casino royale (2006)

Ah, nothing says America like apple pie, turkey n' stuffing, and a ridiculously long-running film franchise that just won't quit. If there's one thing the American film industry loves, it's sequels, but recently the only thing they seem to like more is prequels. So, it's a good thing there's movies like the new Bond flick Casino Royale around to remind us that the prequel craze isn't always a bad thing. You heard right, the original international super spy, James Bond is back on the big screen for his 21st film, and this time, instead of yet another sequel involving giant lasers and invisible cars we're taken back to 007's roots to see just where he came from. Adapting Ian Fleming's original novel to the big screen was a gutsy move in the first place, as it meant reversing the entire franchise back to scratch, but also the Bond-makers announced this adventure would have a more "back to basics" approach and do away with Q and the fancy gadgets. As if that wasn't enough, our man in the tux for the last four films, Pierce Brosnan, was ready to call the series quits. It was obvious that this one was going to be a tough sell. However, after almost 45 years, and a dissension into some pretty hokey storylines, the Bond series needed a re-birth, and that's exactly what it gets in this new film. Bond is back, and yeah, he hasn't been this good in ages. 

When it comes to Bond, I've never really been sure where I stand on a number of different things about the series. Oh, Connery's my favorite of course, but ever since he left the role, the films have changed in many many ways. Mostly it's the fact that the plots kept getting crazier. The gadgets got crazier, the bad guys got crazier (jaws?) and their insane plans got crazier as the state of the world was in jeopardy every film and the entire planet was about to be wiped out. The Cold War set the perfect stage for Bond, but when that dwindled, so did the series. Now it was to be all evil genius millionaires who, for some reason, wanted to destroy the world. One of the things that contributes to the success of the new Bond is that we now have another real-life enemy for Bond to fight and no longer need to invent cartoonish villains. Yes, I think the age of terrorism might just give Bond a villain worth fighting, and it does in this new film, but without the aid of exploding gum. Yes, the Connery films had their share of jet-packs and whatnot, but it had become almost like a ritual for each film to dutifully include the Q scene where he rattled off the different gadgets that Bond would be using for the rest of the film. The recent Bond films were good time, but that's all they really were. They weren't living, breathing films with plots or characters you gave a damn about, they were just James Bond in a tux doing crazy stuff, saving the day and getting the girl. Ah, yes, one of aspects of the Brosnan era I couldn't stand were the treatment of the Bond girls. This was the 90's, and damsels in distress were so 1970, over the years the girls in each film had started to do more and more in terms of assisting/upstaging James in a fight to show that they were on a level playing field with the man. Of course, this was supposed to showcase some sort of female empowerment, but these women really had no power as they were always pitted against another woman in a fight where knowing how to karate kick means empowerment (don't ask me why), and of course, in the end Bond always got them in bed anyway. In Casino Royale, they finally nail that aspect. Eva Green plays Vesper Lynd, and instead of a kung fu fighter, she's merely as smart or smarter than Bond and they each learn a few things from the other. THIS is how to put the Bond girl on a more level playing field, by making her an active character in the film as opposed to a bystander. In the other films, the Bond girl kept her status as the woman at James' side, except during the crazy action sequences when she would fight. In the new film, Green plays a character who is a character in her own right, Bond or no Bond. (On a side note, it's been quite a while since someone uttered the words "Mr. Bond" in such a way as Green does in this film, it really harkened back to the Connery days, though I'm not quite sure why.) Anyway, the part where this film takes off is that it actually includes a character arc for Bond. Not, only that, it includes a plot where we are actually unsure of what is going to happen. Instead of following protocol, this new film reboots the series and gives it a kickstart towards realism that we haven't seen, maybe ever. Of course, there are still wild stunts, but many are actually done for real. Craig even lost his two front teeth filming the scene of the crane. 

Craig, by the way, plays Bond in a great new way. Whereas every new Bond actor always seems like he's trying to imitate the last, Craig's performance stands on its own and he develops his own sense about Bond right off the bat. It helps, of course, that this new Bond is written very differently and is much rougher around the edges than any previous Bond. The script is a good one with only a few missteps. Overall I attribute these missteps to one of my least favorite men in Hollywood, Paul Haggis, taking part in writing the script. The Haggis stamp is all over some of these scenes, but thankfully the melodrama and contrived plot devices don't last long. I was geared up for some overly sentimental mush and maybe a few intertwining stories about spies from all different walks of life coming together, but thankfully either Haggis restrains himself or the other screenwriters cut him off. Whichever it was, thank God. For the most part, the dialogue is crisp and the story never strays too far in any direction, the focus is kept nice and close. The real problem, and I'm not sure if this can be attributed to direction or screenwriting, is that the movie can tend to feel a bit choppy and disjointed in some areas. It seems like action scenes and shots of Craig running were stuck in late in production for fear of alienating an audience that came mostly to see stuff blow up, not listen to some British guy talk n stuff. The film's got it where it counts, but it shouldn't have been so worried about the action, there's plenty to go around and I would've preferred it with less actually. The midsection of the film revolves around a large card tournament at Casino Royale, the winnings will be used to fund terrorists so Bond is sent in to win it all. This is where the direction by Martin Campbell really shines. These card games are as exciting and edge of your seat as any action sequence and the fact that the filmmakers weren't afraid to rely on this as the main set piece really says something about the new direction the series is going in with this film. It makes for some great scenes. Of course there's still a huge conclusion involving a really great use of the setting, I was quite impressed at the inventive way they staged it, you'll know what I'm talking about. One of the coolest aspects of this whole prequel trend is that, just as in films like Batman Begins, we get to see the hero become the hero little by little. Small moments like the first time Bond puts on his signature tux and drives an Aston Martin are made memorable and it's really alot of fun. The film is shot quite nicely as well with a great use of filters and even a black and white opening. While I would've rather sen more black and white, it was cool that it was in there. The only thing that's really a huge letdown was the opening credits. The new song is almost as dumb as Madonna's rendition of 'Die Another Day' (well, ok, it's not THAT bad). Also, it's cool to harken back to 60's animated credits sequences, but this one of cartoon James Bond fighting bad guys by shooting hearts and spades out of a gun is kinda lame. Other than that, the acting, story, direction and cinematography hold up well making for a satisfying film and a great preview of what's to come for this series. 

Bring on the Bond. I can't wait to see what they have up their sleeve for the next installment if they keep it going like this. The only confusing part is: where will they go? Will they continue from Casino Royale and really start the series over? Or will they jump ahead and continue from Die Another Day? Come to think of it, the Boind series has never really cared at all about continuity so I guess it doesn't really matter, the next episode will probably have nothing to do with this one just like all the others. I mean, does it make sense that they set the origin in 2006? Of course not. Hell, I was even getting pretty confused when M mentions the cold war while walking and talking to a newly appointed 007. Best not to think about such things and just try and enjoy yourself.