Monday, November 20, 2006

In Theaters: Casino Royale

The defining moment of CASINO ROYALE comes in the first post-credits action sequence. (I'm trying a Roger Ebert thing, can you tell?) James Bond (Daniel Craig) is pursuing a bombmaker through a construction site. His quarry, in a feat of acrobatics that has a name I can't be bothered to look up just now (apologies to its adherents), leaps through a small opening into the next room. Bond himself simply decides to break through the wall.

You wouldn't expect Pierce Brosnan- or Dalton, or Moore, or Lazenby, or really, even Connery to do that. While Ian Fleming's Bond was always a bit of a bruiser, a calloused, hardened man, the movies always emphasized Bond's suave, charismatic side. CASINO ROYALE was, from the start, an effort to get the franchise back to basics after the mixed reception of the more cartoonish DIE ANOTHER DAY (which is in my Netflix queue, so I'll weigh in on it sometime.) So, the yet-again-rebooted Bond now reflects more of his literary heritage, less superhuman spy than blunt object. It's a grittier, coarser Bond film, shedding some of the obligatory tropes and tweaking others, but not straying so far from tradition that it's not unmistakably a 007 escapade.

Personally, I have a passing acquaintance with James Bond's screen adventures (and have read precisely one of Fleming's stories. It was "Property of a Lady", for those concerned.) I have mostly liked the ones I've seen, but occasionally been tired by their length, and Kabuki-like formal insistence on obeying convention. So CASINO ROYALE hits a lot of the right buttons for me. It's leaner, more energetic, and more visceral as a result. It's not quite great filmmaking, though it comes close at times. It is, however, superb as a spy thriller. No GOLDFINGER, but just maybe a DR. NO.

The film begins not with the traditional gun-barrel POV shot leading to a pre-credits action extravaganza, but a black and white scene as a not-yet-007 James Bond (Daniel Craig) executes a fellow MI6 operative who's been selling state secrets to the enemy. Killing him, plus the man's contact, gives Bond the two kills that instantly bump him into the "double-oh" status, and leads us into the gun-barrel shot and a colorful opening credits sequence.

Pursuing and eventually killing the bombmaker mentioned in the first paragraph, Bond discovers he is a member of a network called simply ELLIPSIS, which, as he investigates further in the Bahamas, is a group funding terrorists the world over and helping them gain access to important places. One of the group's major players is Le Chifre (Mads Mikkelsen), a strange fellow who bleeds tears and gambles both with cards and stocks. After a deal with a group in Africa, he instructs his broker to sell all his stock in an airline company, but Bond, tracking an Ellipsis member to Miami Airport, foils the intended airplane bombing that would have made that a wise decision. Somehow as a result of this, Chifre now owes some of his "business partners" over a hundred million dollars in money that he's lost in trade. He sets up and announces a high stakes poker game in Montenegro's Casino Royale in order to win all the money he needs. Picking up on this, MI6 again dispatch Bond not to kill Le Chifre, but to enter the game and win, ensuring the man's demise at the hands of his debtors and also making sure the money doesn't fall into the wrong hands. So, Bond, alongside MI6 accountant Vesper Lynd (the luscious Eva Green), heads for the Casino and, for the first time in his career, must be an elegant, dapper gentleman. And there's the question of winning a game of cards.

As you may have guessed from the summary, if the prerelease publicity didn't already let on, this is a prequel, showing Bond's very first outing as 007 and his journey on the way to becoming the man we met in 1963. Of course, the chronology's been messed with so that it's happening now, but this approach gives us a strong character arc for a protagonist who so often seems to go without- it is as much about his journey towards becoming Bond as it is about defeating Le Chifre and the other forces of evil.

I'm happy to add my voice to the chorus praising Daniel Craig (whom you may recall from my review of SYLVIA) as the new Bond. If Pierce Brosnan worked as 007 because he seemed born to wear formal, Craig works because he seems so ill at ease in it. He is still, at heart, a thug, and actively works to put himself at an emotional distance from everything. In order to kill, he can't care too much about killing. But despite this jaded quality, Craig also brings wit and humor and flashes of warmth and vulnerability. He's still likable, and ladies and some men will be pleased to know that he is in excellent physical shape and displays as much a number of times. (Hetero men and non-hetero women will also appreciate Green's combination of gentle charm and profound curviness.) And, for all the self-discovery taking place, Craig's Bond is indisputably badass, killing with a steely savagery and resisting horrific pain with one of the best comebacks imaginable.

In many ways Craig's take on Bond reflects the feel of the film: quite brutal and nasty, often cynical, but not without a sense of humor. (There is a particularly great self-referential moment where Bond presents Vesper with her assigned alias, something vaguely resembling the corny innuendoes following in the Pussy Galore tradition.) We do get some of the glamour, the conspicuous consumption, the elegance of the Bond films in the Casino scenes- they're a bit of a trap, putting us at ease before the bloodshed begins anew, but the blend works surprisingly well. And there are some truly awesome large-scale action setpieces, including the wild and hair-raisingly convincing airport chase. (Blink and you'll miss Richard Branson going through a metal detector.)

The film's third act is very strangely relaxed. Without spoiling too much, we the audience know that what seems to be happening can't really last, and I was expecting a somewhat familiar twist. What I got slightly defied my expectations, and in retrospect things make sense, but as it unfolds it's still a bit slow. The final action sequence is too messy for its own good, and I had trouble following some of what happened (a rare occurrence in a Bond action setpiece.) So, overall it falls just short of the greatness it could have achieved. But it gets pretty far nonetheless.

CASINO ROYALE is radical in some ways, but overall it may just be the kind of natural nudging-back-on-track the series has periodically undergone. It's part of the tradition to, every so often, tinker with the conventions and confound at least a few audience expectations; this one goes a little bit farther, but produces some pretty spectacular results. The Bond series feels fresh and alive again, and I eagerly await the next installment. This film may not be up to the level of, say, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, but it just might be on a par with DR. NO.

From the novel by Ian Fleming
Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis
Directed by Martin Campbell

Grade: A-

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