Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"50 Years of Bond" Retrospective - #21: Casino Royale

With Die Another Day leaving a sour aftertaste, EON decided that they needed to begin focusing more on quality. They were gonna be consistent this time, but what were they gonna do? Taking a cue from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (which was actually inspired by the Bond saga), the studio rebooted the series from scratch, serving up a brand new timeline. Their next movie was going to be Ian Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale, which had been adapted as a Peter Sellers parody in the late 60’s… and it sucked. There had been a number of potential directors interested, including Quentin Tarantino, who had planned to shoot the film in black and white, set it in the novel’s original 50’s setting, and would have used Brosnan once more as Bond.

Fascinating idea, but the studio once again enlisted GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, but casting Bond himself was a tricky task. They had a number of considerations including the likes of Goran Visnjic, but the actor they eventually went for was Daniel Craig. Craig was a respected actor who’d been in several great films, but he was not a household name at the time, and having never headlined a major release before, many had doubts that he could pull it off. In my opinion, not only do I think he was the best possible choice, I’d dare call him the best Bond ever, but maybe that’s a personal bias. For many viewers, this was their introduction to 007. I was 14 at the time this movie came out, and this was the first Bond film I ever saw, and when you’re a newcomer to a franchise decades older than you, this is exactly where you want to start.

Since the movie starts the timeline over, there’s no Moneypenny, no Q, and Bond hasn’t even met Felix Leiter yet. He’s recently been promoted to double-O status, but after a botched mission pursuing an incredibly athletic man with a LOT of stamina (This one action scene goes on for close to ten minutes), he begins investigating a new case. With the help of enlisted accountant Vesper Lynd, Bond plans to take down Le Chiffre, a banker believed to be funding terrorist groups, and now seeks to gain more money to pay off debts by competing in a high stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em at the Casino Royale in Montenegro.

With this film, we get a much grittier take on Bond than has ever been seen before. In fact, this film looks more into Bond’s past than any of the other films combined. It still stays true to what made the Bond films so classic in the first place, but it’s giving it a much needed facelift, fully bringing the character into the 21st century. Presentation-wise, it’s quite impressive, although I do think the movie was in need of a slight trim. It clocks in at close to two and a half hours, and maybe some supplemental material could have been left out, but this complaint might as well have been a nit-pick. And while we’re addressing presentation, the opening title sequence set to Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” not only has one of my favorite songs of the Bond saga, but these are my favorite opening titles in the series. Period.

In the case of Campbell’s direction, it’s as strong as the series could have. Much like he did with GoldenEye, his pacing works beautifully. He knows when to let the action do the talking, and when to give the audience some breathing room, and focus on the characters. Speaking of action, it’s terrific. There’s a lot of entertainment to be had from them, and I even have one soft spot for an airport chase that takes place in my home state of Florida. But, for all the set pieces, I’m more intrigued by the slow burning poker scenes. I have never cared much for poker games, but the built up tension and anticipation, including one harrowing scene where Bond is poisoned, just add to the drama, and I mustn’t forget one other moment, an agonizing scene where Bond is tortured.

Next up, of course, is Bond himself. Let’s get one thing clear. Craig is not the typical Connery kind of charming Bond that you’d expect, but he is the Bond that we deserve. He’s certainly still got a distinctive charisma, but it’s much more muted, allowing the intensities and complexities to come forth. He’s very icy and detached, which works well seeing as how the character does have a license to kill, which would only make sense for him to be that way. Even the filmmakers are more interested in focusing on his WRITING than on his charm, touching on his past, and his inner imperfections. The villains here are fantastic, the side cast is wonderful, and Judi Dench, the ONE original cast member that they salvaged, is superb as always.

Lastly, one cannot review this movie without talking about Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green. My god, what can I say about this performance that everyone hasn’t already said a thousand times? She’s brilliant, she’s charming, she’s smart, she’s witty, she’s sincere, she has depth and great development, and the chemistry that she shares with Craig is simply incredible. It’s hands down the best performance in ANY Bond film ever. And I like the fact that Bond legitimately falls in love with her, rather than just treating her like another expendable figure, so there’s some actual emotional resonance at the core of it all.

When this movie was released, it blew up like GoldenEye. It restored interest in the franchise after far too much flailing, it was a box office smash, and it made Daniel Craig an overnight superstar. To this day, it’s considered one of the very best Bond films, and while I don’t think it quite beats Goldfinger, it comes about as close as any movie ever could. It did exactly what the studio wanted, and it paved the way for the future, becoming a risk that was well worth taking.

****1/2 / *****

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