Monday, November 5, 2012

Film Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale
  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia 
  • Studio: Danjaq / EON Productions 
  • Genre: Action 
  • Release: 16 November 2006 (UK) / 17 November 2006 (USA) 
  • Director: Martin Campbell 
  • Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli 
  • Writers: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis

The Bond: The Bond franchise took a brief hiatus after Die Another Day, during most of which Pierce Brosnan was still set for the lead role. One concept for the next film was an adaptation of Casino Royale, directed by Quentin Tarantino, filmed entirely in black-and-white, and co-starring Brosnan and Uma Thurman. That never came to be, but vestiges of it can be seen in the final product, which came about in 2006. But before then, our new Bond was unveiled: Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, Munich). He received a cold reception from the press and public upon his unveiling, for the sole fact that his hair was blond. Sound familiar? But once we saw him in the finished product, I'm proud to report that all the haters shut up. Craig brings with him all matter of emotional depth, from frustration (when Vesper won't let him continue the poker game), to snarking in the face of danger (during his torture scene with Le Chiffre), and one of the best 007 love affairs since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Also he has a thing for married women. Huh. 5 out of 5.

The Girls: Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, The Golden Compass), an envoy from Her Majesty's Treasury, and sent to oversee Bond in the poker game. Her cover story is Bond's wife -- in a suite with two bedrooms, no less -- and with all the witty banter between them, she plays the part wondrously, on both sides of the fourth wall. Commits suicide by drowning, in an attempt to atone for her sins against Bond. (And that resolves her sins... how?) Fun Fact: Her name can be read like "West Berlin", which was intentional when Ian Fleming first created the character - like the city of Berlin was during the Cold War, her loyalties are split down the middle. 5 out of 5. Solange Dimitrios (Caterina Murino), Alex Dimitrios's wife. Shallow love interest ahoy - only this time, she's already married! Killed off-screen by Le Chiffre's men. 2 out of 5.

Other Allies: Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Gianini), Bond's contact in Montenegro. A deliciously manipulative agent who has Le Chiffre's allies arrested behind the scenes, but to be honest, his actions bear little on the plot. That is, until Le Chiffre mentions that Mathis was a double-agent working for him. Bond has him arrested, only to learn that Vesper may have been behind his misfortunes instead. More to come in the next movie's review. 4 out of 5. Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), CIA agent and player in the poker tournament. Barring Never Say Never Again, this marks the first time Leiter was played by an African-ethnic in the EON canon. 3 out of 5.

The Villains: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker for terrorists and a math genius. A cut over one of his tear ducts means he cries blood from time to time, but this effect is too subtle to notice. His acting is strange, but he does something few Bond villains ever do: show vulnerability. Read on. Shot by Mr. White. Fun Fact: According to cutscenes in the Quantum of Solace video game, his birth name is Jean Duran. 4 out of 5. Stephen Obanno (Isaac de Bankole), leader of a Lord's Resistance Army unit. Strangled by Bond. 2 out of 5. Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), leader of Le Chiffre's criminal organisation. Both of these guys are after Le Chiffre, for having fooled around with their client's money. Mr. White bears special mention: while he plays a bigger role in the next film, he has a defining moment here when he shoots Le Chiffre for fooling around with his clients and their money. Captured alive by Bond.  5 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan), a freelance bomb-maker operating out of Madagascar. The actor was one of the founders of free-running and/or parkour, and thus he uses it during his chase with Bond. Which leads to one hilarious moment when he leaps up through a gap in a wooden wall, but Bond just rams through it. Quite a turnaround from the car chases of old, where Bond always displayed more finesse compared to the bad guys. Shot by Bond. 5 out of 5. Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), organiser of the planned Miami airport bombing. What can I say about somebody who doesn't have many, if any at all, lines to his name. Stabbed by Bond. 1 out of 5.

The Gadgets: After 19 film appearances by 3 actors, the character of Q was retired for this reboot, and thus there are no gadgets in the "traditional" sense. However, there is a lot of cellphone tracking going on. Bond drives an Aston Marton DB5 (same as in Goldfinger, sans gadgets), and an Aston Martin DBS (also sans gadgets).

The Locations: The Czech Republic, Madagascar (filmed in the Bahamas), the Bahamas, the United States (Florida), Montenegro (filmed in Czechia), and Italy.

