Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 300+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. A bit late to tie into the release of Spectre, here’s Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007, Casino Royale.
Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade
Directed by Martin Campbell
What It’s About:
In the wake of earning the 00 prefix, MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) follows a twisting trail of a Ugandan terrorist organization’s millions back to criminal financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkselsen). After foiling Le Chiffre’s plan to double his money via the destruction of an international airline, Bond and Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) are tasked by M (Judi Dench) with going head to head with the desperate Le Chiffre in a high stakes game of Texas hold ‘em at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to keep the money out of the terrorists’ hands and force the financier to give up his shadowy criminal employers.
Why I Bought It:
The first James Bond movie I ever saw was Live And Let Die on broadcast television with my parents. While I was impressed by the alligators, Tee-Hee and the voodoo, the ‘kissy stuff’ was a big turn off, and I would roll my eyes as further installments aired over the years, dismissing James Bond as a romance series. In the 90’s I rediscovered Bond via GoldenEye, and was completely arrested by the character (enough to jump at the chance to write him – more on that in a later post). I never did get into Roger Moore much, but I went back and watched the rest of the series, and finally read the musty, water-damaged old Ian Fleming paperbacks from my dad’s college days, which totally outshone the series in my mind, and despite my excitement for the character, I detected the gradual split between the superior books and the films, probably right around You Only Live Twice, with a brief return to form in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, in terms of feel anyway, parts of Timothy Dalton’s run. Brosnan’s subsequent outings departed from reality and left me a bit cold, so when Daniel Craig and this movie were announced, I didn’t rush out to see it.
The first time I did catch it was in the break room at my then job.
The opening of Casino Royale brought the thunder. Shot in brutal, stark black and white, we’re treated to the ‘origin’ of Bond, or at least, the initial two kills which earn him his license to kill. This sequence was an epiphany for me. The savage bathroom fight is harsh and dirty. This is Ian Fleming’s scar-faced assassin, terrifying in one instant and magnetic in the next, as we cut to his confrontation with the rogue section chief. In contrast to the bleak, disheveled whiteness of the restroom, Bond emerges from blackness like a shot out of the Third Man, neat, cold, merciless as he cuts off his quarry’s advice with a suppressed bullet.
Then, like Dorothy stepping out of her house into Oz, the screen floods with brilliant colors and the opening strains of one of the fiercest Bond themes since Live And Let Die, the skin prickling You Know My Name by Chris Cornell. The lyrics are pure Bond. Are they a continuation of the section chief’s warning to the fledgling assassin, or are they a weathered, cold hearted Bond speaking dismissively to Le Chiffre or to his younger self?
Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize; it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you willing to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name
I wrote a bit more extensively about the awesome opening title sequence here for Hasslein Books, so I won’t spend more time on it here.
This was new, this was brilliant. This wasn’t the erudite playboy delivering Schwarzeneggerian quips and lasering comic book bad guys with his wristwatch. This was Fleming’s Bond, stepped right out of the book from which this movie takes its name.
And yet, on that initial viewing, I went from riding high immediately to despair as Bond wound up chasing an African bomber through a construction site in a crazily over the top parkour sequence. I was wrong, this was still comic book stuff. I went through the rest of the flick half-lidded, guffawing at one point when, after a furious fight in a stairwell with two machete wielding Ugandans, Bond discovers the shaken Vesper sitting in the shower fully dressed, sits down next to her, and proceeds to suck her fingers. And Texas Hold ‘Em? Bond’s game is Baccarat. Texas Hold ‘Em is for hillbillies and Vegas rats in hoodies with sunglasses.
I didn’t go see Quantum of Solace (a real shame, because next to this, it’s my favorite Craig outing), and only went to Skyfall because a friend from out of town wanted to see the Cinerama Dome on Vine and chose Skyfall as the movie.
I enjoyed Skyfall, and it induced me to revisit Casino Royale.
If I could kick myself in the head, I would.
Casino Royale isn’t quite Ian Fleming’s Bond, but it’s pretty dang close. It follows most of the plot of the book, even if Craig’s Bond is given a bit of an out by M at the end, so he’s not quite the same cold hearted bastard he is at the end of the book, which, if I’m not mistaken, ends with the line “The bitch is dead.”
