DVD Review: Casino Royale

Though film’s longest-running franchise did have one 21st-century entry courtesy of 2002’s Die Another Day, it’s Casino Royale that truly brings James Bond into the new millennium. It’s on DVD now.

Die Another Day was a typical Bond film in some ways — babes, eccentric villains and crazy doomsday weapons abound. But at times it felt more like a spin-off vehicle for Halle Berry’s Jinx character (which thankfully never happened because frankly, my dear, the reaction to her performance in Die Another Day made it quite clear that nobody gave a damn). Stunts and special effects, particularly the ill-conceived and poorly executed sequence in which Bond (Pierce Brosnan) escapes a killer arctic wave by para-sailing away from it, were mired in bad computer effects. It was too ridiculous for its own good.

Another film released that year, however, changed up the spy-game status quo. The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon as an unstoppable agent suffering from amnesia and a past filled with dark secrets, was infinitely better than the Bond film. It didn’t make as much money, but word of mouth made sure that its sequel, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, most certainly did. The stunts and action sequences in the Bourne films are brutally realistic and, more importantly, exciting while still remaining believable thanks in no small part to the total emotional and physical dedication given to the role by series star Matt Damon. Yet another 2002 film, The Transporter, delivered Bond-sized stunts and action with a grittiness and energy that made James Bond seem every bit the Cold War relic the Brosnan films were trying to reinvigorate.

The Bond producers got the hint but chose to carry on without Brosnan. When British actor Daniel Craig was cast, some fans unfairly bemoaned his looks as the media dubbed him “James Blond” because of the lighter (and to many, non-Bond) color of his hair. What was particularly shocking about Craig’s winning the role was that he hadn’t been one of the more vigorously rumored names up for the part. It was a left-field choice and certainly not an obvious one. For my money, it’s what makes the guy absolutely perfect.

In Casino Royale, the Bond producers resisted taking any silly, drastic measures such as making Craig dye his hair a darker shade. Instead, they simply trusted Daniel Craig to be Daniel Craig, and he steps up to the plate like a champ. Craig packed on significant bulk for the part and honed it down to an impressive mass of defined muscle. His ice-cold blue eyes bring to mind Paul Newman (whose evil son he played to sniveling perfection in The Road to Perdition), while his tough-as-nails demeanor evokes immortal movie tough guys like Steve McQueen, to whom Craig bears more than a passing resemblance. Dangerous and unconventionally dashing, he’s the best Bond yet as far as I’m concerned.

Craig also gets help from the material, which takes an old-school approach to the character while still placing him firmly in the modern world of 2007, with all of its technological marvels and terrorist fears. There are no ridiculous gadgets; in fact, Q doesn’t even make an appearance. Taking a cue from the Batman regime at Warner Bros., this film is basically a “Bond Begins” in which Judi Dench’s M is the only holdover character from the previous Brosnan outings. Everything from the action to the story is more personal, and therefore more involving than its franchise predecessors.

Casino Royale opens with the kill that gets Bond his “007” status in a handsomely shot black-and-white scene inter-cut with an even grittier fight sequence that does a stunning job (along with Craig himself) of establishing Craig’s Bond. The animation of the title sequence swaps sexy female silhouettes in provocative poses for more of Bond’s new brutal, close-in fighting style, establishing both the theme and the storyline of the film.

Our villain this time is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), whose only ideology is his own bank account. He’s the private banker to the world’s terrorists, investing their money and giving them access to it anywhere on the planet. (But in typical Bond fashion, he also has the unique trait of a defective tear duct that causes him to occasionally leak blood from the corner of his eye. It’s visually interesting and the filmmakers thankfully don’t overuse it.)

After a quick setup between Le Chiffre and African warlord Steven Obanno (Isaach De BankolĂ©), it’s back to Bond on the stakeout of a scarred bomb maker called Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) in Madagascar. When Bond’s partner makes a rookie mistake, Mollaka makes one of the most exhilarating escapes in the history of action cinema by free-running through a busy construction site. Free-running is a stylistic offshoot of Parkour, a physical discipline that uses urban areas as obstacle courses to vault the runner to his destination as quickly as possible. Foucan himself is a founder of Parkour and hailed as the creator of free-running, making him the perfect man for the part. (See what I mean? It’s good to see filmmakers understanding that if you want the best possible results, you get the best possible people and let them do what they do.)

It’s one of the most exciting smartly filmed action scenes you’ll ever see. Mollaka bounces, bounds and zips up and over dangerous obstacles with inhuman speed and staggeringly powerful grace, while Bond uses brute strength and pure determination (which in their own ways prove to be no less effective) to catch him. The less said about it the better; you need to see it for yourself.

Bond gets his man, but does so in a manner that could have international consequences. So when M tells him to get the hell out of her sight and take a vacation until she can figure out what to do with him, Bond uses the “vacation” to follow the trail to the Bahamas where more dangers and revelations await. (The chemistry between Dench and Craig is fabulous.) He’ll eventually thwart a terrorist plot in Miami (in spectacularly cool and brutal fashion) before coming face-to-face with Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro. Le Chiffre needs to win to save his own assets, and if Bond loses, the British government will have directly contributed to international terrorism. Try explaining that to queen and country.

At this point you’re probably thinking what I was thinking — for a franchise that has usually relied on wacky doomsday gimmicks, can a poker game really deliver the kind of danger and intrigue that will keep the audience hooked? It’s one of two elements in Casino Royale that don’t quite gel. The poker game is punctuated by too many other scenes that take away from its significance, no matter how solid those individual scenes might be. And not enough is done with the other players at the table, one of whom is played by unfortunately underused character actor extraordinaire Jeffrey Wright. The other stumble is one of pacing. The construction site sequence at the beginning is so amazing that nothing else in the film comes close to matching it, and there’s a lot of awkwardly paced (though very important) stuff that happens after the poker game is won. At 144 minutes, it’s not as tight as it could have been in its second half.

Even so, Casino Royale hits harder than any other Bond film, and no Bond has had as much blood on his hands, literally or figuratively, as Daniel Craig does by movie’s end. Director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro), a superb storyteller and a master of movement, gorgeously photographs his beautiful cast and masterfully conducts the action. It’s just that the film needed a leaner, slightly meaner finale to maintain momentum.

The Bond girl this time around is Vesper Lynd, an HMS Treasury agent assigned to keep Bond on track during the poker game. Played by fresh-faced goddess of perfection Eva Green, whose sexually fearless performance in The Dreamers prepared her quite well for this, there’s no doubting why she makes such an impression on 007. Green is so formidable, in fact, that she’s far more memorable than any Halle Berry-esque stunt casting could ever be. Vesper also sets the stage for the events of the next film, set to arrive in November 2008. And for the first time in the history of the franchise, I can honestly say that I can’t wait for the next one.

Trading silly gadgets for true grit and succeeding on the strength of Daniel Craig’s capable shoulders, Casino Royale reinvents Bond while staying true to the enduring legend of one of action’s most popular icons.