The Theme Song: "You Know My Name" performed by Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave). This alt-rock song is brought to you by the first solo male singer of a Bond theme since Thunderball, which is appropriate, since "You Know My Name" also serves as a sort of image song from James Bond's point of view. Also of note: the Monty Norman theme is not used until the end credits; rather, "You Know My Name" is sampled for many of the film's leitmotifs. 5 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: Playing card and other gambling motifs, because... casino. One of my favourite effects is the CGI men in suits who fight and break up into suits (i.e. hearts, diamonds) when hit. Notably, the only woman in this sequence is a headshot photo of Vesper. Yes, shying away from the traditional naked-silhouette girls is a departure for the series, and I couldn't be prouder. 5 out of 5.

The Novel: Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first 007 novel, published in 1953. In the book, the centrepiece game is a baccarat duel held in France, and Le Chiffre was originally working for the Soviet's SMERSH directive (see also: The Living Daylights).  In this movie, the game is Texas Hold 'em poker, and the titular casino is in the former Yugoslav nation of Montenegro.

The Plot: Our story starts in grayscale, with James Bond conducting his first two assassinations on men involved in selling British state secrets. Cue opening credits, during which the 00 rank, and licence to kill, are assigned to Bond. We return to Uganda, where LRA officer Stephen Obanno is conducting a business deal with the terrorist banker Le Chiffre. Then we jump over to Madagascar, where 007 is spying on Mollaka, a suspected bomb-maker. When his cover is blown, he chases the man through a construction site and into an embassy, where he shoots him, blows up part of the building, and steals his cell phone. A text message on it leads him to Alex Dimitrios, working for Le Chiffre in Nassau.

After seducing his wife Solange, Bond takes a clue from her and follows him to Miami. After Alex leaves a bag at a science museum, Bond kills him and finds the guy who took the bag. He tracks him to the Miami International Airport, where he intends to blow up the Skyfleet prototype jumbo jet. In the chase that ensues, Bond clips the bomb to the hitman, so he blows himself up instead of the plane. The plot was an attempt by Le Chiffre to play the stock market: he shorted stocks of Skyfleet, meaning if the stock's price went down (i.e. due to a terrorist attack), he would've made money. Instead, he lost over US$100 million of Obanno's money, and to make it up, Le Chiffre hosts a poker tournament in Montenegro. In order to catch Le Chiffre, M signs up Bond for the game, and sends a representative from the Treasury, Vesper Lynd, to oversee their investment.

In the casino, they are met by Rene Mathis, who helps them deal with Obanno's men as they deal with Le Chiffre. As the game progresses, Bond and Le Chiffre both go all-in on a hand, and Bond loses. Vesper refuses to give him the money to continue, since the money lost from Her Majesty's Treasury could potentially pay for terrorism. So Bond tries to kill Le Chiffre on his own, but is stopped by CIA agent Felix Leiter, who volunteers to pay for Bond's buy-in. The game continues, coming once again to an all-in showdown, and this time Bond wins. But Vesper gets captured and Bond gives chase, only to crash his car. Also Mathis was a double-agent for Le Chiffre, or so Bond is told before he passes out.

Bond wakes up only to be tortured by Le Chiffre, who is trying to learn the account and password for his winnings. But then comes his boss Mr. White, who kills Le Chiffre for wasting his clients' money. After waking up again, Bond has Mathis arrested, then he starts a dating montage with Vesper, ending up in Venice. As the two are setting up a vacation, M calls and tells him that the money he was was not yet deposited into the treasury. So he follows her and discovers that she stole the money, with intent to give it to Mr. White to protect Bond from his organisation. A shootout in a sinking building ensues, after which Vesper locks herself in an elevator cage and lets herself drown, to atone for her betrayal. Mr. White makes off with the money, but thanks to a clue Vesper left behind on her phone, Bond catches up with him at his villa. To be continued...

Despite being adaptations of the same novel, this Casino Royale is the polar opposite of its comedy adaptation from 1967 (which I had attempted to include in this special, but was unable to), mainly in that it is a great film. Its strengths lie in its sharply-written dialogue, the vulnerability of its characters, and how they react to them. Daniel Craig's Bond snarks in the face of danger, Eva Green's Vesper struggles to get over her trauma, and Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre lives in fear of his clients and superiors with whom he's betrayed their trust and money. (And to think all this could've been avoided if he simply bought and sold that Skyfleet stock the normal way, instead of betting against the market.) And with the absence of Q, Moneypenny, gadgets in the traditional sense, and supervillains bent on creating physical catastrophes, this is a changing of the guard the likes of which have not been seen since the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Only this time, actual good has come out of it - like following the more realistic Ian Fleming approach once again. I have admitted to liking Timothy Dalton as my favourite Bond actor, but Craig handles the role much to the same effect - and with better hair, too.

The Call: 95% (A)

IchigoRyu will return in
Quantum of Solace

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