Monday, December 9, 2013

Casino Royale (2006)

When discussing which entries should be considered as "the best Bond films," the qualifications can sometimes get a little murky. A film could conceivably be effective and full of suspense and pulse pounding action, but still not really be considered a good Bond movie. For instance, you couldn't slap the name James Bond on a Jason Bourne film and call it a solid 007 outing. It wouldn't fit. It's too serious. At this point there's been enough of a pedigree established in the franchise so that you expect certain campy things, and their absence is occasionally sorely felt when they are not present.

On the other hand, there's also been enough wacky crap in the series that sometimes when a film comes around to smack it down to terra firma, it's such a relief and a refreshing change of pace that it is akin to a religious experience. I'm immediately reminded of "The Living Daylights," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and to a lesser extent "Octopussy" after the outrageous antics of "A View To A Kill," "You Only Live Twice" and "Moonraker," respectively. These films took what was too over-the-top and brought the series back to its senses and made it act a bit like a grown up, even if it was only a temporary maturation. But were they good Bond movies? Well, that depends on who you talk to. For me personally I've found that the occasions when the franchise put on its serious face often provided some of the best entries, and crossed the threshold between "good movie" and "good Bond flick" - two things that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

With that troublesome balancing act in mind, I shall put forward this hypothesis: Daniel Craig's debut feature "Casino Royale" is not the "Best Bond Movie." It's damn good, though. In fact it's close to the top. But there are other Bond films that do "Bond" better, if that makes any sense. It's not a film I would show to a complete newcomer and say "This is what a James Bond movie is like."

No, seriously. Seldom is the card game they're playing this comprehensible.

That being said, I shall add on to my hypothesis and say that while it's not the best at being Bond, "Casino Royale" is the best movie the franchise has made up to this point. I say that without a doubt in my mind. In terms of being an action packed spy thriller full of intrigue, double crosses and surprisingly deep character development, no film in the franchise did it better than "Casino Royale." They got really close with "Skyfall," and that one is a better "Bond movie," but it's not as well structured as "Casino Royale" is, nor is it quite as effective in terms of characterization. It's really close, and you could probably argue against that viewpoint pretty effectively, but for my money "Casino Royale" is the best movie they've made up to this point.

A reboot of the series after 20 films, "Casino Royale" finds James Bond (Daniel Craig), a newly made 00 agent, earning his stripes. "Rough around the edges" is an applicable term to use for him, as he's not exactly the suave, flawless superhero that he became famous as under the likes of Roger Moore or even Sean Connery (although Connery's Bond was known to make an occasional blunder). Here Bond is a blunt instrument, an impetuous wrecking ball whose ego leads him to consider himself above making mistakes, a viewpoint which is as we see on a number of occasions to be demonstrably incorrect.

Like shooting up an embassy. That situation could have been better handled, really.

It's fascinating to watch Bond be a rookie. We're so used to him being invincible that it's quite the shock to see him screw up. And he screws up quite a bit in "Casino Royale." It's not to the point where he's coming across as some kind of idiot or anything. He is a trained spy, so he's very smart and an incredibly dangerous man, but he's not a superhero. He's still just a guy. It humanizes him and makes him an actual character who makes mistakes, is affected and occasionally deeply scarred by them, and then learns from and changes because of them. There's an actual arc for the character of James Bond in this film - something I would argue we've never gotten before. Yeah, his wife was murdered at the end of "OHMSS," but they barely acknowledged that past the opening 10 minutes of "Diamonds Are Forever" and the occasional vague reference that doesn't amount to anything. Hell, it's somewhat debatable how canon that whole thing even is.

His first mission involves a banker to terrorists by the name of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). After gambling with his investor's money and losing a whole hell of a lot of it, Le Chiffre holds a high-stakes poker game with a payoff of $150,000,000, hoping to get his money back and pay off the people who will kill him if he doesn't. Bond is sent to beat Le Chiffre so that he will have nowhere left to run, so that MI6 can offer him asylum in exchange for giving up his clients, eg. The world's biggest terrorists. Assisting him is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a treasury agent who functions as our Bond girl, but also as his legitimate love interest as opposed to some dink who throws herself at him just because he's there.

I know poker doesn't sound like the most exciting idea for the main thrust of a plot, but in between the scenes of guys staring intensely at each other whilst flinging chips are scenes of hard hitting action and spy shenanigans of the highest caliber, including vehicle chases, a shockingly hard hitting scene of torture, lots of shootouts and hand to hand combat, and what is arguably the best opening twenty minutes in any Bond film ever. For all the card playing going on during the second act (and really there's only so much time spent with it), it's punctuated and bookended by some explosive goings on. The bits where they're playing cards is almost like the deep breaths before the plunge as the tension mounts - because you know that every time they stop for a break things are going to go down, and usually somebody ends up dead.

And less than five minutes after the game is over they literally set a world record by rolling a car on screen seven times. Wasn't that nice of them?

While this film isn't as lighthearted as previous entries (in fact it's downright dour on occasion), it still possesses enough of the trademark Bond charm to make it feel familiar. Some of that comes from Craig providing fantastic moments of classic Bond snark and badassery, but more is conveyed through the phenomenally good dialogue between him and Vesper, who have the best chemistry of any two characters we've seen from the series. Vesper is such a real person that I hesitate even calling her a "Bond Girl" since she's so atypical of what we're used to. They completely threw away the mold of what we should expect from that kind of character. And the ultimate fate of Vesper is the most tragic, heartbreaking thing I've seen a Bond film pull off.

That's a...shockingly tender moment.

That's the core of "Casino Royale." It's about a spy who learns to his sorrow that you can't trust anyone, and that to survive in that job, your soul is simply a moot point that you must learn to ignore. And it doesn't flinch away from that aspect. Because the film's script and the direction took a mature stance when conveying that story (while keeping it exciting and full of explosive, well-filmed action), I find it to be the most sophisticated Bond film from a filmmaking and writing perspective.

Bond has always been a hardass, but we've never gotten a handle on why until now. Before, he was simply an action movie hero. Now thanks to Daniel Craig's powerhouse performance and a smart script, when at the climax Bond, with gun in hand, stands over the orchestrator of his sorrow as he slithers away bleeding while croaking "Who are you," we finally hear the immortal words "The name's Bond. James Bond," we can get an extra charge out of it for reasons besides the obvious. Those words mean something now. It's not just a phrase. This is him saying: "I have arrived. I am now who you've known for all these years, and now you know my story. Now come and watch me be awesome."

Isn't it amazing to see a trailer for a Bond flick that looks like an actual movie?

THE BOTTOM LINE - I freaking love "Casino Royale." It's objectively the best movie the franchise has produced, although there are better examples of what a prototypical Bond film is like. It's exciting, it's full of action, intrigue, twists and great repartee, and Craig rocks it all hardcore. Phenomenal movie, and I never get tired of it.




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