Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Casino Royale

  *Given that I actually watched Casino Royale about two months ago, well before I started this 007 marathon, some portions of this review will be taken from this review I published at the beginning of the year. Simply because I feel like that review almost perfectly captured my feelings on the movie, which have barely changed since. However, given that part of my objective with this, and with any, big marathon is to update one's views on a movie. Watching all of the 007 movies in release order has given me a unique perspective on them, which extends into Daniel Craig's era as well. So I have written fresh material for this review which delves into my thoughts on how this one stacks up against the others, what it takes from them, what it avoids, and why it's simply... the best.

  In the several year gap between Die Another Day, and Casino Royale, the powers that be decided that Bond would need to go in a different direction. The "Bond formula" so to speak, had become woefully predictable. The movies themselves weren't strong enough to shoulder the weight of the in-your-face innuendo, the incessant bedroom scenes, and the tired utterances of "Bond, James Bond". The very things that were at one point welcome familiarity, had become annoying cliches. With the Dalton movies, we saw the potential for a darker Bond. One that could maintain the image and the trappings of the MI6 agent we all know and love, but without being weighed down and held back by the cliches that were quickly turning into poison for our beloved 007. The Brosnan era movies had glimpses of that potential realized, but squandered it in the end with the laughable Die Another Day. Thus...

  Casino Royale was made. It was both timely, and on the money with it's depiction of James Bond and the world he inhabits. Everything is sharper and no-nonsense. It dispenses with the super-soldier angle of the Brosnan movies and introduces Daniel Craig as a proper, balls-to-bone spy. Not just any spy, but a spy in vein of Sean Connery's 007. The opening of Casino Royale is in black and white, but the more I see it, the more it reminds me of Dr.No. There's a scene in Dr.No where Bond has to shoot a traitor, and he does so in the most coldhearted fashion. All without rising from his chair. Craig manages to pull off an incredibly similar moment in the opening. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Craig is an old school spy. He kills in cold blood and can dole out even colder quips without it being funny in the slightest. Like Connery, when Craig quips... it's scary.

  He plays Bond well. Not just the suaveness and the swagger, but the blank stares and the detached attitude too. This is the Bond that movies like License to Kill and Die Another Day teased us with. This Bond is at home in the pervasive silence that briefly reared it's head in The World is Not Enough. Bond is here with vodka martinis and bloodied tuxedos. We see him hurt often, bleeding, and broken. Both physically and emotionally. It's no surprise that it seems emotional pain hurts him worse than anything else the movie throws at him, including a gritty torture scene. Yet Bond is Bond, and this is a 007 movie. It's all here, the beautiful women, the nail biting suspense, the flashy cars, and all his trademarks. What works about Casino Royale is that it mixes the best elements of all the previous Bond movies, in just the right measurements. It's most definitely a proper spy thriller.

  It's plot demands you pay attention almost more than even the action scenes do. Which is a pretty amazing feat considering the action scenes are some of the most grounded and impressive stuff to date in the franchise. From a fantastic multi-tiered foot chase early on, having Bond run down a bomb maker, to an explosive showdown at an airport, and a claustrophobic bloody brawl pitting Bond against two machete-wielding bad guys in a cramped stairwell. It's all insanely intense. It leaves you breathless. You'll notice though, it's not the same brand of action as the previous Bond movies. You won't find this Bond driving a tank through the streets of St. Petersberg, or spouting one liners in the middle of a fight. This is as grounded as it gets. Surprisingly, or not, I can't decide- Bond still works, and better than ever. He didn't need a plethora of gadgets, or several dozen scenes with him machine-gunning the bad guys. He certainly didn't need to bed every female that crossed his path, or make his getaways with a rocket pack.

  Casino Royale is almost a response to movies like The Bourne Identity. Another spy thriller that showed us that quick-thinking and brutality immediately trumps wit and gadgets. There will always be a place for wit and gadgets, but if you rely on them to make your movie, it will end up over-saturating. Which is what happened before Casino Royale. Nevertheless, Casino Royale does right and makes Bond a force of nature. After the most grueling ordeal... he can dust off his dinner jacket, adjust his cuff links, and act like he's only been away- freshening up. Not to say other Bonds haven't been able to pull this off to some extent, but Craig embodies it. What Bond is supposed to be like. Retrofitted for the modern spy game, for modern audiences, and for fans who are only capable of chuckling weakly at in-jokes and puns which have become drier than 007's trademark martini.

