Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 004 Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale is the first official “reboot” of the James Bond franchise, though unofficially there were several prior reboots. This time, they took the franchise is a much darker, smaller and more realistic direction. This is not the Bond of volcano lairs and stolen nuclear weapons, this is the Bond who fights modern terrorists. With a new Bond and a new style, they produced what is arguable one of the best Bond films ever. And if it weren’t for the historical advantage of the three films above it (and some problems near the end), this one could arguably rate at or near the top. As it is, it sits at No. 004 of 0023.

Plot Quality: Casino Royale has a unique plot. For one thing, this is really the story of the villain more than it is the story of Bond. For another, this is the “smallest” Bond film ever as most of it takes place in a casino. There are action scenes attached to it, but the driving force is the drama of the card game. There is nothing else like this in the series.
Casino Royale begins with Bond chasing down an explosives maker in Africa named Mollaka. Bond has just been promoted to double-O status and his job is to monitor and capture Mollaka, but he ends up killing him by nearly blowing up an embassy. M is furious and wants Bond brought in for a debriefing, but Bond ignores her and follows the clues he found to the Bahamas, where he finds Alex Dimitrios, an associate of a banker named Le Chiffre. Bond kills Dimitrios and follows his henchman Carlos to Miami International Airport, where he discovers that Carlos intends to explode a prototype jetliner. Bond stops Carlos by planting the bomb on Carlo’s body. Carlos then blows himself up by mistake.

With Bond having foiled Carlos, Le Chiffre finds himself in a world of trouble. He has taken his terrorist clients’ money and used it to short-sell the company who makes the jetliner. When the jet does not explode, the stock price does not fall and Le Chiffre loses his investment. He must now raise one hundred million dollars before his clients kill him for losing their money. To do this, he arranges a high stakes poker game in the Casino Royale in Montenegro.
MI-6 enters Bond into the tournament in the hopes of defeating Le Chiffre. If they can defeat him, then they can blackmail him into spying on his clients for them. Aiding Bond in this are a British Treasury agent, Vesper Lynd, whose role is to protect the $10 million Bond needs to buy his way into the tournament, and René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), a local MI-6 contact.

As the game unfolds, we see a rashness in Bond that proves to be his biggest weakness. Le Chiffre exploits this and soon Bond is wiped out. Vesper then refused to give him the rest of the money he needs to keep playing. At that point, we discover that another one of the players is Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). He still has money but isn’t a very good player, so he agrees to sponsor Bond to keep him playing in exchange for Bond letting the CIA have Le Chiffre. Bond agrees and eventually beats Le Chiffre.
Soon thereafter, Le Chiffre abducts Vesper and Bond pursues him. But this is a trap and Bond is captured. Bond is then tortured for the codes to the Swiss bank account into which the money has been deposited. The torture, however, is interrupted when Le Chiffre’s superior, Mr. White, arrives and kills Le Chiffre.

Bond awakens in a hospital and has Mathis arrested for being a double agent. Then he admits to Vesper that he loves her and he plans to resign from MI-6 to be with her. They go to Venice, where Bond learns that Vesper never deposited the Treasury’s money. He chases her and is attacked by Mr. White and his henchmen. In the ensuing fight, the house they are in collapses into the water over which it is built and Vesper dies. The film ends with Bond shooting Mr. White in the leg and taking him in for interrogation.

This film does a lot really well. First, it’s beautifully shot and the sets and scenery are fantastic. One mistake they do make, however, is in going for extreme close-ups and shaky cam action pieces – they do some amazing stunts, but you never get to see them because the director shoots them as close-ups. The travelogue feel is definitely back. So is the sense of class or opulence we like in Bond as everyone is well-dressed and he only goes to luxurious places... no smelly tourists pushing $1 bets in these casinos.
The plot is fast and strong and intense too. It twists and turns throughout. The writing is good too and the dialog is strong. The film is also strewn with interesting moments where we see the Bond elements reassembled. We see him get the Aston Martin. He meets Felix for the first time. We see him make his first vodka martini. We hear his first use of “Bond, James Bond.” The relationships of the characters are interesting too. All told, this is an excellent film that is well put together on a great many levels. It could almost be the best in the series.

