Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review – Casino Royale

December 29, 2011

Casino Royale – U.S., 2006

The twenty-first James Bond film is an origin film, yet unlike standard origin films, it doesn’t involve a young Bond learning a valuable life lesson along the lines of with great power comes great responsibility. It also doesn’t end with Bond more determined than ever to help humanity, and we don’t hear his voice expressing his acceptance of the sacrifices he has to make in a voice-over. In fact, what Bond has learned is best summed up by M (again played by Dame Judy Dench): Bond has learned that he can’t trust anyone. It’s hardly an inspiring message. However, somehow it feels perfectly appropriate for someone in Bond’s profession, and watching Bond learn it turns out to be quite interesting. It’s just not as fun.

Perhaps that is because throughout Casino Royale Bond, now played by Daniel Craig, is discovering himself as both an agent and a person. He begins the film by being told he’s too emotional and that he must distance himself from his feelings about both the case he is working on and the people he comes in contact with. Later, he must learn to keep his ego in check because overconfidence can lead to mistakes. And of course, Bond must develop that sense of humor that audiences have grown accustomed to, the one that enables him to dish out double entendres at will. Here, his attempts at humor can best be described as sophomoric, but there’s reason to be optimistic. He actually gets funnier as the film goes along, but only marginally. This Bond does not seem capable of thinking up clever lines to go along with the way villains are killed. He’s much more likely to just stand in place and try to get his breath back than he is to come up with something like simply shocking after someone is electrocuted. And he has yet to develop a preference in martinis – his answer to the question Shaken or stirred? is essentially Who cares?

In addition, Casino Royale is the first completely 21st century Bond film. MI6’s technology seems appropriate for the times we are living in, and the villain is so well educated that two of his most effective weapons appear to be hedging and dividends. In fact, in this new Bond universe, there are no secret high-tech underground chambers or supervillains that are impervious to pain, and Bond’s adversaries do not threaten to slice him in half with a laser. Instead, they interrogate him in a way that is much more realistic – and therefore much harder to watch. There is also the little matter of Bond’s identity, which as the film rightly points out would be difficult to keep secret given all of the cameras and technology that exists today. In one scene, Bond remarks that 00s don’t have long life spans, and it’s easy to see why.

Yet for all of this, Casino Royale is a rather standard Bond film plot-wise. It begins with Bond making a mistake that costs him M’s trust, and because of his mistake, he’s told to lay low for a while. Instead, he goes rogue. If that sounds familiar, it was essentially the set-up for Die Another Day. Also in typical Bond film fashion, M quickly realizes Bond is on to something, and soon they are acting as if he was never distrusted in the first place. Like previous films, a young female agent is of course sent in to keep an eye on Bond, and as expected, she is at first disinterested in him. However, we know that as the film goes on, she will begin to warm to his not-so subtle charms. That too was a key part of Die Another Day. And the film’s grand finale? Well, just how many times have we seen Bond trying to get the bad guys before a building falls apart?

However, despite its formulaic structure, Casino Royale succeeds. It does so partly by grounding itself in today’s reality. Gone are the villains that could only exist in movies, replaced by middle men whose job it is to double or triple the money that terrorists give them. Bond’s job is essentially to cut off this source of terrorist funding. In reality, governments all over the world are currently trying their utmost to do this, and in some cases, their efforts are hampered by well-intended international laws, in particular, the immunity given to government ambassadors and their staff all over the world. Years ago, a storyline similar to this was featured in Lethal Weapon 2, and the film benefited greatly from it. The same can be said of Casino Royale. Perhaps there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing present-day problems addressed successfully, even if it is only on the silver screen.

And yet, as intriguing as Casino Royale is, it is also not as much fun as previous films. I sorely missed Bond’s annual conversation with Q and waiting with baited breath for the scene in which the gadgets Q gives him are finally of some use to him. After all, Q was always remarkably accurate. I also missed the often wonderfully witty banter of previous Bond films, especially between Bond and the many women who occupy or enter his world, from his flirtatious back-and-forth exchanges with Miss Moneypenny to the women whose world he could turn upside down just by flirting with them. It wasn’t always politically correct, but it was often great fun. In Casino Royale, we have to settle for a brief exchange, an homage of sorts, between Bond and the film’s Bond girl, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

Vesper: “I’m the money.”
Bond: “Every penny of it.”

As a rule, I am not particularly fond of reboots, and that is essentially what Casino Royale is. This Bond never fought SPECTRE or mixed it up with Blofeld. He never defended Fort Knox; he was also never married or widowed. He may make friends with Felix Leiter in later films, yet the two of them will probably never drop into the middle of a CIA operation against international drug dealers together. We’ll likely never see the character of Q again or watch Bond act positively giddy as he looks through the special infra-red glasses that Q’s lab designed. There was something special about Bond remaining the same as the years passed by. The world kept changing, but he remained one of its heroes – a champion for every generation. Now that’s gone, and I wonder just how interested newer fans will be in older Bond films now that they have started the series over.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that Casino Royale is a good film that steers the franchise in a new and potentially exciting direction. Daniel Craig may not be my favorite Bond, but he could be the most realistic one. However, his Bond will not bring much of a smile to your face or make you shake your head with delight at the rather cheeky things he says. He’s more like Jack Baeur than Maxwell Smart, more like Timothy Dalton’s Bond than Pierce Brosnan’s, and only time will tell which type of Bond fans appreciate more. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

No comments: