A previous review of this film can be found here.

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.


CASINO ROYALE
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis
Premiered 14 November, 2006

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
There's no gun barrel opening, which shocked me the first time I saw the movie; almost as shocking as the grainy-as-hell black and white with which the film opens. In the Czech Republic, we find MI6 section chief Dryden (Malcolm Sinclair) unexpectedly encounter Agent James Bond (Daniel Craig), sent to take out the traitor, known to be selling secrets. Dryden first notes that this since Bond isn't a double-0 agent, not yet having completed the final requirement of killing two persons, he's surely not up to the task of taking down a rogue chief, then solely realises that this mission is exactly where those two kills are coming from. After observing that Bond is rattled from the experience of killing Dryden's contact in a brutal struggle in the men's room (seen in high-contrast B/W in flashback), the chief patronisingly notes that the second killing is much easier, his thought interrupted by a bullet and Bond's bland statement of agreement: "Considerably".

And then we get to see Bond, back in that bathroom, put a bullet in the not-quite-dead victim, in the form of a very heavily redesigned version of that famous gun barrel, metaphorically having only in this moment become our James Bond, our Agent 007. No overwrought stunts or nothing, just four swift minutes of nasty-minded asskicking, ice-cold sarcasm, and a terrific demonstration that no, in point of fact, this isn't the same ol' Bond picture that we'd become comfortable with.

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Rating: 4.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
For just the second time since taking over the series' scoring duties in 1997, David Arnold gets to co-write a theme, "You Know My Name", with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, who provides vocals. And as such, the song - the first since Octopussy's "All Time High" not to include the film's title anywhere in the lyric - is far more musically tight with the rest of the film than anything had been since the 1980s, while sounding undeniably, and excitingly, Bondian; it heavily recalls, without ever quoting, John Barry's instrumental theme for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. With the film consciously eschewing Monty Norman's iconic theme for the character, Arnold's use of "You Know My Name" in the underscore is a great way of keeping the film aurally anchored in the general feeling of the character's iconic history even while pushing him into new directions - and that is, after all, the mission of the film as a whole.

But its use in the underscore is one thing; its use as a theme is quite another, and the song suffers horribly from Cornell's singing, which makes it sound like the blankest, blandest kind of late '90s, early '00s corporate rock. The lyrics are vaguely witty on paper - the title itself an ironic nod to Bond's cultural ubiquity in a film anxious to rejuvenate him - but to hear them filtered through Cornell's impersonal shrill whine, they sound like any kind of nonsense you ignore at the mall. Very, very good, and very, very bad, can only be averaged out to very, very average.

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Rating: 3 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
Daniel Kleinman's fifth and last consecutive title sequence is, in its private way, groundbreaking: it's the first time a Bond film has played through its credits without even one instant of naked girls gyrating about. Which, depending on your perspective, may be good or may be bad, but I'd rather talk about what has replaced those naked girls: boldly colored, geometric representations of Bond fighting villains, with an overriding playing card motif; spades as bullets, offed thugs erupt into a pile of diamonds, that sort of thing. It's striking and colorful, and combines 2006 animation techniques with a 1960s aesthetic in a smart way, but after about, oh, 15 seconds or so, the whole theme of "the word 'casino' is in the title, so everything is about gambling" has gone from cute to worn out to actively dumb. Though I am a sucker for colorful animation, so that helps.

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Rating: 3 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
For the first time since 1979's Moonraker, a Bond film takes its title and cues from one of Ian Fleming's full-length James Bond novels; and for the first time since, golly, probably 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, you can readily see the source material in the script, though with Casino Royale being such a short little thing, a lot of material had to be added in.

The newly-minted 007 is assigned to Madagascar, where he's meant to track down a mercenary bomb-maker (Sébastien Foucan), but succeeds only in shooting him in the middle of an embassy, and thoroughly pissing off M (Judi Dench), who is already convinced that she's made the wrong choice in promoting Bond. Resentfully, he sets out to prove her wrong by tracking a phone message to the Bahamas, and the international criminal Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian). Dimitrios proves to be the link back to a shady banker named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who was planning on blowing up a plane to send the stock of airline company Skyfleet plummeting, and thus making a killing on the market. Bond, however, manages to stop the attack in Miami, putting Le Chiffre out some $100 million.