That said, there are some flaws. For example, the device of M being upset that Bond was promoted too soon grates, seeing as how Craig is already rather old looking. The big problem, however, is the ending. For one thing, the timing simply doesn’t work. The CIA failing to pick up Le Chiffre immediately and no one bothering to notice that Vesper hasn’t deposited the money with the government for what should be days don’t work. Mr. White coming in to save Bond at the critical moment isn’t very credible either. Indeed, the most likely realistic result of that scene is that White would have shot Bond and then tortured Le Chiffre. It is also hard to believe that aged, experience, cold-blooded Mr. Bond would chuck his job for Vesper.

Despite these flaws, this is a stellar film, but it would have been better with the last 15 minutes lopped off. They don’t fit the rest of the very tight script – they feel like someone felt forced to impose a “big ending” on a strong, personal film.
Bond Quality: This was Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond and a lot of people thought he wouldn’t be up to the task. Craig wasn’t exactly internationally known and he doesn’t come across as suave. He’s short too, and people didn’t like that he was blond. A great many people seemed to want Clive Owen instead. Craig, however, proved them all wrong. From the very first frame of the film, he grabs the role and he never lets it go. And by the time the movie was over, people were calling him the best Bond since Connery.

What Craig brings to this role which the others didn’t is a sense of genuine menace and relentlessness. When Craig’s Bond targets you, there is no escape. He’s like the Terminator. Yet, at the same time, he’s so tightly wound that you think he’s always ready to explode even as he comes across as the most cold-blooded Bond ever. Connery had flashes of this cold-bloodedness, particularly in Dr. No, but Craig lives it in every scene. Apart from this, Craig does lack the charm Connery had, but the writers help hide that by matching him with equally cold women, which limits the sex in his films, and makes his male-female relationships almost combative.
The Bond Girl: The Bond girl here is Eva Green, who plays Vesper Lynd. Frankly, she’s the weak spot in this film. Yes, the story is largely about the love-hate relationship between these two, but there just isn’t enough passion between them to make it work. Still, Green is adequate and she’s not the focus of the film, apart from the last 15 minutes.

The real relationship(s) Bond has in this film are with men: Mathis and Leiter. Both are much closer relationships than the one he has with Vesper. In fact, it is the relationship between Bond and Mathis which drives the film and the relationship between Bond and Leiter that gives the film its second act. I would measure the quality of these relationships as being on a par with those in the Ocean’s franchise starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Wright and Bond and Giannini and Bond are simply compelling together. And they also bring a welcome heist feel to the film.

Villain Quality: Casino Royale has a fascinating villain. He is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a man whose primary villainy is that he launders money for terrorists. In other words, he makes it possible for them to use their ill-gotten funds to fund their activities. But there is more to Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre has been using his clients’ funds to gamble. Well, gamble is an odd word. What he’s done is take his clients’ money and use it to short the stock of the company that makes the Skyfleet airliner, a prototype plane being flown out of Miami. His plan is to have a henchman (Carlos) blow up the prototype, which will tank their stock and make him super wealthy when the stock price falls.
Things go wrong for Le Chiffre when Bond traces a terrorist to Carlos and follows Carlos to Miami. Once there, Bond saves the plane, preventing the stock price from falling and causing Le Chiffre’s bet to become worthless. Le Chiffre has lost his clients’ money and they will not be happy about this. In the hopes of saving his butt, Le Chiffre sets up a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. The game has a $10 million buy in. MI-6 sees this as an opportunity to force Le Chiffre to work for them. They enter Bond in the tournament with the idea being that if Bond can win, then Le Chiffre won’t have the money he needs. To avoid being killed by his angry clients, Le Chiffre will then agree to spy for MI-6 if they agree to cover what he owes to his terrorist clients. That's "the scheme." No prior Bond film has had a scheme like this, where the villain's life is at stake.

