Saturday, November 18, 2006

Casino Royale is a pretty damn solid flick.

I'm not a huge James Bond fan. Not to say that I don't enjoy the adventures of the beloved superspy, but just that I'm not as big a fan as I am of, say, the Star Wars movies. Especially the last few years of Bond movies. While I think that Pierce Brosnan made a suave Bond, his scripts let him down. The movies became clones of action movies, trying to top one another in the sheer ridiculous quotient. (Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist named Dr. Christmas Jones, solely for the filthy double entendre at the end that you could see "arriving" from a mile away). Much like the Batman series once Schumacher took over, the movies seemed to exist for the toys, even if the Bond toys were solely on screen.

And now we have Casino Royale, which actually continues the Batman comparison with the "rebooting" of the franchise from the beginning. Low tech, bringing the series back to it's roots, showing a beloved hero from the beginning, etc. The comparisons are endless, and the greatest comparison is that they, like Nolan and his Batman Begins team, made an unbelievably kick ass movie that washes away the taste of some of the lesser films that came previously.

Daniel Craig, the uber suave lad from Layer Cake and Munich, takes over the reigns as Bond. James Bond. And he does a great job. Gone are the horrible puns and double entendres. Now, we have a no nonsense, take cahrge kind of Bond. But he's also a little more vulnerable, as he is still a bit wet behind the ears. Hell, he only achieves his double "0" status (as in 007) at the beginning of the movie. Our Bond also has a bit of an ego problem. this wouldn't be so bad if the script didn't keep reminding us of this every twenty minutes or so.

(I attribute this to the collaboration on the script by Paul Haggis, who also brought us the "racism is bad" theme in the Oscar winning Crash. It was kind of hard to miss that point. Haggis writing Crash is also a fun fact to consider in the beginning of the film, when Bond is at the Ugandan embassy, shooting at black men, while he is the only white guy there. Not an intentional theme, but something fun to think of nonetheless).

So, we have a new Bond, fresh from his promotion to 007 status, in Uganda, where he pursues a bomb maker. The bomb maker, it turns out, is a student of parkour, the ridiculously awesome stunt movements featured prominently in District B13. However, the chase scene that ensues between Bond and the bombmaker is ten times better than all the scenes in B13 combined. Seriously.

In fact, all the action scenes in Casino Royale feel fresh and re-invigorated. If there's any CGI enhancement, it's done seamlessly. But they feel like a return to old fashioned stunt work. There are no car chases with gadgets and smoke screens. bond gets royally abused, beaten down, and almost castrated. (That was a fun scene). He's not invincible, and Casino Royale reminds you of this.

The action scenes are only half the pleasure, though. The story follows Bond as he tracks down Le Chiffre, who has a weird eye and likes to compute statistics. He's also a banker for terrorists. Le Chiffre has a plan, involving war lord money and the stock exchange. When Bond foils this (I won't spoil the hows and whys) Le Chiffre puts all his money on a poker game. Yes, a poker game. And Bond's new mission is to beat Le Chiffre in this poker game. Which takes place at... wait for it... Casino Royale! (Title!)

I realize I write about how there's a new dramatic force behind this film, and it's main set piece revolves around a poker game. (Changed from the original Ian Fleming novel's baccarat, I'm guessing due to popularity). But it lends itself to some suspensful scenes, but more importantly, it lays down the groundwork for some important moments in the Bond legacy, namely his discovery of good martinis and the tux. That scene with Bond first putting the tux on is done quite nicely.

There are other staples of the Bond series, such as the elaborate credit sequence (with a song courtesy of ex-Soundgarden/current Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell), the classic Aston Martin and beautiful Bond women. (Eva Green plays Vesper Lynd, and holds her own against Craig. And she's quite easy on the eyes to boot). But the movie isn't interested in winking and nodding to the audience about these things. It's about establishing Daniel Craig as James Bond in a post 9-11 (and more importantly post-Bourne) society. For this alone, the movie is a complete success. I credit director Martin Campbell, director of the first Brosnan Bond "Goldeneye", as well as the criminally underrated and terminally badass "No Escape"

Craig plays Bond very well. I'm not going to make ludicrous comparisons to previous Bond actors, because opinions vary on other Bond portrayals. Is he as good as Connery was in the role? Hells yes. Craig is suave, sophisticated, but just unhinged enough to make you believe him as a real man, not just the super agent we've come to associate Bond with. You even get to see Bond fall in love, a rarity for the series. And you also get to see him kick some ass. And take some names. Craig was the first step in many steps that assured Casino Royale would turn out to be a really good movie. For once, I'm truly excited when I see the words "James Bond Will Return".

PS- I didn't give him any credit, but Jeffrey Wright plays series staple Felix Leiter. I didn't single him out because the very fact that he's in a movie means he's going to be awesome. Casino Royale proves this point.

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