CASINO ROYALE – Blu-ray review

He’s back. And I don’t just mean in “Quantum of Solace,” a title that sounds more like an Umberto Eco film adaptation than the next James Bond movie. Daniel Craig is back in a two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of “Casino Royale.”

“Casino Royale” marked the return to a grittier 007, 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, but 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–ourtime. 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 naked 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, before he became glib. Though a trailer for “Quantum of Solace” doesn’t reveal much about tone, I wouldn’t be surprised if it lightened up just a bit.

This was the first mega-title to come out in HD exclusively on Blu-ray, and when it first came out in Blu I remarked that the picture featured natural-looking colors and a saturation level of what I guessed was around 80 percent, which made for a nice transition from the black-and-white sequences to the color. Some sequences (especially the indoor poker scenes) were closer to full saturation. Black levels were strong, with a good amount of detail. It wasn’t an overprocessed look, for example. As for this new version, it appears to be identical. There are moments during the poker games when the skin-tones look a little on the orange side, whereas the exteriors have a more industrial look to them. Once again, Sony went with a AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a BD-50. And once again, people with Samsung players (I can’t vouch for others) will experience some waviness during the crane chase scene, and then the picture will settle down.

I much prefer PCM, which was the audio format from the first Blu-ray release, but Sony has been going with an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lately, and I have to grudgingly admit that the sonics are pretty solid. More than most TrueHD soundtracks this one fills the room, perhaps because low-range sounds are picked up as if the listener had Spidey senses, and distributed across the speakers as they are there’s a rich dynamic sound that fills the space. To my ear, though, the PCM is still the superior soundtrack, and if you feel the same way you might keep your old version. Or, just bite the bullet and swap out your first discs. The TrueHD soundtrack is also available in French, with subtitles in English SDH (CC), English French, and Spanish. Dropped from the subtitle menu were Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Thai, so if that matters to you, there’s another reason for sticking with the first release

What complicates that decision, though, is that the first Blu-ray release didn’t include a commentary, and this one does. Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who produced the film, are joined by so many people that you never know who’s saying what. You can’t really care, either, or it will drive you nuts. If you’ve listened to other Bond commentaries, you know what I’m talking about. Included in the mix is the costume designer, director of photography, special effects supervisor, composer, and production designer. As you might expect, each talks about his or her contributions and challenges.

Five short features are also brand spanking new, all of them in the 20-30 minute range. The longest is “The Road to Casino Royale,” which is also the most entertaining. There’s plenty of vintage footage of things that most Bond fans wouldn’t have seen before, with still shots supplementing the video footage. If the Bond films look effortless, watch the politics behind some of them and you’ll be amazed they got made at all. The next best feature is “Ian Fleming’s Incredible Creation,” a really detailed look at the book version and how the film deviates. Fleming gets his due here, with lots of footage and stills. Also worthwhile is “Death in Venice,” which shows stars Craig and Green on-set doing interviews, and those immediate reactions always capture something that recollections never quite manage. Then there are two featurettes on the Bahamas which detail the Fleming connection and are most useful for their beach-walk down memory lane, where we recall other films that were made on the same beaches.

As for the repeats, there’s a music video from Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name,” and three features from the first release. In “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 free running. 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 repeat is “Bond Girls Are Forever,” a clip-and-interview documentary hosted by Bond girl Maryam d’Abo (“The Living Daylights”). The 2002 television production ran 46 minutes and featured 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 there’s a storyboard sequence.

“Casino Royale” is also BD-Live enabled, and there’s a Profile 1.1 picture-in-picture dual streaming visual commentary that features director Martin Campbell and Michael G. Wilson, one of his producers. Basically these guys were interviewed and appear in insets onscreen. But frankly, I preferred the audio commentary.

Rounding out the Blu-ray exclusives is a trivia game that, if you’ve read the books and seen all the movies, will leave no player shaken or stirred.

Bottom Line:
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. Surprisingly, that makes the legend even stronger. Though the PCM is MIA, the bonus features make this worthwhile.