This is all very cool and it’s different from any prior James Bond villain. What they’ve done here is take what would normally be the villain’s backstory, i.e. the background told to Bond by M as M briefs him about the mission, and they’ve made that the plot. This is an interesting choice which makes Le Chiffre perhaps the most interesting villain ever in a Bond film because you are actually watching his story rather than Bond’s story.
It also helps that Mikkelsen is fantastically creepy in the role, and he manages to walk the line between being seen as a genuine threat to Bond while being seen as terrified of the killers who want their money back from him. He is no ordinary banker. All of this makes him a fascinating and compelling villain, even if his “scheme” would normally be considered far too small to sustain a Bond film. What seems to help here in particular, is the sense that Le Chiffre is just a front for something much bigger.

All of this adds up to an excellent Bond film. Indeed, this could well be the best in the series, though I think at this point, we are largely in the “matter of personal taste” realm. And if it weren’t for the tradition with which the other films have been steeped and a bit of a strange left turn in the final fifteen minutes, this could easily be at or near the top. So in the future, I could see this entering the discussion of “best Bond,” but right now it still sits at No. 004 of 0023.

29 comments:

shawn said...

You want creepy Mats Mikkelson? He is excellent in the show "Hannibal" as the title character Hannibal Lecter.

As to "Casino Royale", it is a great, somewhat reboot of the Bond franchise, and Craig has a nice brutal edge to him that makes Bond someone to fear. The story is good without devolving into the silly like so many before, the stunts and fights excellent and the production value top notch. This is a film worthy of the top 5.

ScottDS said...

I'm sure I've said this before, but the experience of seeing this movie was the most fun I ever had at the theater.

I was temping at MGM and they were holding an employee screening one afternoon... but they needed three nerds to see the movie first to make sure everything was being projected properly. So they asked me and my two co-workers in the Records/Archives department. In short, we went across the street to the Westfield Century City Mall theater... and we had the ENTIRE room to ourselves - just the three of us!

And after that, it was lunchtime!

I only knew about the card game so I was surprised by how much action there was - I wasn't expecting much at all. As a Floridian, I appreciated the trip to Miami, even if most of it was shot in the UK.

I'm a Bond fan but not so much that I couldn't accept Craig - he sold me from minute one. And Eva Green is teh sex, as the kids on Urban Dictionary would say.

I can't help but feel, especially in light of Skyfall, that it was a mistake to make this a reboot. With a few slight adjustments, it could've been played as a straight Bond film.

Dave Olson said...

I was really hoping that this would come in at #1 (or 001, as the case may be). But with your hints of "historical advantages", it looks like that spot will be taken, with depressing predictability, by Goldfinger.

Anyway, this is one of six Bond films I've seen in a theater, and boy am I glad I did. With the exception of the sinking building in Venice, I loved almost every minute of it. I loved the opening, how it would smash-cut between the clear, steadicam office setting and the grainy, hand-held fisticuffs in the bathroom. As I've written elsewhere, Craig became Bond in that scene with just two words: "Yes, considerably."

I loved the parkour chase and its explosive resolution. I loved that Bond seduced a henchman's wife (the scrumptious Caterina Murino), then killed the henchman in public (with no one bothering to notice; very Hitchcockian), then tricked another henchman into blowing himself up. And I especially loved that we never saw that detonation, just the flash and a slow zoom onto Bond as he betrays a slight smile.

I love Texas Hold 'Em, so you just know I loved all the poker scenes, except that the idiot dealer kept mixing the community cards and the player cards. That would get him fired in any American casino...damned Eurotrash.

I even loved Eva Green as Vesper, even if her French accent slipped in a few times. There's a video on YouTube of her and Bond's first meeting with captions explaining their body language and the subtext of their banter. It may raise your opinion of her character a notch or two.

As you've said, the last 10 minutes or so are the film's weakness, and the sinking palazzo is just stupid as hell. How much more satisfying it would have been to see Bond and the bad guys play cat-and-mouse through Venice, watching them fall more and more violently as he gets closer, then Bond is forced to choose between the money or the girl. Of course we all know that he'd choose the girl but she ends up dying anyway, and not drowning herself for no good reason.

