All the pre- and post-production hoopla surrounding the new James Bond film has centered on Daniel Craig. He's not right for the part was the clamor, or He's surprisingly good. But Craig's debut as 007 is probably the least radical change that was made to writer Ian Fleming's very first Bond novel, Casino Royale--initially published in the U.K. as You Asked for It (1953).
By now, you've heard that this version is grittier than the other 007 films, with more plot and less quips and gadgets. Director Martin Campbell (who also directed "GoldenEye") calls this "the most realistic Bond film since 'From Russia with Love.'" That's no small change, but screenwriters and directors have been tinkering with that formula ever since Sean Connery dropped out as the original cinematic Bond.
Fleming's first novel was an installment, like any other 007 adventure. You could read the Bond novels out of order and still make sense of them, because every book was a self-contained mission. This one just happened to be first, but as one of the thinner novels in the series it didn't come close to answering all of the questions we had about this British secret agent. Mystery was part of the package. The new "Casino Royale" (not to be confused with the 1967 spy-spoof starring David Niven and Peter Sellers, a bastard child that Bond fans refuse to acknowledge) takes a strikingly new direction and gives us an origin film. Instead of seeing how Batman or The Fantastic Four got their powers, attitudes, and mannerisms, we get the full scoop on how Bond started wearing his trademark tuxedo, how he developed a taste for shaken-not-stirred martinis, how he acquired that 1964 silvery Aston Martin, and how he became a womanizer who wanted no emotional involvement. It's before suave, before glib--before Bond became Bond. Radical? You bet.
Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis ("Crash") give us a script that goes back in time using black-and-white flashbacks to show some of those origins, while incorporating others in the mission itself. The novel had Bond going head-to-head with Le Chiffre (the cipher), an agent for SMERSH, the Soviet assassination bureau (which actually existed). Screenwriters jettisoned the Soviet plotlines years ago, thinking that a public with no sense of history (Americans are now measuring themselves against fifth graders!) wouldn't be able to "identify" with Cold War tensions, but this trio goes farther than any of them. Now, Bond is operating in real time--our time. Now he's trying to foil terrorists in places like Uganda. Instead of playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, it's Texas Hold 'Em in Montenegro. Instead of every woman being "his type," Bond is only drawn to married women. Less complications. Yeah, right.
In the tradition of Bond films, the location filming (Italy, Montenegro, Bahamas, England, Czech Republic) is striking and the opening is a spectacular action sequence--this time showcasing the talents of Sebastien Foucan, who founded "freerunning" as an urban athletic expression that was showcased in a piece called "Jump London." Foucan plays a terrorist in Madagascar who's chased by Bond in an amazing sequence that seems like "Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger" with a more realistic look. These guys fly, and it looks as if they're really running up the tops of cranes and jumping from crane to crane and girder to girder some 200 feet off the ground--which is exactly what the stunts called for, we learn on one of the extras. The stunts in "Casino Royale" are superb, and so is the pacing--something which has been problematic in the past for directors who couldn't figure out how to balance plot and character development with enough explosions and special effects to satisfy the public's growing appetite for pyrotechnics and Fx eye-candy. But Campbell gets it right. I didn't think the 144-minute film dragged one bit, with the possible exception of some rather lengthy poker scenes.
The casting also seems solid, with Judi Dench returning as M., Giancarlo Giannini as Bond's contact, Mathis, Jeffrey Wright as the now-black C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter, Catarina Murino as the semi-villainous Solange, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, a British treasury agent assigned to watch and protect the money that Bond has been issued. In keeping with the trend toward realism, Mads Mikkelsen plays it nowhere near as over-the-top as previous Bond villains, but like everyone else in the film his performance is spot-on believable.
If there's a flaw in "Casino Royale," it's the same flaw that was in the book. It was never as sexy, tense, or action-packed as some of the jazzier Bond novels. The villain is a money man for an assassination bureau (or, in this case, a bankroller for international terrorists), and to stop him Bond doesn't have to ride in a moon buggy, foil a rocket launch, or keep a lunatic from destroying the planet. All he has to do, apart from those obligatory action scenes, is play poker and win. It's the premise and plot that aren't as strong as other Bond novels, but that makes Campbell's direction all the more applause-worthy. And don't panic, Bond fans. There's plenty of action and raw realism here, including torture, explosions, and the usual amount of killings.
