The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, December 07, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Casino Royale

Full review behind the jump

Casino Royale

: Martin Campbell
: screenplay by Neil Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Dame Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini

Sergio Leone’s
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly showed Clint Eastwood, in his iconic role as “The Man With No Name”, acquiring the poncho and cigarillos that audiences already identified him with from his earlier Spaghetti Westerns. Leone claimed this was an unintended connection but it leant an extra layer of fascination to the epic. In Casino Royale, which not so much reinvents as reinstates the essential qualities of the venerable James Bond franchise, we get to watch Bond (Daniel Craig) ascend to his 00- rating in the British Secret Service, discover his favorite drink, realize what a good tux can do for a man’s appearance, and through painful experience construct the cold, near sadistically clinical attitude he wears on the job.

I therefore can’t
necessarily criticize the movie by saying that, at first glance, Daniel Craig does not convincingly look like Bond, at least in the way that his predecessor Pierce Brosnan seemed born to the role from frame one. The point of this movie, and the secret to its construction, is that by the end of the movie, Craig is Bond now. And hopefully for several movies to come.

was the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, and apart from a little-seen television adaptation in the 50’s it has never received a straight treatment, just an anarchic drug-loony 60’s spoof. A half-century’s distance leaves much to update – Cold War geopolitical brinksmanship has given way to terrorism and Holy War, and instead of the gentleman’s game baccarat, the swells at the Casino now play Texas Hold’Em.

But if the 21st Century threat map inevitably tugs Fleming’s novel forward, its more grounded story pulls the movie franchise’s worst habits backwards. The damnable mix of CGI and sci-fi that marred Brosnan’s final round in the tux, Die Another Day, is nowhere to be found here – replaced by a rougher, more physical breed of conflict. Even the famous gadgets of Q branch seem more realistic and practical, instead of the ludicrous “invisible car” we get a car that has a portable defibrillator in the glove box.

And I think that this is the first time I’ve ever seen spymaster M (Dame Judi Dench) actually afraid of Bond. To show an understanding of his abilities and his character, and doubt that they can be reliably directed. Director Martin Campbell – who also ushered in Brosnan’s sly arc with the character in Goldeneye – has again allowed the film to take on the character of the man holding the Walther pistol. Daniel Craig, who is not only a superb actor from films like Road to Perdition and The Jacket, but a former semi-professional rugby player, creates a tough, almost thuggish 007, but one who does sweat, bleed and suffer. The benefit of this prequel story with this layered performance is to make Bond more human than ever.

After a welcome twist on the traditional pre-credit action sequence, we take a literal leap in with both feet, as Bond is pursuing a free-lance bomb-maker (Sebastien Foucan) that may be involved in an upcoming terrorist operation. Foucan is one of the originators of the urban-based martial arts discipline known as parkour, or free-running, which also got a showcase this year in the French action programmer District B13. Bond films have always functioned as a cultural snapshot, a time capsule into which the most luxurious locales, expensive fashions and shiny gizmos of the moment can be collated – it’s like a Skymall catalog where nothing costs less than $10,000 plus shipping. And so this extended, almost ludicrously-strenuous cat-and-mouse chase in, around, and up a dizzying construction site serves not only to give this appealing form of street aerobics its prime-time debut; but to show us, through actions speaking louder than words, just how this version of 007’s mind works.

It’s all prelude to him causing major trouble in the organization of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a reptilian math prodigy who works as the ultimate off-shore bank for terrorist groups. Bond’s stubborn relentlessness (he bulls ahead as much from wounded pride as from operational imperative here) eventually causes Le Chiffre to lose the money of a very dangerous man who wants it back – so he sets up a poker game with a $10 Million entry fee at a swank casino in Montenegro. The money he holds could finance the death of untold innocents, but his hard drive brain could make him the most valuable informant imaginable, if he had nowhere else to turn to save his life. If he lost the poker game.

Bond is staked to enter the game, and the luscious Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) comes over from Treasury to pose as arm candy while judging whether he’s taking appropriate risks with Her Majesty’s Millions. I want to stop summarizing there, because the story does us the courtesy of taking twists and turns, of presenting surprise reversals-of-fortune and forcing characters to confront devastating choices between the things they want and cannot have.

I will say that it is a blessing to have a James Bond movie that has something like a long poker game, an opportunity for characters to sit, and take each others’ measure, and enrich our understanding of them through behavior, rather than just careening around the globe like gun-wielding ping pong balls. This is the first Bond movie in modern times where the villain, exotic eye-scar aside, super-sized megalomania acknowledged, has a motivation anyone can empathize with – self-preservation.

Director Campbell works in some vigorous, imaginative action, sensual pleasures for those who appreciate such things, and some sharp humor. He also takes the opportunity to revel in a bit of genuine espionage, the sort of nigh-invisible manipulations people in this world undertake to advance their position. Local MI-6 contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) embodies this facet, long missing from the franchise, with corruptible relish.

It threatens to be wearyingly long, since it’s serving three functions – prequel, episode, and primer for things to come. Hardcore Bond fans, though, realizing the implications of the ending, ought to take delight even if it’s a long time getting there.

When multiple writers work on a script it’s always a dangerous business to predict who contributed what, but since Neil Purvis & Robert Wade have written several episodes now, and Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) is the new face in the room, I think some of the deft characterization, the honest pathos and unusually-sophisticated tone of Casino Royale can be deservedly credited to him. This is a Bond movie where a character can be subjected to torture – not the fetish-y designer tortures of past episodes, but something cringingly direct and visceral. And then it can find a way to put a laugh in, and have that laugh illuminate the depths of a character’s obsession. When you see that depth married to such a keen, whole-hearted commitment to just what makes James Bond James Bond, it puts this franchise back on the right path, and makes for marvelous entertainment.


Post a Comment

<< Home