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Casino Royale: confessions of a layman

I’ll say it upfront: I’m not what you’d call a Bond fan. Oh, I’ve seen a fair share of the films, and have enjoyed a number of them to some degree, but I’m by no means a completist, and can’t recall ever seeing one that I’ve absolutely loved. Even the strongest, most strait-laced ones, which, for me, have been the two Timothy Dalton ventures, had their moments of high camp that were at best annoying and at worst verged on bringing the whole thing crashing down. As such, my review of Casino Royale should be taken very much as an outsider’s point of view. What I liked and disliked about it won’t necessarily be the same things that a hardcore Bond fan will like and dislike.

The short version: this is a very good film. Actually, it’s close to being an excellent film, with only a handful of problems preventing it from being a top-tier effort. I’ll get on to these in due course, but first, I must say that I really liked this “reboot”. In the past, Bond films seem to have gone lurched back and forth between serious to camp, with a Licence to Kill being followed by a Moonraker (well, that’s chronologically incorrect, but it serves the purpose of illustrating the series’ two extremes). As you can probably gather, I prefer the former, and found Timothy Dalton’s hard-edged, merciless portrayal of 007 to be far superior to Roger Moore’s nudge-nudge wink-wink camp antics. Even Dalton had his flaws, though, for me, stemming mainly from the fact that, when the scripts called for him to be more light-hearted, he seemed hopelessly out of his depth.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale is no Roger Moore romp. It’s the first Bond film I’ve seen that is completely straight-faced. That’s not to say that there isn’t humour in it, but the humour is subtler, derived not from Bond foiling the terrorists and parachuting down to Felix Leiter’s wedding all in one swish movement (a particularly cringe-inducing moment in the otherwise commendable Licence to Kill), but rather from various dry retorts that, while self-conscious, ultimately serve the characters rather than playing to the gallery. (Bond’s response when asked whether he wants his Martini shaken or stirred put a smile on my face.)

The change in tone is partially due to the script, but also in no small part to the casting of Daniel Craig as Bond. Back when various actors were being touted as successors to the bland Pierce Brosnan (not a fan, sorry), I immediately latched on to him as my preferred choice (although the alternatives, ranging from Hugh Jackman to Orlando Bloom, meant that there really wasn’t much of a contest as far as I was concerned), and was most pleased when he got the part. People, however, were criticising the choice before they even saw a frame of footage: “Craig’s too ugly, he’s not sophisticated, he’s… he’s… he’s blond!” To that I say “Phooey!” Craig is certainly nothing like any of his predecessors, but, in my opinion, he comes the closest of all to making Bond seem human. Timothy Dalton was tough, sure, but I always saw him as more an attitude than a real person. Craig, in contrast, doesn’t really have the sophistication of some of his predecessors, but this “blunt instrument”, as M (Judi Dench - whose retention, despite this reboot, didn’t bother me anything like as much as I thought it would) puts it, lives and breathes in a way that the others, for me, didn’t. (That said, bear in mind that I’ve yet to see George Lazenby’s turn in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by a number to be Bond’s most human turn.)

Casino Royale

In part, that’s due to the way the writers build up his relationship with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, a fantastic actress and a Bond girl who, unusually, seems to have been cast for her acting abilities as much as her looks). Theirs is a relationship that begins as a series of thinly-veiled sniping matches, but which eventually becomes one of mutual dependence, as both find that the job they have to do is no walk in the park. The scene in which Bond comforts a tearful Vesper, who has just seen two men killed in front of her, packs more emotional punch than any other scene that I’ve seen in the series. You get the feeling that Bond genuinely cares about this woman and that, had things been different, their relationship would have gone further. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) Oh, and it also helps that Green is convincing as an intelligent secret service agent - Denise Richards she ain’t.