Which would suck, except that the money wasn't his to begin with, but the property of a number of now very angry terrorists, and M sees an opportunity: if Bond, the best poker player in MI6, can prevent Le Chiffre from winning his losses back at a high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em game in Montenegro's Casino Royale, the financier will have no choice but to seek asylum if he wants to stay ahead of his debtors, with the price being an unmatchable fortune in intelligence about the world's biggest terror networks. Bond thus travels to Casino Royale with Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and does succeed, after some considerable setbacks, in bankrupting Le Chiffre; but instead of handing him to MI6, or even to the American CIA, as he is obliged to promise Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) in exchange for a financial bailout, Bond is captured by the enraged banker, and survives some particularly nauseating genital torture only because Le Chiffre is shot dead by the terrorists from whom he stole such massive sums of cash.

You'd think that would end things, but not quite: Bond has noticed that Le Chiffre came into some very particular knowledge that indicates the presence of a mole within MI6, and he manages to ferret that mole out. And when he does so, the identity of that mole is so crushing to him that it destroys the last measure of soulfulness he had left after being trained to be a perfect killer: as the film ends, James Bond finally becomes one and the same as Agent 007. It is not a comforting transition.

Simple, spare, and a great reversion to Fleming's version of the character not as he was - Fleming's pulp novels not being the greatest literature with the most insightful psychology - but as he always should have been: in returning to the character's source, the writers were able to make an old-fashioned Bond better than he ever was. It's a tight, non-melodramatic variant on the character like even the Timothy Dalton films couldn't approach, but it never sacrifices being a great thriller in the quest to be more low-key: in fact, despite a 144-minute runtime that makes it the longest of all Bond movies (sort of; if we factor in the increasing length of ending credits starting in the 1980s, Casino Royale turns out to have about a half-minute less of actual movie than On Her Majesty's Secret Service), the film hardly ever sags or feels bloated, and it manages two potentially script-ruining shifts in conflict (one when Le Chiffre is found to be the villain; one after he is dead) so naturally that you hardly even notice that, structurally at least, the film ought to have just committed suicide. Terrific, focused thriller-making.

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Rating: 4.5 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
As one of the most accomplished actors to ever take up the mantel of Bond villainy, it's no surprise that Mikkelsen' take on Le Chiffre is pretty damn terrific: his is the sort of low-level menace that doesn't rely on piranha tanks or death rays or screaming fits of psychosis, but on simply projecting a constant aura of being dangerous and cruel. In fact, there is almost certainly no Bond villain who does so little as Le Chiffre: we catch him during an extremely un-ambitious moment of trying, desperately as he can, just to get through the next 48 hours. And Mikkelsen captures this, as well, making the character feel all in all like a cornered animal the sort that will chew right through you to escape.

Even the one nod to over-the-top cartoon nastiness, his deformed eye that weeps blood, is treated so casually and small-ish that it never feels like a stupid gimmick as, say, a bullet in the brain that makes him impervious to pain. It just sort of makes him creepy.

And if all this does not add up to a truly legendary Bond villain - he really doesn't have any scheme, but spends the whole movie reacting, which certainly makes him less of a threat - he's still a formidable anchor for all the film's drama to hang on.

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Rating: 4 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Cocky. Intelligent. Sexy. Resourceful. And still human - we see that in the scene when she sits, shell-shocked, under a stream of water, desperate to wash the violence away. Able to see right through Bond's hyper-masculine exterior, but still be okay with finding herself sexually attracted to herself. Eva Green, giving one of the very few truly great female performances in the history of the franchise, does something that, in 2006, I was certain would never happen: she creates a love interest for James Bond that's every bit the equal of Diana Rigg's Tracy from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, still my pick for all-time best Bond Girl. But that is no poor reflection on Green's Vesper, a captivating and witty figure - her back-and-forth with Bond on a train into Montenegro includes some of the best dialogue ever written in a James Bond movie. I adore her, simply adore her, as a character, as eye candy, as a person.

It speaks extraordinarily ill of the franchise that the two best-written, best-acted, and generally strongest female leads in the whole run of films are the only two who end up dead.

