Friday, November 14, 2008

Film Review: Casino Royale (2006) Plus the Bond Films Ranked

With today's opening of Quantum of Solace, here is a review of the last James Bond adventure, which introduced Daniel Craig to the role of 007.

Casino Royale brings the James Bond character back to his roots and begins with a pre-title sequence that charts his first two "kills" earning him "00" status. The sequence is, boldly, in black-and-white and although his second job as assassin is a bit standard and awkward, the first man Bond kills ( who dies "not well") is shown in a kinetic and disturbing way: paving the way for Bond's characterization as a "blunt instrument." And off we go, into the clever title sequence which uses a design from a deck of cards as its motif and even includes a brief glimpse of Bond girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). I did miss the gunbarrel logo opening-- but it's expected to return in Quantum of Solace.

The opening action scene has Bond chasing down a bomb maker whom he has been tracking and from whom he needs to extract some information. A weakness of the film as a whole is in the first half we have no idea what mission Bond is on and, thereby, what's at stake. The series' formula gets this right: Bond sees M. and the mission is laid out at the outset-- this is missing from Casino Royale. And unfortunately, when we are given the mission it is patently uninteresting: Bond must beat Le Chiffre at cards in order that he doesn't use the money to further finance terrorism. The general plot is the same in the novel, except Le Chiffre is fleshed out so much more: we realize what taking him out means. In Casino Royale, the movie, he is far less sinister (even with the added malady of a eye that "weeps blood").

Getting back to the opening sequence-- its exciting, if "overproduced." The best part of it is the bombmaker's interesting way of eluding Bond: employing parkour (a running style for which the actor used here, Sebastien Foucan, is an expert) and having Bond find alternate ways to keep up with him (the bombmaker vaults through a high opening above a wall, and Bond crashes through the drywall). But there is a screenwriteryness to the proceedings: everything is laid out for the chase. Plus, the helicopter shots take the viewer away from the action, instead of adding to it.

Bond causes a disturbance (to say the least) at the foreign embassy in which the assaliant flees and ends up on the run from MI6 (although it's unclear why he has to be: supposedly, though, to clear things up and keep his job). Enter Judi Dench as M. After a rocky series of performances through the Pierce Brosnan films, Judi Dench gives her best performance yet as M. She bursts out of a meeting in which Bond's antics have causes her to be called to the carpet: "Who the hell do they think they are?" she growls, then: "I report to the Prime Minister, and even he's smart enough not to ask what we do." In her scenes with Bond she is tough on him (but that old glint of respect is there ["I knew you were you" she says at one point]); this is the M from the Bernard Lee days, the M. from the novels.

Next, Bond foils a plan (after some investigation in Nassau, Bahamas) regarding Miami airport and a prototype airplane, the Skyfleet S570. The sequence at the airport is exciting but a little too reminiscent of the truck sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Plus, the bomber's plan seems hardly a well-thought out one: how many things could have gone wrong even without Bond there. Plus actor Claudio Santamaria plays the bomber pretty much like the Terminator: distracting.

Finally the main mission is clear. Le Chiffre is desperate to recoup monies he gambled on the stock market (in a plot foiled by Bond in the preceding) and must enter a high stakes card game and win; Bond, as MI6's best card player must try to beat him, supplied by the British government's money through representative Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). The two meet aboard the train to Montenegro and their verbal byplay, although occasionally unnatural ("How was your lamb?" "Skerwered."), gets their contentious relationship started while offering up some sexual tension.

The casino gameplay is probably the weakest part of Casino Royale. It comes across as confusing and uninteresting (on first viewing we never really know who's winning and why despite the distracting and uncinematic play-by-play by Bond's contact Rene Mathis [Giancarlo Giannini]). Rather than feeling suspense the audience just tries to keep up. Within the breaks of the game, are the most brilliant set piece in the film and the weakest. The weakest involves Bond getting posioned and going out to his car in which a antidote machine resides in his glove compartment (!)-- this has nothing to do with the plot nor the tone of the movie and belongs maybe in Roger Moore's Moonraker or Pierce Brosnan's Die Another Day-- but not here. The other set piece has Bond fighting two henchmen on a stairwell, with Vesper trying to get out of danger: it's nailbiting two-fisted excitement... and it shows exactly what Bond is up against and of what he's capable.

Following the card sequence, we're back on track... Bond ends up trying to chase Le Chiffre down and, in an improvement over the book, he is stopped. In the book, a set of spikes is laid out for Bond to run over; the movie uses something else, which I won't reveal-- but it's a terrific idea, and has the same result: stopping Bond dead in his tracks. What follows is straight out of the book-- the torture of Bond-- and the moviemakers absolutely excelled in depicting this scene. They even managed to put humor in it!-- chalk up another notch for Mr. Daniel Craig.

The final section of the film is slightly hard to follow and makes the film feel really long. The last set piece is contrived to say the least. Ultimately, we're left with a terrific debut by Daniel Craig, the first Bond film to properly exploit Judi Dench's thespian chops, and a major shot-in-the-arm for the 007 franchise.

Casino Royale: Acting is first rate in this James Bond series entry, that doesn't set itself up properly and slows down in the middle, but shows a full-blooded, fallible, yet unstoppable, Bond.

James Bond Films Ranked:

1. From Russia With Love— 1963 (*** 1/2)
2. For Your Eyes Only— 1981 (*** 1/2)
3. Thunderball— 1965 (*** 1/2)
4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service— 1969 (*** 1/2)
5. Goldfinger— 1964 (***)
6. The Spy Who Loved Me— 1977 (***)
7. The Living Daylights— 1987 (***)
8. Diamonds Are Forever— 1971 (***)
9. Goldeneye— 1995 (***)
10. Casino Royale— 2006 (***)

11. Never Say Never Again— 1983 (** 1/2)
12. Octopussy— 1983 (** 1/2)
13. Die Another Day— 2002 (** 1/2)
14. Moonraker— 1979 (** 1/2)
15. Dr. No— 1962 (** 1/2)
16. You Only Live Twice— 1967 (** 1/2)
17. A View To A Kill— 1985 (** 1/2)
18. License to Kill— 1989 (** 1/2)
19. Live and Let Die— 1973 (**)
20. Tomorrow Never Dies— 1997 (**)
21. The World Is Not Enough— 1999 (**)
22. The Man With the Golden Gun— 1974 (**)

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