And when I say "the last 10 minutes", I mean from between 12 and 2 minutes from the end, because the end is fabulous: Mister White gets plugged in the kneecap and we see Our Hero in an immaculately tailored suit (a navy version of Connery's grey suit in Goldfinger) holding the most badass sniper rifle ever used in the series, and uttering the immortal "The name's Bond. James Bond." Cue theme, cut to black, roll credits. Perfect. Despite the misstep that was Quantum of Solace, I hope Craig sticks around for a few more Double-0 outings. Rumors on the internet are that the next film's title will be Devil May Care.

tryanmax said...

Agreed with Scott that the reboot aspect was unnecessary. This film deserves the credit for re-stoking the interest in Bond as a character and a franchise, and perhaps that helped. I don't know. Andrew describes this film as "small" and by his definition, it is, but it doesn't at all feel that way.

Funny how people get hung up on aspects that are not to be central to the Bond character, like hair color. Even the idea that Bond should never fall in love isn't a hard requisite. After all, how interesting is a playboy if there's no threat of him ever giving it up? The idea that he could settle down is what separates him from Hugh Heffner.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Agreed! A Top 5 film!

I've liked Mikkelson in everything I've seen him in. He has strong screen presence and he manages to blend into the roles perfectly. I'm definitely a fan.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think Skyfall was the mistake in that regard. They should have dropped the whole "Oh, I'm so old" garbage in that film.

I think they needed to do this as a reboot because this was such a different direction from what they had done. They needed to throw away the idea that Bond was action-lite mixed with over-the-top silliness. Don't forget, they had to wash away an invisible car and a death star when they made this one. In other words, this wasn't just a slightly different Bond, this was a different world. I think doing a reboot made sense in that regard. If they hadn't, people would have accused this film of just not being up to expectations.

As an aside on Eva Green, she always makes me think of Valeria Golino from Hot Shots, so whenever I see her appear on screen, I always see her saying, "What do you do with an Elephant with three balls?"

(Answer: "Walk him and pitch to the rhino.")

Tennessee Jed said...

really liked this film. It largely follows the book, and all that implies ... (see your comments on a turn back to a darker more realistic Bond.) Pretty much the only place it veers away result in the two areas you don't like {sic} the beginning and the end. In the book, the last lines are as follows (a phone message from Bond to "M"): "this is 007 speaking. This is an open line. It is an emergency .... 3030 was a double working for Redland. The bitch is dead now." On the other hand, audience have come to expect houses in Venice sinking so ....

The casino set was nothing short of, well, Royale. I disagree about Eva Green. Hauntingly beautiful, ultimately vacuous and dead. Still, one of the most famous cocktails in the world is named a "Vesper" Were it not for the three ahead of it, I'd rank this one as the best f them all :)

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, An excellent discussion of the film and where it really excels. I think this one grabs you from the beginning (and yes, that line is fantastic) and it keeps you until the Venice bit. I love the methodical, brutal nature of the character. I also love what they don't show, as you point out. The characters are great too, particularly ultra-hip Leiter and Mathis, who becomes almost a father to Bond. The game is very tense, and the breaks for action are very good too.

The flaw to me, comes in the ending. And in that, I like your ending much better. And yes, by ending, I'm excluding the ending-ending, which was totally awesome -- I'm talking about the Venice stuff, which could have been done so much better. A chase scene to rescue Vesper would have been much better than the whole "I'm going to retire... oh no, she's a bitch!" stuff. And the building imploding feels wrong. It feels tacked onto a film that was never about big explosions or incredible events.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Dave, I suspect this one will enter the conversation of Top Bond film as it ages. But right now, the discussion is almost always been the three that are left and I think that's partly nostalgia and partly that they've had 50 years of being loved and this one still feels too new. I think in 10-20 years, this one will be in the top 2.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think a reboot was necessary so people understood why this film was different. And in this case, "small" really isn't an insult. In fact, to the contrary, being small makes this film stronger because it makes you focus on the character and the emotions rather than the big shiny. And since the film does that extremely well and bring a lot of tension with it, it never feels "small" even though most of it takes place in just a couple rooms.