The plot is taut, the action gripping. That parkour chase through the construction site I dismissed in my first viewing is absolutely killer, with Sebastian Foucan (and his freerunning doubles) moving with sublime kinetic grace as Bond pursues his character like a juggernaut, smashing through drywall and finally chasing him down to an embassy which he leaves in flames. The crash of the DBS V12 when Bond nearly runs over Vesper in the road is spectacularly shot, and the tense battle inside a sinking Venetian edifice is a great climax.
Gone are the campy sexploits of stiffly mugging Bond. This is the cold blooded international assassin, slipping a blade into a man at a museum exhibit in the midst of unsuspecting civilians, downing a whisky to quell the shakes after battling to the death in an empty stairwell, then cleaning his cuts and chaning his shirt in time for the next multimillion dollar hand down in the casino. The only gadget on display is a believable adrenaline shot and dashboard defibrillator, the closest thing to a joke in the wake of the action an exultant but exhausted grin as a terrorist mistakenly blows himself up instead of the world’s largest jet liner.
Yet despite the superhuman feats Bond pulls off, this is not an untouchable superman. This Bond doesn’t shrug off bullets or car crashes. He nearly succumbs to poison, and after suffering grueling ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ at the eager, sadistic hands of Le Chiffre, he earns a hospital stay. Likewise, this Bond, we are to assume a young Bond early in his career, still feels enough for Vesper’s betrayal to cut out his heart in the end. We’re witnessing a crucible firing. The fat is cut away, and at the end, the man who blows out Mr. White’s knee and stands over him with a silenced submachinegun, truly is Bond, James Bond.
The supporting cast of Casino Royale is fabulous. Of course Judi Dench’s return to the role of M is welcome (if a bit puzzling in terms of series continuity, until you arrive at the conclusion that these should basically be viewed and enjoyed the same way as the Godzilla series, where the origin and basic tropes are the same and each subsequent installment unrelated, groups of miniseries within the overall series). Eva Green believably pulls off the arc of a seemingly inexperienced field agent who is also in league with the Devil the whole time, alternately vulnerable and necessarily cruel, tragically beautiful and regretful. This is the movie that introduced me to the great Mads Mikkelsen, whose bleeding-eyed Le Chiffre seems as cool as the other side of the pillow when he’s at the table playing with other people’s money, but is suitably sweaty and frantic when those people come to collect. His scenes with Bond around the table are terrific, and the cringe inducing torture sequence appropriately hard to watch. Jeffrey Wright’s been a favorite actor of mine since Ride With The Devil, and his turn as series mainstay CIA agent Felix Leiter is a welcome casting choice. I like him here and in Quantum of Solace, and have missed his return since. I especially like Giancarlo Giannini in the role of Rene Mathis, a likable, sophisticated mentor for Bond whose loyalty is called into question late in the game. Bond movies are known for their lovely actresses and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely stunning Caterina Murino as Solange, the satiny, neglected wife of one of Bond’s kills who pays the ultimate price for betraying her slimy husband’s doings.
As for Daniel Craig himself, he’s the best Bond since Timothy Dalton, and captures the look and feel of the literary 007 possibly better than any of his predecessors. Sure he’s a sophisticate and a connoisseur of various fineries, but the drinks and the pills are holding him together, and beneath that veneer he’s the scary killer smashing through the dry wall to get at you. Those freakin’ eyes!
The initial exchange between Vesper and Bond.
Vesper Lynd: All right… by the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since you’re first thought about me ran to “orphan,” that’s what I’d say you are.
[he smiles but says nothing]
Vesper Lynd: Oh, you are? I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense! Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know… former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.
[Glances at his wrist]
Vesper Lynd: Rolex?
James Bond: Omega.
Vesper Lynd: Beautiful. Now, having just met you, I wouldn’t go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard…
James Bond: No, of course not.
Vesper Lynd: But it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine. You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government’s money – and off your perfectly-formed arse.
James Bond: You noticed?
Vesper Lynd: Even accountants have imagination. How was your lamb?
James Bond: Skewered. One sympathizes.
Has to be that opener, one of the best of the series.
Dryden: How did he die?
Bond: Your contact? Not well.
Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn’t worry. The second is…
Bond: Yes. Considerably.
Would I Buy It Again: Yessir. Though I think I’d like to hunt down that European cut, which is a bit more brutal, I hear.
Next In The Queue: Chato’s Land