***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench
screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Martin Campbell
by Walter Chaw A genuinely good updating of the James Bond mythos from plastic, moldering relic to bloody, sweaty sociopath drunk on his own virility and general misanthropy, Martin Campbell's Casino Royale--though the umpteenth chapter in a decades-old testosterone fever dream--is very much a part of this day and age. It's a film that makes sense of the franchise using a modern vernacular of vengeance, terrorism, Texas Hold 'Em, and paranoia. It's unnecessarily padded by at least fifteen minutes, but when it switches into gear it announces itself a worthy peer to the Jason Bourne films with action that's fantastically choreographed and alive with weight and violence. Most importantly, it finally has a protagonist who is, if not already, well on his way to becoming a serious psycho--post-modern man. What Daniel Craig brings to the role is a feral intelligence, this self-awareness that he's a bad person. Any good that he does is tainted by the knowledge that this Bond's only in it for the cheap thrills (drugs and murder, in particular) that lube his insect brain. Casino Royale summarizes the trend of detached, savage pictures from the last couple of years (Miami Vice, in particular, another bleak updating of a camp curio); when we talk about good action films now, we seem to be talking about the degree to which we have, as a culture, regressed to the Old Testament in matters of the heart and the hand. Call it "caveman vérité."
Bond has just been "00" certified, which, as you probably know, means that he has a "license to kill"--indiscriminately, it appears, as his superior M (Judi Dench) notes that he's already amassed a sizeable body count ten minutes into the picture. The brutal black-and-white prologue presages a nasty distillation of On Her Majesty's Secret Service into one difficult scene set in Venice that is the rare Bond set-piece to fully utilize the peculiarities of its locale. "The bitch is dead," says Craig at one point, and it lands like a hammer-blow in the middle of the urbane bullshit of the bulk of its twenty predecessors. Obvious in context, it's pretty easy to make the leap that Casino Royale is pissing on (the rest of) the franchise. Blood-weeping archvillain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) observes that Bond has changed his shirt at one point; at another, someone has to defibrillate our previously-indestructible superhero. (His first words upon resurrection: "Are you okay?") All of it marks the picture as unusually smart about the shortcomings of its origins and dedicated to creating a work that will mean something to a contemporary audience. I imagine the ultimate effect of it to be that of a new Star Wars film directed by someone with a working frontal lobe--that is, the bar has actually been raised for maybe the first time in thirty years.
Casino Royale is fantasy in a world that's earned its darkness, a mature film that doesn't demand to be taken seriously but doesn't expect you to believe that the world is the same as it was when Sean Connery leered at Ursula Andress walking out of the surf like Venus on the half shell. In fact, when that scene is replicated in Casino Royale, it's Craig who's in the swimsuit, wearing a challenging look on his face that essentially invites the kind of torture he receives in the last half of the film, strapped to a chair with only his braggadocio and mental instability as armour. It's not about the misuse of women now, it's about being incapable of any kind of relationship that doesn't involve some degree of treachery and blood-letting. This Bond expresses an awareness that he's a murder or two away from losing his soul completely and then proceeds to kill an entire building of antagonists with his bare hands. It's nihilistic in the way that Scorsese's The Departed is nihilistic: Both films are so hopeless that they destroy every signpost on their way back into the social breach that spit them out. It's the end product of our machineries of despair; that we see it as a renaissance speaks a little to the straits in which we find ourselves.
by Bill Chambers Sony presents Casino Royale on DVD in competing 2-Disc widescreen and fullscreen editions; we received the former for review. Perhaps a smidge overmatted at 2.44:1, the 16x9-enhanced video transfer is nevertheless a technical marvel, boasting lush colour, deep contrast, and fine detail. I've heard that whites look blown-out on the Blu-ray alternative, which might in fact be a small price to pay for the higher definition (I freely admit that Eva Green's hair at times looks solid and untextured), but let it be said that no such clipping plagues the SD release. The accompanying DD 5.1 audio is a predictable blitzkrieg of discrete effects; it's a soundtrack sure to impress but also one with a slightly-undercooked centre channel and slightly overcooked surround channels. Rounding out the first platter are startup trailers for Spider-Man 3, The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Holiday, all in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Disc 2 houses three moderately interesting mini-docs as well as the dorky video for Chris Cornell's Bond anthem "You Know My Name," which sounds a little more guitar-driven here than it does in the film. Rob Done's/Special Treats' complementary featurettes "Becoming Bond" (26 mins.) and "James Bond: For Real" (23 mins.) emphasize Casino Royale's back-to-basics approach, with the former focusing on Daniel Craig's casting and the latter on the pyrotechnics, particularly the fancy footwork of "freerunner" Sebastien Foucan. If the dry, British sensibility of these pieces makes them seem a little more probing than they actually are, at least the participants are forthcoming (Barbara Broccoli touches on the lawsuit with eventual Casino Royale distributor Sony Pictures that had threatened the Bond franchise, though she remains mum on Quentin Tarantino's inciting interest in the project) and the anecdotes range from enlightening (Craig received vicious hate mail from Bond fanatics) to amusing (producer Michael Wilson loved screwing the screenwriters at the poker table). We also learn that a stunt made the Guinness Book of World Records--can you guess which one?
The disc's centrepiece is Maryam d'Abo and John Watkin 's 2002 "Bond Girls Are Forever"; updated to include junket interviews with Eva Green, this 3-part, 49-minute special is d'Abo's attempt to answer the existential question "What does it mean to be a Bond girl?" by visiting with other actresses who share the distinction of having portrayed the love interest (or the villainness) in a James Bond movie. Though she's as unsuccessful as the franchise itself has been in reconciling the burden that feminism places on these pictures, her homey conversations with Maud Adams (The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy), Lois Chiles (Moonraker), Carey Lowell (Licence to Kill), and still others (the less said about Halle Berry, the better) are unexpectedly melancholy, especially as it dawns on d'Abo that, as a refugee of the thoroughly chaste The Living Daylights, she was one of the least-objectified Bond girls. And let's face it, the whole thing holds a ghoulish fascination for its promise to show the effects of the aging process on once-spectacular beauties who in most cases have not had the spotlight shone on them in years. A provocative feature all-around. Trailers for Premonition, Spider-Man 3, Rocky Balboa, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Holiday, and the upcoming DVD-exclusive Spider-Man 2.1 finish out the package. Originally published: March 12, 2007.