  With Casino Royale, we're not introduced to a Bond we've never seen before- only one we've forgotten about. Naysayers argue it's not true to form, yet I'd argue it's the truest. Side by side with Dr.No, they match rhythm so damn well. Bond is not a walking cliche this time. He's a character we're rediscovering as he's being introduced into this lurid mess of shady deals and licenses to kill. He lives and breathes the atmosphere, but he's a bit green. Casino Royale is the movie in which Bond cuts his teeth on. He becomes the 007 we all knew we loved. Which is why, at the end of the movie when the trademark theme slowly creeps up on us and we know what's coming- we're not ready with a weak chuckle, but a sense of excitement and anticipation. "Bond. James Bond." Words that had almost lost their impact, yet the movie behind them this time gives them new energy. Maybe they're not so relevant anymore, maybe people only need a hero like Jason Bourne... but Casino Royale itself is the perfect argument that Bond is still relevant.

  The other essential half of ANY 007 movie is the villain, which is what Dr.No did so well. Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. A sinister man who's gravitas is staggering, in the presence of brutal south African war lords and devious socialites who could afford to buy and sell your very life a thousand times over.  His onscreen presence is simply amazing. Sitting across from Bond, merely playing poker, and he somehow manages to be more threatening than a power hungry dictator with his finger on a big red button, wired to something catastrophic no doubt. This is where I am developing a theory... A Bond movie is only good if you could market the entire thing around the villain. I mean... your hero stays the same. More or less, you know what you like, you're already sold. If you can pull off a marketing strategy that focuses almost solely on the villain, then most likely you have a hit. If not... you have a Quantum of Solace. Le Chiffre would steal the entire movie from a lesser character, and Mads would from a lesser actor. Craig and Mikkelsen, Bond and Le Chiffre... they are fierce opponents, more brutal in their methods than any the franchise has seen before.

  Casino Royale updates the character and the franchise for modern times. It does so better than GoldenEye did in the 90's. It recognizes that villains are much more than comic book characters to people in a post 9/11 world. Thus, the stakes are incredibly high, and more is on the line than just money or any one or two lives- but perhaps hundreds and thousands of lives. Because, see, in this universe of 007- it's not so much about a bomb about to go off, or a massive laser orbiting Earth, about to eradicate a whole country... it's about terrorism. Letting a terrorist financier go free would be disastrous, and more or less that's what Le Chiffre is. Those are the stakes. The movie asks us to think ahead, to consider consequences. Not just flashy special effects that blaze across the screen, or allow a car to look invisible.

  A fantastic part of this movie is also how it reminds us about the rest of what makes 007 movies so fun. Exotic locations for example. The movie is nothing short of globe-trotting espionage. It's a broader type of thriller than say... The Bourne Identity. It's not drab or bleak either, lurid for sure. Murder and death follow Bond everywhere. But look at where he goes. The Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, London- it's all simply fantastic. The locations and the locale are interesting if not at the very least, visually interesting. This is something that's to be loved about the Bond movies. Classic sexy looking beach scenery is a must. Bright clear waters, golden sand, stunning blue skies- and yet... right around the corner someone is bound to get shanked in the back, or thrown out of a moving car, or shot, or punched, or... you get the picture. That sort of juxtaposition is really striking. Beauty with violence. Something 007 has revolved around since it's origins.

  On that note, this time, the Bond Girl so to speak, calls him out on it right away "you think of women as disposable pleasures-" and it's true. He does. So... he's not entirely different from the 007's of olden days. You can tell this is a woman who's not here just because she's pretty. She's not a typical damsel in distress, and she's not the opposite cliche either. She's not the sort to pick up a Kalashnikov alongside him and take out a few baddies. She's a real character, played by a real actress who was picked to be able to emote and bring life to this James Bond. It's funny how that works. Most Bond girls are eye candy, and Bond treats them as such. He's expected to. He's Bond. James Bond. Yet... this time, we have a character who seems like a real woman, and he begins to treat her and react to her like a real person. Someone who maybe shouldn't be called a "Bond Girl". The title is too kitschy for such a character. Bond grows to care about her. A statement that in and of itself seems kitschy, but the movie pulls it off in such a way that the inevitable tragedy that climaxes their relationship will forever shape him into the cold hearted secret agent we all know and cheer for. The difference now? We understand, and dare I say... we sympathize. It's a stone's throw from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but somehow pulls it off so much better.

  Is this too serious and droll for a James Bond movie? Not at all. There are poisoned martinis, car chases, foot chases, shootouts, fist fights (a machete ends up involved no less) and death defying stunts that still manage to make me gasp for air a little bit. Yet we actually care about this man, this... James Bond. Who while is so unlike the cookie cutter cliche his namesake had devolved into, he seems new. Fresh. Yet is on a journey which will make him cold and broken. Yet does that mean he has to be a boring character after this movie? Casino Royale promises: No. Because we can care about this character, and because he's wrapped up in such a well written story, airtight if you will- all the stunts and the action scenes and everything is that much more engaging. And the filmmakers' efforts to keep them somewhat grounded and semi-plausible help create this world that this Bond inhabits. It's not above supervillains, but maybe these supervillains play poker instead of rant about world domination... and maybe they're scarier like that.  Which is why this 007 works so damn well.

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