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Rating: 5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
There is no real designated henchman, just a whole mess of bad guys that Bond has to fight, one sequence at a time, until he eventually runs out. But at the same time, all of them are too distinct, introduced with too much precision, just to write off the category altogether. There's the bald one, the old one, the guy who gets stabbed at the art installation, the bomb-maker, the other bomb-maker; quite a litany, but from the way I string them all together, I bet you can guess that they're awfully indistinct, and not in an interesting way. Ah well, re-invention of a decades-old character can't be entirely smooth.

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Rating: 2 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Dimitrios's wife Solange (Caterina Murino) barely shows up at all, but she makes a hell of an impression, wearing a red dress that is about as sexy as it gets without being particularly revealing or gaudy. And if her role is generally a boilerplate sort of thing - grouse about her dick husband, and use Bond as an escape for a short time before she is punished for her indiscretion in letting the spy know too much - Murino's breezy, lusty take on that stock character is certainly well above the series' average. It's a better impression than most of these disposable women make, certainly, and with hardly any screentime - and with Vesper being such a nuanced character, there's something regressively soothing about a character whose function is, to such a degree, just about looking phenomenal.

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Rating: 4 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The first time we see our sixth James Bond in action, it's in a parkour chase through a construction site, so damned impressive in its scale, choreography, and intensity that Sébastien Foucan is credited, in the opening, for his free running stunts. There's a moment where Foucan ducks through a tiny hole in a wall, as Bond barrels right on through it, that is to me one of the defining moments for this new variation of the character: direct and thuggish. It's among the best chases in the history of the franchise - almost certainly the best foot chase - and while the film doesn't live up to it, that's only because it very nearly can't without making us all die of too much awesome.

What we have is certainly top-shelf, all the way: a mad car chase through an airport's runway system, racing against a bomb; a gun battle inside a building in Venice sinking into the lagoon; and in the film's one gratuitous stunt, a car that flips over more times in a single take than you'd think possible, mostly because it shouldn't have been - and that stunt set the Guinness World Record. It is all deliriously exciting, a welcome contrast to the much smaller-scale spying of this entry, and a promising demonstration of what this younger, more physical incarnation of James Bond was going to be capable of doing. The best in the whole series.

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Rating: 5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Here's the thing, then: part and parcel of the new stripped-down, more realistic version of the character that happened with Casino Royale was a complete rejection of gadgets. One can be sad about this, but them's the facts.


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
If Le Chiffre has a lair, we never see it; but the sets that do make it in are, by and large, well-designed by Peter Lamont, if lacking a bit in the grandeur department. The Madagascar construction site where the film's best action scene takes place is perfect for its function, Casino Royale itself is lush and opulent, and M's briefly-scene apartment looks sleek as can be. The best set, no question, is the Ventian apartment that has been left desolate and worn down, and falls into the sea with terrifying stateliness; a terrific piece of craft even if it's not shiny or noticeable.

Most of these sets aren't terribly shiny or noticeable, in fact, but they are all perfectly-suited to their role, and that must be acknowledged, if only slightly.

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Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
You might even go so far as to say that lifestyle porn is precisely not the point in Casino Royale, but that isn't to say it's been banished, and in fact there are quite a few terrific moments: Bond wins a pristine Aston Martin DB5 in a poker game, and there is nothing more pornographic in this entire franchise than that vehicle. Later, he invents the Vesper martini on the fly (and a particularly glorious martini it is, though we can no longer enjoy the precise mixture that Ian Fleming described in 1953), demonstrating more knowledge of alcohol than any Bond since Connery's. And when he puts on his first tailored tuxedo, Craig plays the moment gorgeously, expressing the wonder of wearing really fucking nice clothes for the first time. And he wears a nice Omega, a fact we learn when it is communicated in a barbarically heavy-handed bit of product placement.

On the other hand, Bond plays Texas Hold 'Em instead of baccarat, which, no. If it's good enough for Wednesday night at the frat house, it's sure as shit not good enough for James Bond.

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Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Thoroughly pissed off at the world, Bond finds the villain responsible for his last, worst tragedy, and shoots him, seconds after the man demands to know his name. Cut to black.
Forced or Badass? It is the crowning moment of the film, in which the spy closes out his origin story by uttering the words that truly separate him from all other action heroes, and doing it in the most awesomely detached way. There is none more badass than this.


