Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell)

I’ve long considered myself a fan of Bond, although when it comes to the more recent 007 movies my fandom is more theoretical than practical- I’ll see them all opening weekend, but none has really done much for me beyond the obvious entertainment value. Thank goodness for CASINO ROYALE, then- a belated straight-faced adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel that doesn’t come off as a series-salvaging reboot or, worse, a “prequel” (fuck you very much, George Lucas), but is a great Bond movie that actually manages to be an awesome movie as well. After a chilly black-and-white prologue that proves once and for all that Daniel Craig’s 007 means business in a way that Brosnan never quite did (and a clever opening credits sequence that only lacks a worthy song to match), the first hour of CASINO ROYALE is vintage Bond, setting up the film’s conflict and its villain with flair. In addition, this film brings the welcome return of Bond as a detective on an international scale, jetting from one exotic locale to another not just for variety but to chase down baddies (and clues to their names and whereabouts) for Queen and Country.

But while the film’s first hour supplies most of the pleasures of a good Bond movie- cool cars, pretty scenery, a babelicious woman 007 pumps for information and recreation, everything but Q’s gadgets- the film really gets good once Bond heads for the titular gambling establishment. It’s here we delve into the original Fleming storyline- here switched from baccarat to poker- along the way encountering the greatest Bond girl of all, Vesper Lynd. Amidst all the action and intrigue, it’s Bond’s relationship with Vesper that makes this movie special, in large part because she’s a real three-dimensional character. Which makes Eva Green so right for the role- she’s trousers-tighteningly hot, true, but she’s also a smart cookie, sizing up her male counterpart with her wide, ever-appraising eyes. And Green is matched every step of the way by Craig, as good an actor as has ever donned the tux (though not the fedora- an old-fashioned touch I still miss)- not only is he more of an ass-kicker than Brosnan or Moore, but he actively engages with his costars in a way that no Bond has since Connery. In other words, the pre-release anti-Craig contingent can go straight to hell, because this guy has done the role justice.

What keeps CASINO ROYALE from being one of the greats is the final half-hour. Both Fleming’s original novel and the best of the earlier Bond films had a terseness to them that the storytelling bloat of the film’s final reels sort of betrays. Personally, I thought that the film took about two steps too many to get the story from the awesome torture scene to the perfect final shot, and for a Bond movie, which thrives on momentum, there’s far too much stasis in these scenes. However, the fact of the matter is that even with these issues, CASINO ROYALE is better than any Bond movie since the 1960s because I actually gave a shit about the people onscreen. Unlike Moore’s Cold War-era cartoon, Dalton’s toothless agent, or Brosnan’s quip-heavy action figure, Craig plays Bond as a person, full of complexities and contradictions, one who changes throughout the course of the film, not always for the better, as a result of what he does and what is done to him. And like my favorite entry in the series, 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (and unlike any Bond film since), this one actually gives 007 a woman who is every bit as equal, which makes the story’s final revelations both tragic and inevitable. By the time Craig intones the film’s final, iconic line of dialogue, I for one believed him. Bond… is… back!

Rating: ***.

P.S.: Upon reflection, I've discovered to my mild consternation that for all the love I have for classic 007 adventures I don't own a single Bond movie on DVD. Perhaps this has something to do with the format of MGM's box sets- whereas I'd have no problem picking up an all-Connery (or even better, all-Connery and Lazenby) set, the way it works now, if you want FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, you've gotta take FOR YOUR EYES ONLY with its creepy-ass Moore/Lynn-Holly Johnson love story. And if I'm paying $90 bucks for five movies, I don't want ballast, I want goodness. I understand the marketing impetus to package the films this way- many fans will gladly shell out just to own their favorites- but is a 007 Connery Classics Collection too much to hope for?

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