But what of the setting? A casino hall didn’t sound to me like the most exciting location in which to set a 140-minute film, not least because I know nothing about cards. Well, the truth is that it doesn’t matter. I still know nothing about the game that was being played, despite Bond’s handy explanation of it to Vesper, but in reality it’s not necessary to understand the details in order to become engrossed. The casino, while the backdrop of a significant portion of the film, is really just that - a backdrop - with more interesting events being played out against it. Lest anyone be under any misconceptions, it’s also worth pointing out that the entire film is not set there: Bond doesn’t reach the casino until over an hour into the film.

Casino Royale

Oh yes, and it’s bloody. This film is vicious - far more so than Licence to Kill. The Bond of this film gets beaten and bloodied, and he gives as good as he gets: I can see where the notion that Craig is a thuggish Bond comes from, for he really is absolutely ruthless in the various action scenes, thrashing his opponents within an inch of their lives and, on several occasions, killing in cold blood. Nothing quite lives up to the sheer brutality of the opening bathroom beating (although the torture sequence comes close), but the approach to violence throughout the entire film is more visceral and realistic than anything we’ve seen before. This time, we actually believe that Bond stands a chance of failing - he’s pitted against people who are more than a match for him. As befits this grittier Bond, the film was shot in the inherently grainier Super35, compared to the smooth Anamorphic Panavision of its immediate predecessors.

Having tossed around so many superlatives, I now feel inclined to point out the areas in which the film is more problematic. I essentially have three main complaints:

1. The product placement. This film, which features gratuitous advertisements for everything from Sony Ericsson phones to Blu-ray discs, leaves you in doubt that Bond is now property of Columbia Pictures.

2. The title sequence. The song is forgettable, but the execution of the graphics themselves is cringe-inducing. The concept - a “cards” motif that also showcases the new Bond - is pretty decent, but someone decided to apply a cheap, quasi-animated “cel-shaded” effect to it, which looks like something out of a video game.

3. The pacing. I didn’t mind the length, surprisingly enough, but I do agree with criticisms that the final act is rather anticlimactic. My understanding is that Ian Fleming’s original novel was more or less the second act, and that the bulk of the first and third acts were fabricated for the film. It’s a difficult situation - I’m not sure how I would have done things differently had I been writing it - but, despite an explosive climax in Venice, it feels a bit like an over-long afterthought after

Highlight below to reveal spoiler text:
the main villain has been disposed of.

Casino Royale

All in all, though, I had a blast. This one, for me, more than lived up to the hype, and I can’t remember ever becoming so engaged by a Bond film before. After 20 films playing to largely the same formula, I’m glad they shook things up with a leaner, meaner interpretation, and that, for once, the public seems to have accepted it. 9/10.

 
Posted: Friday, November 24, 2006 at 4:42 PM | Comments: 10
Categories: Blu-ray | Books | Cinema | Reviews

 
Comments

1.

You're slightly wrong. The novel comprises Acts 2 and 3 of the film. The major difference is that in the film Bond himself creates Le Chiffre's financial difficulties in Act 1. In the book, Le Chiffre is in trouble from the start.

By the way, Craig has said that without the product placement, there wouldn't have been nearly enough funding. A necessary evil!

I'm very glad you enjoyed it; I myself think it's in the top tier of Bond films (and I'm somewhat a fan) and I'd give it 9/10 myself.

Posted by: Baron Scarpia, November 24, 2006 7:09 PM

2.

Ah, but all the product placement was for Sony products. Sony, who own the rights to the series and supplied the budget for the film - so that strikes me as a very roundabout way of funding it! (Product placement in a Sony film is nothing new, of course - everyone in one of their films uses a Vaio laptop, a Sony television, an Ericsson mobile phone, etc.)

Thanks for correcting me on the specifics of the book’s structure. I’m going to have to read it myself some day.

Posted by: Whiggles, November 24, 2006 7:16 PM

3.

Oh no, I've just realised - no Casino Royale HD-DVD. Bugger.

Posted by: Baron Scarpia, November 24, 2006 7:59 PM

4.

Oh, I have my hopes that, in a few years, when Sony are forced to sell off MGM to pay for the debt incurred as a result of the PS3/Blu-ray debacle, we’ll see an HD DVD release. :D

Hey, I can dream, can’t it?

