Wednesday, October 12, 2011

James Bond Rebooted, Casino Royale Still Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be.

The Good: Decent amount of action, Moments of character, Acting
The Bad: Still largely predictable, Nothing great as far as DVD extras go
The Basics: James Bond's story begins anew with a Bond who is more brutal than suave, more forceful than cunning and less dependent upon others to save the world!

I was standing around Barnes And Noble the other day, pointedly avoiding writing the review of Casino Royale, which I had watched days prior, when I stumbled upon Roger Moore's autobiography. In it, Moore described a scene from his first film as James Bond where he had to twist a woman's arm and he wrote about how he had creative differences with the director about the scene and I thought it was an admirable position for the actor to take. Faced with increased images of violence against women, Moore thought it would be more in character for James Bond to try to romance the woman before twisting her arm and threatening to break it.

Reading that, I had to wonder what Sir Roger Moore thought of Casino Royale. Somewhat compelled to watch the film after seeing Quantum Of Solace, I approached Casino Royale without having seen any previews, but having seen the sequel. Truth be told, Casino Royale is better than its sequel and not only because the previews for Quantum Of Solace essentially showed the entire movie. No, here James Bond is presented as a very different character and while I wasn't entirely wild about the rebooted version (character, not the actor), Casino Royale manages to do what it sets out to do, which is restart the James Bond saga as a James Bond who is more ruthless, efficient and cunning than his prior incarnations.

Having been granted a license to kill, James Bond has begun leaving a trail of bodies in his pursuit of enemies of England and MI-6. To this end, he is tracking a terrorist when he ends up on he soil of a foreign embassy where he kills his suspect and acquires a code name for a higher up in the organization. Bond traces the cell phone - with the help of M and her tech personnel - to a banker in Montenegro, who has a scheme to refinance a terrorist organization with winnings from a poker tournament.

As a result, Bond and his Treasury Department Liaison, Vesper Lynd, head to the Casino Royale where Bond participates in a high-stakes poker game to attempt to win the money and thwart the terrorists. Unfortunately, going up against the bleeding-eye Le Chiffre puts Bond, Lynd and their local contact, Mathis, in jeopardy, leading Bond to more brutal methods of suppressing terrorism!

Should a film adaptation of Frogger ever be created for the big screen, director Martin Campbell should definitely be tapped for the job. The opening displays of atheleticism and violence are more or less a live-action Frogger type chase up scaffolding and around the skeletons of buildings with James Bond chasing a suspect with a backpack to try to find out who the operatives in the new terrorist organization are. The thing is, like the podrace scene in The Phantom Menace (reviewed here!), this chase goes on far longer than our interest in it and the viewer is left wondering, "What is the point?" After all, after a few amazing leaps, bounds, bullet-dodgings and tumbles, even the least-sharp viewer will get that James Bond is in amazing physical shape. One supposes that the point of all the running and jumping - outside the sheer spectacle of it - is to illustrate how well people can get by without using guns. Then again, if Bond's aim were better early on the whole chase could have been avoided.

Casino Royale is good, but it is not the end-all and be all great spy thriller of all time, which is what many people seem to paint it out to be. First, unlike in many prior incarnations, this James Bond is not particularly clever or ethically/emotionally-aware. No, he's a brute, a heavy. Bond opens the film with knocking heads against sinks and shooting a corrupt MI-6 operative. This is a Bond who certainly thinks on his feet - as evidenced by blowing up most of the embassy he finds himself in to acquire the precious backpack - but not one who thinks much about the consequences of his actions or even what is in the best interest of the organization that he works for.

So, for example, anonymity and information tend to be a spy's greatest advantages. If one does not know who a spy is, one tends to get access to information, which is pretty much the point of the whole spy industry. Bond is so aggressive he immediately pops onto the radar of the people he is trying to bankrupt. The result is that one of his first actions in Montenegro is to drop the alias he was given by MI-6 for his James Bond alias, letting Le Chiffre know he is a spy, essentially. That, at least, is dealt with within the movie.

What isn't is the cavalier attitude Bond takes with his position as an agent designed to get information. The trail of bodies that Bond leaves in his wake all had information that MI-6 could have used. Instead of aiding in the cause, Bond makes the job MI-6 has much harder by eliminating new sources for new leads. Fortunately, the use of technology (cell phones) by James Bond eliminates that concern.

On the character front, all of this works, save in the form of M. If this is a true reboot and Bond is a new Bond for the modern day, fresh out of whatever training program Bond has gone through to get double 0 status, it is entirely unrealistic that M would put up with such things as Bond breaking into her home and using her private terminal. After all, nothing quite screams "compromised agent" like the one who breaks into the boss's house and menaces them. M has the authority, but not the apparent wisdom in this incarnation to be an effective manager of James Bond.

Outside that, Casino Royale works well enough as a character study, though, for a brute. James Bond is a spy who is hampered not by his independence, but by his ego. Not being a team player allows him to make the tough calls without worrying so much about the moral judgments of others or the democratic process to decision making. In this case, though, it leads Bond to a sense of overconfidence and it is refreshing after watching him win extensively in one poker game to find Le Chiffre outthink him in the first rounds at the Casino Royale.

Similarly, Bond's relationship with Vesper is developed with a decent realism (at least as far as one of these movies goes) with Vesper immediately shooting down Bond and his flirtatious overtures. Vesper is actually a decent character and the realism of her shock at seeing people being tortured "reads" as very realistic and compelling. It is that type of detail that easily redeems this otherwise average spy thriller.

The other thing that brings Casino Royale back up into the territory where it is at least worth watching is the performance by Daniel Craig. Craig plays James Bond as a heartless spy to such an extent that it is actually a relief when he smiles! Craig easily projects an air of confidence and cold efficiency that makes this revised Bond work perfectly. As well, when he does opt for charm, there are moments when Craig delivers well, following in a long line of men who have played the character before him.

On DVD, Casino Royale includes the usual featurettes, commentary track and deleted scenes one expects for a DVD release and they are fine, though nothing is earthshattering. Actually, the best reason - outside the feature - to pick up the DVD is the featurette on the second disc "Bond Girls Are Forever." On that documentary, a former Bond girl travels around interviewing prior leading Bond ladies about what it meant to them and their careers to be tapped for the roles they were. It is intriguing and actually has some culturally interesting bits that make it well worth the time.

But largely, Casino Royale is predictable in many ways as a spy thriller, complete with reversals that are hardly surprising to anyone who enjoys a good spy story. It is well-shot, moves fast after the initial chase scenes, and has an interesting - if overly violent - take on the well-known superspy James Bond.

For other works featuring Jeffrey Wright, please check out my reviews of:
The Ides Of March
Source Code
Homicide: Life On The Street - Season 6


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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