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Entries in Casino Royale [2006] (1)

Wednesday
Nov092011

Casino Royale (2006)

Royale Without Cheese

As I may have written before, one of the most surprising aspects of being a film critic is watching movies I've already seen with a fresh set of eyes. I'd watched Casino Royale a half-dozen times in the five years since it came out, but when subjecting the movie to my Critic Brain yesterday, I was amazed at how fresh it all seemed. A few quibbles aside, this is as close to a perfect film as I've seen.

Wait...

Do you hear that? Why, yes, that is the sound of two factions of indignant fanatics stampeding my way! From my lofty vantage point (forged by years of self-assuredness on a bedrock of snark), I can see that the first group is comprised of James Bond acolytes--which looks to be somewhat divided between fans of Ian Fleming's novels and fans of their filmed adaptations. Those Bond-ites make quite a din, but I can clearly make out battle cries of, "Daniel Craig sucks!", "Connery forever!", and, "The books are sooooo much better!"

The second faction is the Furious Film Freaks, my old gang. Their torches made of flaming Baby Mama DVDs and catapults loaded with Orson Welles biographies are as much a giveaway as their uniforms: replica satin jackets from the movie Drive and faces so used to scowling dismissively that they've hardened into implacable snob-masks. Their complaints are harder to register, coming out as half-formed hate-syllables of asthmatic disbelief.

How can I hold Casino Royale up as a near-perfect film? Easily: just about everything works; from script to score, from actors to action, "Bond 21" reinvigorates a franchise long mired in cheese. Granted, I haven't seen every movie in the series, but I've sampled a bit from each "era" (Connery, Moore, Brosnan, etc.), and am happy to report that not once did I wince at a silly line or get embarrassed watching a cartoonishly over-the-top stunt-piece.

For some, that's exactly what James Bond is supposed to be: a suave, tongue-in-cheek spy who saves the world from kooky villains with cat fetishes. But after Pierce Brosnan's curtain call in 2002's Die Another Day, it was, quite frankly, time for the series to grow up. There were enough real-world supervillains running around that one no longer needed to be be a caricature to be impressive or scary. Which is part of what makes Martin Campbell's series reboot so fantastic.

We meet Craig's Bond on his second "00"-initiation mission, in which he must take out an MI-6 traitor. Casino Royale opens in a slightly blue-tinted black-and-white scene, indicating a flashback, and then goes full-on grainy black-and-white for the flashback-within-a-flashback where Bond recounts his journey to the turncoat's office. Dryden (Malcom Sinclair), is a cheeky ham to Bond's steel-eyed killer, and it's not until the second flashback that we realize "Bond 21" won't be a campy spy film. Bond's wrestling with an informant in a men's room, throwing him through stalls and eventually drowning him with his bare hands, teaches us that that this is not yet the cool double agent of legend. He's a thug, a bruiser in need of grooming.

From here, we move right into the gorgeous Flash-animated opening credits sequence, featuring Chris Cornell and David Arnold's criminally underrated theme song, "You Know My Name". It's a completely badass tune sung from the point of view of the Devil (or an MI6 recruiter--your choice) that speaks to the temptation and danger of signing on as a professional killer.

Earlier, I said that Casino Royale is not perfect. Let's get the major flaw out of the way first: it's too long. That said, I don't know what the hell I would cut from it, as it's one of the few movies in which every scene is integral to a twisted, master plan. But the movie has a distinct, episodic quality; at just under two-and-a-half hours, it could easily be chopped up into a five-night series of half-hour mini-episodes, with cliffhangers and resolutions already built in.

The story proper begins in Uganda, where elite, international businessman Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) has arranged a meeting between an artillery-hungry warlord and criminal financier, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Lots of money and arms change hands, and we move on to Madagascar, where the newly minted Bond is on a surveillance mission. He and another young agent have cornered a bomb-maker named Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan), who has been hired by Le Chiffre to blow up an experimental plane.

Mollaka catches wind of his tail and engages Bond in a dizzying race through the city. It's here that Campbell and cinematographer Phil Meheux distinguish their film as a serious yet highly entertaining actioner. The bomb-maker is also a Parkour expert, and he leaps and twists his body impossibly as both men plow through a construction site. They run and climb, forever up, up, up, until they're suspended from a beam high above the city. It sounds impossible, but the choreography is such that we never lose sight of where the characters are, and can thus believe in their use of the environment as a moving toolbox of evasion and pursuit.

The Madagascar episode goes public, thanks to Bond's recklessness, and he is placed on suspension as MI6 head, M (Judi Dench), deals with a Parliamentary investigation. Never one to rest, Bond takes off for the Bahamas, tracking the source of a password that was sent to Mollaka's cell phone. This leads him to another middleman named Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), who has been tasked with finding Le Chiffre a replacement for Mollaka. Going further into this "episode" would spoil a lot of the fun for those who haven't seen Casino Royale, so I'll jump to the meat of the film.

Yes, the central plot doesn't kick in until about the half-way mark--which is fine, because all of the story elements build up to the high-stakes poker game in Monte Carlo and come full circle later on. Bond teams up with a member of the British Treasury named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to play Le Chiffre in a multi-million-dollar game of cards. At the table are all sorts of shady millionaires, as well as undercover CIA agent, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Campbell and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis wisely break up the tournament with several mini-adventures (the Ugandans show up for an impromptu investment-strategy meeting with Le Chiffre, Bond gets poisoned and dies for a minute, etc.). They also put a lot of "duh" in the dialogue so non-gamblers can follow along and appreciate just how screwed the characters are at any given moment.

Casino Royale is a hell of an adventure, full of exotic locations and inventive stunts and set-pieces, but its real triumph is showing James Bond's evolution from muscle to spy and from heartless loner to head-over-heels romantic (and back again). Craig's non-traditional-leading-man looks lend an authenticity to the character, the perfect complement to Bond's struggle to balance his history as a "blunt instrument" with the need to blend in with the rich monsters he hated growing up.

Green makes a great foil, comedically and romantically. Not only is she stunning in an evening dress, but she sells the many realities of Vesper Lynd without being too showy. It's cool to see Bond have a partner in crime (or in preventing crime, as it were), and I'm bummed that we won't get to see more of her in further Bond exploits (Oops. SPOILER!).

One last really interesting thing about the movie, a detail that the filmmakers likely didn't realize would become significant only a few years later: Casino Royale features a sub-subplot about betting millions of dollars against a major company's stock--a not-so-distant cousin of the credit default swaps that helped tank the global economy in 2008 (officially). This bit of texture adds a new layer of sinister coolness to the movie overall, and does more to enhance Le Chiffre's creepiness than the fact that he cries blood.

So, yes, I think Casino Royale is just about perfect. There's little chance of convincing the angry hordes of this, but if you, dear reader, can step back and look at the film objectively--without comparing it to the source material or the series' previous entries--it holds up incredibly well. If you get stuck, just imagine that Craig's character is named Arnie Lipschitz and have a great time.