Posted by: Whiggles, November 24, 2006 10:21 PM

5.

OT, but every serious gamer I know owns a 360 or is in the market for a 360 or a Wii this Holiday Season. 160 games with handfuls of 9/10 HD goodness. By the time there are amazingly good PS3 exclusive games, it'll be a year from launch and a $100 cheaper. Not including 1080i scaling is a huge mistake; you can't imagine the rage of gamers when they got home and find out that 720p games(which most of the launch titles fall into) is downscaled to 480p on their perfectly capable CRT-HD 1080i sets.

Posted by: aw, November 24, 2006 11:29 PM

6.

The movie's second and third act are from the novel. However...

***SPOILERS***


The book's climax is the torture sequence with the carpet beater and Vesper's suicide is an aftermath event in the very last pages. Which makes more sense. Like I mentioned in DD, the climax is hurt by the fact that the villain is already dead.

Posted by: Marcus, November 24, 2006 11:43 PM

7.

That doesn’t surprise me. The torture scene felt to me like the climax, if that makes any sense. In that regard, I can’t help thinking that some restructuring of the final half-hour would have helped things a little.

Posted by: Whiggles, November 24, 2006 11:49 PM

8.

The best product placement i've seen on film is in "Terminator 2" when some actor brings a Pepsi to Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) on a silver platter. I can kind of understand if a character is 'using' said item on screen for a specific purpose, but that Pepsi was priceless. (He didn't even drink it if i recall.)

As for Bond, i kind of like them all. I'm very keen on seeing Craig's take on the character. I liked Brosnon's first two outings as 007, but then it just went downhill. I grew up with Roger Moore, so he'll always have a special place in my heart. (Camp or no camp!) Dalton was also very good, and it was just a shame he didn't do anymore. Licence to Kill is probably my favorite Bond film. I'm glad that it has 'finally' been released uncut on dvd! I just wish that R1 would release them chronologically, instead of these jumbled up boxsets.

Posted by: Phantom, November 25, 2006 12:08 AM

9.

I like them all really. Sean Connery had the charm and the charisma, not to mention he also nailed the character's toughness and coldness. Sadly, ever since the producers begged for his return in Diamonds Are Forever he started to think he could play Bond naturally. He couldn't.

George Lazenby had the advantage that he starred in the best film of the franchise and editor-turned-director Peter Hunt did a good job hiding his lack of acting experience. His strenghts lie in the action sequences however, no other Bond has ever looked as good as George during fights and gun action. And he also did a pretty good job showing Bond's vulnerable side, something Connery was never given the chance to do.

Roger Moore is the funniest of them all and I also have a soft spot for him. His performance in the first two films was so-so, but ever since the Spy Who Loved Me he finally found his true voice. He didn't look very good in the action sequences, but he carries each of his films with great confidence and seems to be having a blast with the role. He and Pierce Brosnan were also the only actors who seemed to enjoy playing Bond regardless of its negative outcome in their careers.

Tim Dalton is my favorite with unbelievable ease and it's a shame he didn't do more. Had he starred in GoldenEye, that one would've been the best in the franchise perhaps. He was the true 007 created by Ian Fleming, not Connery, not Brosnan, not even Graig. And it hurts me how his two films are neglected and unpopular, with Never Say Never Again and Diamonds Are Forever getting far more TV showings.

Now Brosnan. Simply put: Good in his first two films, terrible in his third film, and in the fourth film he seems to be doing his best job, yet trapped in a crazy fantasy world. He has an easier time with punchlines than Dalton but he and Connery are the only ones I think gave weak performances as Bond in one or two movies.

It's too early to judge Craig, IMO.

Posted by: Marcus, November 25, 2006 2:56 AM

10.

I agree with Marcus, evey word.

I just add that Connery will forever stay as the real Bond, for me (in spite of a couple of *gosh* films that marred his performances), but Whiggles made me really curious about Craig.

Posted by: MCP, November 25, 2006 11:49 PM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 30th 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:

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