On his traits, I was honestly a little confused about people being upset about him being blond because I always viewed Moore as blond. But yeah, people freak out about a lot of things.

In terms of him falling in love, I don't think that's the problem. The problem is that he would suddenly chuck this job that has apparently been his lifelong goal and for which he's perfectly suited. James Bond may fall in love, but he doesn't throw it all away. Also, in my opinion, there's no love between them. They just don't give off enough passion to believe it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Unfortunately, audiences have come to expect the big shiny at the end of these films. Hence, Venice. Still, the rest of the film is fantastic. And the ending with Mr. White is a great way to end-end the film.

"If not for the three above it," LOL! Well played! :D

The Casino was amazing. In terms of Vesper, I just think the character is lacking for what they use her for. She doesn't have nearly as strong a relationship as he has with Leiter or Mathis, and then suddenly he declares he loves her when there's really no evidence of it on screen. I don't doubt Green could have done it, but they writers didn't help her.

tryanmax said...

They just don't give off enough passion to believe it.

Now that is a genuine issue, though different than the one usually voiced. If the passion were there, I think chucking the job would be believable. See also: OHMSS

PikeBishop said...

The ending is a bit of a let down, "the Angel" delivers Bond from his torturer, but everything else is top notch. Loved the scene where Bond was drugged. Wow, he doesn't walk on water like Moore did.

As far as the last three goes, I rank this one ahead of Goldfinger. Not to put the wheeled conveyence in front of the equine that is to provide its locomotion, but I just saw Goldfinger for the first time in years a week or so ago and it just does not hold up for me.

1. The romp in the hay to convert the lesbian. Puh-leez
2. Way to many contrivances and co incidences in the script. The world's worst shot just happens to take a shot at Goldfinge when Bond happens to be in the way. Goldfinger flies Bond on his private jet and then pretty much gives him freedom of movement. The car chase scene just to show off Q's toys and kill off an unneeded character.......
3. The heist and all the soldiers falling down looks just hokey and there was open air space over Fort Knox????

Oh well, I'll get to it when I get to it.

Tennessee Jed said...

if I may indulge myself for a second The Vesper Martini: "A dry martini. One. In a deep champagne goblet" 'Oui monsieur.' "Just a moment. 3 measures of Gordon's, 1 of vodka, , half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel .... got it?" 'Certainly monsieur.' "Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.

Tennessee Jed said...

Pike - I do feel your pain, but ... we must try and view these in terms of the effects that were in place at the time. And yes, better to discuss in it's turn.

Kit said...

When I was reading a Bond novel, I could actually hear Daniel Craig's voice as Bond.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Probably true. I just don't buy the romance here. They're just flirting, there's nothing more that I can believe in this film.

AndrewPrice said...

Pikebishop, All valid criticism of Goldfinger, which I share.

As for this one, the ending is a problem and I wish they have done it differently. But sadly, they didn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It certainly sounds like quite a drink. I wonder if it's any good?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, He fits the role well.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - quite, assuming you like a Martini. People go to great lengths to try and re-create the way it would have been made back in the early '50's. If you go to many big name hotel bars, you can order one without having to tell them.

tryanmax said...

Hmm, I should try that. The Vesper Martini is flirting quite nearly with being a gimlet. Yum!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Sadly, I'm not a drinker (don't tell Bev). I only drink occasionally and then it's German beer or I've recently discovered hard cider.

Tennessee Jed said...

it would only be a handicap to you if you had to play Chemin du fer against a criminal

Koshcat said...

Probably my favorite bond. Agree about the Venice debacle.

Rustbelt said...

Oh, I came late. Not much to add. Except...

I finally have an excuse to post this.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Nice. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think a lot of people agree with that.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'll fake it! LOL!

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