BEST QUIP
VESPER: "It doesn't bother you? Killing all those people?"
BOND: "Well, I wouldn't be very good at my job if it did."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
The miserable one-two punch of The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, along with Pierce Brosnan's 50th birthday and decision not to pursue a fifth go as Bond, necessitated a course correction: the most dramatic that the Bond films had ever undergone, even more than the shift from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton in the '80s (for Moore's last film, A View to a Kill, possessed something of Dalton's brutality; while Dalton's first, The Living Daylights, had clear traces of Moore's flippancy). Casino Royale wasn't just a change of the guard, it was a complete reboot, introducing a younger, hungrier, meaner Bond, more like the one in the books, one who could compete better with the tough action stars of the '00s, especially a certain Jason Bourne, whose debut in 2002's The Bourne Identity was greeted with a bevy of hosannas all proclaiming, "hey, he's like Bond only not completely fucking stupid!"

Also, this rebooted Bond would, for unclear reasons, have the exact same boss as the last Bond, and I'm certainly not complaining, because Judi Dench is a terrific M, and she gets a jaw-droppingly great monologue to introduce herself in this entry, delivered as only an imperious aging Shakespearean could do it. But it's worth pointing out that GoldenEye represents a much more thorough personnel shift, and was never even once called a reboot, so I think we can maybe tone down that rhetoric a tad here. If anything, I like to think that Casino Royale lends credence to the old conspiracy theory that there are multiple agents named James Bond, as seen in the 1967 parody version of Casino Royale, but surely we had best keep away from that thicket.

The point being, Daniel Craig was tapped to play Bond; and for my tastes, he's unequivocally the best since Sean Connery himself. Much more than any of the four intervening actors, Craig is a holistic Bond, capturing a broader sense of who the character is and could be than the limited approaches of George Lazenby, Moore, and Dalton, or the contradictory, self-defeating approach of Brosnan.

It is worth pointing out, surely, that unlike the other actors, Craig was not yet born when Dr. No came out, and had no sense of a world without Bond. If the character was well and truly iconic by the time Dalton and Brosnan took him over, it would still necessarily be different for an actor would could not remember a time when James Bond was not already a fixture in action cinema. And perhaps that's why, instead of trying to carve out a distinct Bond, Craig's take on the character seems more to augment Connery's, bringing the character into the modern day without trying to challenge the basic elements of how Connery played him. Paradoxically, by not fighting against Connery, Craig became the first of his successors to stake out a genuinely fresh and engaging and complete version of the character.

And boy, does Casino Royale give him a chance to shine. Martin Campbell, who'd proven his Bond skills with GoldenEye, easily betters himself here, ramping up the seriousness of everything without quashing the flickers of sardonic humor that are, when you get down to it, just as rampant as they were in the Brosnan films; they're just not lame puns, and Craig isn't ashamed to deliver them. "That last hand... nearly killed me", in context, could have been a flat groaner in Brosnan's hands or a merry twinkle in Moore's; here, it's nasty and funny all in one.

Campbell doesn't just showcase his new Bond, he does a terrific job of setting up the exact right mood for the action to thrive, or in staging the torture scene, one of the most genuinely harrowing moments in any Bond film. This is a stunningly well-crafted piece of popcorn cinema, efficient and taut, attractive without calling attention to itself, knowingly drifting towards the iconic, bloated Bond of yore (Arnold's score is especially good at this, frequently halting just shy of Monty Norman's 007 Theme, until the end credits start up and it comes out in an ecstatic rush, like a pent-up orgasm), while still being the streamlined, cleaner Bond that the 2000s demanded.

It is the perfect way to refresh a moribund property, not just an antidote to the ghastly late Brosnan pictures with all their asinine excess, but in my estimation the best Bond film since Connery's heyday. For the first time in my life, Bond felt relevant, urgent, and necessary; the franchise was pointed in a terrifically promising direction, primed to revolutionise its genre as thoroughly as it did way back in the mid-'60s. You'd have to be a real asshole to fuck up the momentum of this thrilling, breathtaking action thriller.

They found a real asshole.


OVERALL SCORE
41.5/55 [eq. 45.27/60]