All totaled, Fleming wrote 12 Bond novels and two collections of short stories, each one detailing the post-WWII adventures of a British agent with a license to kill. Right now, everyone's wondering where the next Bond film will go, especially after Bond made the leap into the current events we watch on TV news. The assumption is that we're going to see a grittier, more rugged Bond again. But don't be too sure. If this is a true origin film, then we're seeing how Bond was before he became a movie franchise player. The next film may very well ask that Craig shift gears and attempt as many tongue-in-cheek one-liners as he does stunts. And won't a second round of Bond controversy be fun?
This is the first mega-title to come out in HD exclusively on Blu-ray, so it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, that it has on sales. The picture looks great, with natural-looking colors and a saturation level of what I'm guessing is around 80 percent, which makes for a nice transition from the black-and-white sequences to the color. Some sequences (especially the indoor poker scenes) are closer to full saturation. Black levels are strong, with a good amount of detail. On the press sheet, David Bishop, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, is quoted as saying that software sales rose 700 percent since the mid-November launch of Playstation 3, and that this big title is "just the tip of the iceberg for Blu-ray in 2007." Since the Samsung BD-P1000 has turned out to be a mechanical turkey, I'm guessing a number of Playstation purchasers were frustrated owners of these disappointing players. Mine loaded this disc after a number of tries, but I have to warn that owners of Samsung units may experience hitches and stoppages in play in the pre-menu and early film sequences. Thankfully, my player settled down and I was able to watch the film without further glitches. The 1080p picture is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
I've gotten so used to the 6-channel English PCM 5.1 uncompressed sound on these Blu-rays that when I pop in a standard disc you can really notice the difference. The PCM fills the room better, with ambient noises that you might not pick up on a standard disc suddenly noticeable. This is another good soundtrack, with additional options in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH (CC), Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai. It goes to show you how truly international the Bond phenomenon has become.
"Casino Royale" was transferred to a dual-layer 50GB disc using MPEG-4 AVC technology, so there's no loss of extras. What you get on the Blu-ray is the same as you get on the standard DVD. Surprisingly, there's no commentary. What we get are three substantial features and a music video from Chris Cornell, "You Know My Name." Yes, we do, but we learn more about the Bond franchise in the three features. There isn't as much footage of the previous five Bonds (Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Daulton, Pierce Brosnan) as you might expect, but we still get a nice overview of the way he's been played. On "Becoming Bond" the focus is on Craig, and there's some wonderful footage of the tough times he went through after being named Bond. It was something he was totally unprepared for, like a press day launch that had boatloads of Royal Marines picking him up and escorting him to the junket site. We also see how rigorous the screen test was, and learn how the crew felt quickly satisfied that Craig was up to the physical tasks of playing 007 in his newly reincarnated grittier version.
"James Bond: For Real" isn't the autobiographical background on Fleming's character that it sounds like. Instead, it's another making-of extra that includes some storyboards and focuses on freerunning. These guys are wearing wires, but they still have to execute the jumps and fights on girders some 200 feet above the ground. It's amazing to watch the filming, and we get plenty of footage in this feature which shows the action and the cameras.
Another worthwhile feature is "Bond Girls Are Forever," a clip-and-interview documentary hosted by Bond girl Maryam d'Abo ("The Living Daylights"). The 2002 television production runs 46 minutes and features d'Abo interviewing such Bond girls as Ursula Andress ("Dr. No"), Honor Blackman ("Goldfinger"), Luciana Paluzzi ("Thunderball"), Jill St. John ("Diamonds Are Forever"), Jane Seymour ("Live and Let Die"), Maud Adams ("The Man with the Golden Gun" and "Octopussy"), and Halle Berry ("Die Another Day"). And yes, the women still look good years later.
In his theatrical review, my colleague, John J. Puccio, called this "the best Bond in decades." I'm not going to disagree. I've always felt that the Bond franchise wandered too far off-course when the tone got to be a little too cheeky and the stunts so bizarre that they were comical. "Casino Royale" takes us closer to the Bond whom Fleming created. We see more vulnerable moments in him, more man than superman. And surprisingly, that makes the legend even stronger.