Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Casino Royale" (2006)

Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green and Mads Mikkelson
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis
Directed by Martin Campbell
Rated PG-13 - Violence, torture, sex
Running Time: 144 Minutes

After making his first two kills as an MI6 agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns his "00" status, becoming agent 007.  M (Judi Dench) sends him on his first mission, to surveil and capture a bombmaker in Madagascar.  Unfortunately, Bond not only kills the man, but he does so after storming a foreign embassy and getting caught on camera, causing an international incident.

Infuriated, M puts Bond on suspension, wondering if she's made a huge mistake promoting him.  But instead of going on vacation as he's ordered, Bond tracks the bombmaker's contacts to the Bahamas where he discovers that the man was involved in some kind of terrorist scheme to blow up a prototype new airliner set to be unveiled in Miami.

After he stops the attack, M decides to bring Bond up to speed on what's really going on: MI6 is interested in making contact with a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), a banker for a mysterious terrorist organization.  Bond's new mission, if he can learn to control his temper and not go off half-cocked blowing things to smithereens, is to engage Le Chiffre in a game of high-stakes poker at Casino Royale in Montenegro.  It seems Le Chiffre likes to use his clients money to bet with, and if Bond can clean him out, then he'll have no choice but to turn to MI6 for protection and give up everything he knows.

Bond is paired with veteran agent Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) and treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).  As the game grows more desperate and the stakes more dangerous, Bond finds himself drawn more and more to Lynd, and she to him.  But all is not as it seems, and if Bond can't beat Le Chiffre and keep Vesper safe, his first mission might be his last.

"Batman Begins" for the James Bond franchise is essentially how "Casino Royale" can be described.  Eschewing the ludicrous gadgetry of the older films, bringing Bond closer to the harder, harsher killer he was in the books, this new Bond is redesigned to be both more modern and more in tune with how he was originally conceived.

Of course, the big deal here is Daniel Craig in his first outing as Bond.  How does he compare with the others?  How does he stack up?  Craig's Bond is written quite differently than the others; since we're starting over, he's rougher around the edges, but that's not the only way in which he differs.  This Bond  also quite intense - Craig has a face and a set of eyes that drill right off the screen, and though his appearance may be somewhat thuggish, you can almost see him thinking constantly.  Of course, the complication for this is that Bond is also quick to anger and will make rash decisions in the heat of the moment, throwing aside all considerations other than getting his mission accomplished.

Also, he's blond.  That pissed off a lot of fans, but anyone who was angered by that is some kind of wrong person.

Daniel Craig makes a fantastic Bond.  As he grows throughout the film, we get to see great scenes like him trying on a tailored tuxedo for the first time, and they're moments which have great weight to them, and Craig is a huge part of selling that.  Another part of that is his chemistry with Eva Green, playing Vesper Lynd.  The two positively crackle, especially early on when she spurns Bond's advances, not interested in the casual fling he seems to be after, and yet enjoying the back and forth.

Martin Campbell returns to the James Bond franchise, having previously directed "Goldeneye" starring Pierce Brosnan as Bond.  Interestingly, Campbell's filmography is not all that impressive, and yet he's managed to direct two of the best entries in the Bond franchise.  I would not have minded at all if he'd continued on to direct 2008's "Quantum of Solace" instead of going on to make the dreadful "Green Lantern" adaptation.

Her, Campbell stages several incredible action sequences, including the airport chase sequence which is, in my view, the centerpiece of the entire film, and the thrilling Venice climax set in a collapsing building.  The opening sequence, showing Bond's first two kills, is moody and shot in black and white, cutting back and forth between the brutal, dirty bathroom fight and the more subdued hit in an office.  It also amusingly places the series' trademark "gunbarrel sequence" within the narrative for the first time.  Campbell paces the movie steadily, taking time with conversations that have some breathing room, and allowing the atmosphere of all the exotic locales in the film to bleed through.

This is a movie that depends on a series of scenes involving people playing poker.  Thankfully, the script, performances and direction are all balanced to make sure that we're never bored.  Bond and Le Chiffre's confrontations at the card tables are full of pointed dialog, and even a couple of assassination attempts to spice things up.  Even better, we're introduced to the new version of CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond's "brother from Langley," played by Jeffrey Wright in a small but fun role.

"Casino Royale" is a fantastic Bond film, getting back to basics, with a thrilling script, great action and a new Bond.