Square One. On the other, they expect you to appreciate the end result of the character development and some of the little moments that hint at what's yet to come. For instance, in one scene, Bond orders a vodka martini. The bartender asks if he'd like it shaken or stirred, and he replies, "do I look like I give a damn?" If you're a longtime fan of the Bond series, it's a mildly amusing in-joke. If you're watching an action movie about a secret agent named James Bond without knowing what's supposed to happen later on, it's a throwaway line without context. So like I said, I think prequels require a little bit of mental gymnastics, and some accomplish their purpose better than others.

This one accomplishes its purpose pretty well, I think. We learn a tremendous amount about James Bond, the man, and how he became 007. Pretty much everything from how a guy on a government salary came into owning a lavishly expensive Aston Martin to how he came to be the misogynist, cold-blooded killer we all know and love is covered. Previous Bond movies were pretty light on character development, and Casino Royale takes up the slack. That alone gives it serious points for originality.

Plot - Good, and pretty realistic, a change from previous Bond movies. Is it that far gone to believe that MI6 would be trying to take down a terrorist financier and that he would be organizing a high-stakes poker game to make money after losing millions in the stock market? I don't think so. Okay, the idea that said financier would knowingly allow an agent of the British government into such a game might be a stretch, but not ridiculously so. The final act (the movie does not, in fact, end with Bond pocketing $150 million from the poker game) advances the plot nicely, not to mention the character of James Bond. It does drag a little in parts, though. For instance, they could have snipped a good 10 minutes of the card game. And the stuff with MI6's contact in Montenegro was predictable.

Action - Excellent. The movie portrays Bond, at first, as something of an amateur at the whole "killing bad guys" thing, as the opening scene shows him dispatch a courier in a rather messy, and somewhat un-Bond-like manner. The scene involving the construction site chase is stellar. My lone complaint: the scene in the sewers, showing Bond tortured in perhaps the most painful of ways for a man, really should have earned the movie an R rating. Yes, when you get old, these are the things you think about. However, since I'm over 17, have no children and have already been as poisoned and jaded as I'm going to get by televised violence, it doesn't bother me. Since that's my only complaint, the action earns full marks.

Cinematography - Is this even the right word to use? Screw it, I'm doing it. Anyway, the movie is filmed well. The black and white opening is a nice touch, and the movie as a whole does a nice job of conveying the dark and gritty feel they're trying to get.

Bond Girls - The brunette in the Bahamas (can't be bothered to remember her name) is an 11 on the 10 scale, a 1 on the binary scale, and a 6 on the Clydesdale scale. Vesper Lynd, the Bond Girl for the bulk of the movie, is well-played, and sufficiently attractive, but she's not blowaway gorgeous or anything. In a neat twist, she's actually there to advance the plot and the character, as opposed to just being good scenery. Unrepentant chauvinist that I am, I can't decide if that's a good thing or not, but it makes the movie work well in this case.

Music - "You Know My Name" is the best Bond theme song in some time, certainly since "The Living Daylights" or "Nobody Does it Better". Chris Cornell was a good choice to do the song. They didn't go for a one-hit wonder (i.e. "Diamonds Are Forever", "The Man With The Golden Gun"). They didn't go for a hot "artist of the moment" with mediocre musical talent (i.e. "Tomorrow Never Dies", "For Your Eyes Only"). They didn't screw around with a superstar who was desperate to "explore the studio space" and thus do too much with it (i.e. "Goldeneye", "Die Another Day"). They just picked a good, solid musician and said, "make a kick-ass rock tune out of this." And he did. Well done, Chris! Also, they do a great job of holding off on the classic 007 theme until the perfect time.

Villain - It's hard to gauge Le Chieffre against previous Bond villains, because unlike most of the previous ones, he's not trying to take over the world or anything. But, as said above, he's realistic. There are almost certainly people like Le Chieffre out there right now (perhaps not possessing a birth defect like bleeding from the tear ducts), making money and financing the bad guys. Chances are, there are NOT men like Ernst Stavro Blofeld out there, plotting world domination. But, in this sense, the movie is hoist upon its own petard. When Le Chieffre gets his comeuppance, we don't feel any grand sense of relief or anything.

Bond - Daniel Craig is easily the most credible physical presence since Sean Connery. He also looks completely comfortable with a weapon, something you couldn't always say for Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton. He lacks Moore's charm, but I think that's partly by design, at least for this movie. Bond's just starting out as 007, and is portrayed more or less as a thug for the first part of the movie, which Craig nails perfectly. He's got the action hero part down pat. We'll have to see how well he can handle being the ladies' man in future movies. In Bond lore, it's universally accepted that Connery and Moore were the best, then a step down to Pierce Brosnan, then several steps down to Dalton and George Lazenby. Right now, Craig is on Brosnan's level, but I think he has a chance to enter the Connery-Moore pantheon.

Gadgets - The whole movie is basically an advertisement for cell phones. But beyond that, there's not much gadgetry. No Q appearances in this one. After the invisible car from "Die Another Day", that's not necessarily a bad thing.

As I said, it's far too early to say where Casino Royale stacks up among the Bond movies. Certainly, we can say it's better than Moonraker, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill. Where it ultimately ranks is a question for history to decide, but my snap judgment is that it belongs among the all-time best in series history.


Blogger AlexM said...

I really enjoyed Casino Royale.
It did a very good job of setting up the James Bond personality. One of the things I really liked was, as Phil said, the movement away from "save the world" to more... accessible arch villains. Too often Bond tries to go with the "moonraker" effect, which is the one bond which I refuse to watch, where some over arching "going to destroy the world." so in many ways it felt more true to the books. Bond was good, but not so damn good that he never broke a sweat.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Dr. Zoom said...

You're pretty much spot on, but Craig already surpasses Moore for me, and that's saying something, since I grew up with Moore as 007. The problem is, even young Moore was a bit foppish for my liking, and by Octopussy, he had just gotten silly. Craig brings a great gravitas to the role.

Also ... you liked "Nobody Does It Better"? Cough, cough.

I will have to rank the Bond themes in an upcoming blog entry. (Yes, my blog has risen from the ashes.)

3:05 PM  
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