"The name's Bond. James Bond."
--Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale"
There is no question that Daniel Craig is very, very good in the 2006 version of "Casino Royale." The question is whether he is really James Bond.
When producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were casting the first 007 movie, "Dr. No," in the early 1960s, author Ian Fleming favored either Roger Moore or Cary Grant for the role. (The producers fashioned the first Bond movie after Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," starring Grant.) But neither man was available, and after considering a number of other actors--among them, James Mason, David Niven, Richard Johnson, Steve Reeves, Patrick McGoohan, Trevor Howard, and Rex Harrison--they settled on Sean Connery. The Connery choice did not initially impress Fleming. He wanted somebody more upper-class, more sophisticated, rather than someone who looked so rough-and-tumble. After seeing Connery in the role, however, Fleming became a believer.
One could say the same thing about Craig. He doesn't fit the image that either Fleming or the twenty-odd previous Bond pictures have built of the superspy. As my good friend Tim Raynor once remarked about Craig's blond hair, athletic frame, and rugged face, "He looks like a Nazi thug." Well, it's not that bad, I assure you, but certainly Craig lacks the refined appearance and suave demeanor of past Bonds. Let's just say that Craig is exactly what the producers were after: a brand-new Bond, somebody to reinvigorate the franchise, to give it a much-needed shot in the arm, and if that meant a brand-new face and a brand-new bearing, so be it.
"Casino Royale" was Fleming's first Bond novel, published in 1953, and the producers of the new movie figured this would be as good a way as any to start afresh by showing the origins of the Bond mystique, so to speak. But there are a few minor issues with this. First, there was already the dreadful 1967 parody of the same name. Second, the filmmakers intended this one to go back to Bond's beginnings, yet it takes place in the present. And, third, Daniel Craig was about thirty-eight when he assumed the part, and Sean Connery was almost seven years younger when he played Bond in "Dr. No." As a result, the viewer must do a little mental adjusting to accommodate the new movie and the new actor.
Here's how Fleming once described Bond: "...a dark, clean-cut face, with a three-inch scar showing whitely down the sunburned skin of the right cheek. The eyes were wide and level under straight, rather long black brows. The hair was black, parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick black comma fell down over the right eyebrow. The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth. The line of jaw was straight and firm." Some of this is definitely Connery. Some of it is Craig. Maybe we shouldn't quibble.
Yes, Craig presents us with a Bond-in-the-rough, a working-class Bond who has just acquired his double-0 status but not yet his polish or refinement. He is also arrogant and reckless as no Bond before him. One wonders if the cultivation will come in subsequent Bond adventures, as surely Craig will be with us for some time, or if Craig will continue to play 007 in as brash and impetuous a manner as he does here. We'll see.
You won't find many old faces in "Casino Royale." As this is a prequel of sorts, having few old characters is only fitting, especially if the filmmakers were trying to stick to Fleming's book. For instance, you won't find John Cleese as the gadgetmeister supreme or Samantha Bond as M's secretary, Miss Moneypenny, or Colin Salmon as M's right-hand man, Charles Robinson. Nor will you find Robbie Coltrane as Russian gangster Valentin Zukovsky, the character who died a movie or two back but would have still been alive in earlier days. Judi Dench returns as M, though, the head of British Secret Service. That, too, takes a small adjustment on the part of the viewer if this story is, indeed, harking back to Bond's roots. However, the film expands Ms. Dench's M role, and she almost upstages Craig; maybe in the next film they'll work as full-time partners. Finally, as per movie custom, a new actor (Jeffrey Wright) plays CIA operative Felix Leiter.
You won't find many of the usual gadgets in this new Bond venture, either, or any of the usual outsized, world-conquering villains or elaborate set pieces of earlier Bonds. Still, while the emphasis is on gritty realism and hard-hitting action this time out, the filmmakers continue to lay on the hokum pretty thick. Nobody is going to confuse "Casino Royale" with "Syriana," "Breach," or "The Good Shepherd."
Anyway, although this is mainly Daniel Craig's movie, the plot and supporting characters work well enough on their own. Director Martin Campbell, who did the first of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, "GoldenEye," and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and the omnipresent Paul Haggis strive to reinvent the Bond spirit, characterized by a pre-title scene in grainy black-and-white. Then, there is a set of titles that is quite nifty but features none of the usual scantily clad ladies of previous Bond epics. Following that is a lengthy chase that leaves a viewer breathless, and one that would have left any normal man but Bond with every bone in his body broken. However, the pre-title scene and the chase sequence establish two seemingly contradictory things: Bond is invincible, yet Bond is vulnerable. The film goes on to show us that Bond may be tough as nails--the movie is filled with enough action and thrills to fill out two Bond releases--but he's prone to mistakes, too, mostly ones of judgment and heart.
To be sure, this is a Mr. Bond and a Bond movie that replace lightweight tongue-in-cheek with gritty realism, yet one that also maintains an accustomed air of sheer preposterousness. It's a nice combination, especially as Bond is able to get off any number of clever, laugh-producing one-liners without ever sounding cute, forced, or precious. Moreover, the filmmakers make use of a few other links to the past by giving us not one, but two Aston-Martins, the first of them a 1964 dead ringer for the one in "Goldfinger," minus the ejection seat. And although the film uses Monty Norman's familiar James Bond theme music only fleetingly, do wait for it. There is a reason for everything.
You know how most Bond films have always had a really cool opening episode? Well, this one does, too, but it also has the best closing episode of any Bond film to date. Remember that part of the movie's point is to reinvent Bond, to show us his beginnings, and it does. So, as I say, wait for it.
Among the new characters, the most significant is Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green. Vesper is Bond's partner in the adventure, an accountant from MI6. She is not only beautiful in the Bond tradition, she is every bit the equal of Bond intellectually. In other words, she is not just another Bond girl, meant as window dressing, but an integral part of the story. The second most important character is Le Chiffre, played by Mads Mikkelssen. He is the chief villain, a fellow who bankrolls the world's largest terrorist organizations and the baddie whom Bond must bring in. Two famous actors played Le Chiffre in former versions of "Casino Royale"--Peter Lorre (in the 1954 television production) and actor/director Orson Welles (in the 1967 spoof). Those were big shoes to fill, but Mikkelsen manages, even if his part is less substantial this time around. Then, there is the character of Mathis, played by the ever-charming Giancarlo Giannini, Bond's contact in the intrigue. It is always nice to have Giannini around. Finally, there are the usual exotic locations (the Bahamas, Czech Republic, Lake Como, Venice), which act every bit as much as characters in the story as the human performers. This time around, the settings are no mere backdrops but as essential to the plot as the new Bond heroine.
Shortcomings? Certainly. The plot is weak, and the villains are too numerous and flat. The movie is too long at 144 minutes, wearing out its welcome by the two-hour mark. It contains a number of anticlimaxes that go on forever. There are too many surprises along the way for its own good. A torture scene seems unnecessarily brutal, even for a new Bond film attempting to be more true-to-life than previous Bonds. And the central conflict involving a prolonged poker game isn't exactly on the same scale as Bond saving the world from nuclear destruction.
Nevertheless, I went into "Casino Royale" a skeptic, and, like Fleming after seeing Connery, I came away a believer. The new "Casino Royale" is to the Bond franchise what "Batman Begins" was to the "Batman" series: a strong blast of adrenaline to give audiences a reason to come back next time. It works. Although it may be different, thanks to Craig it's the best Bond in decades.
Bond: "Vodka Martini."
Bartender: "Shaken or stirred?"
Bond: "Do I look like I give a damn?"
Sony's high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer renders the movie's original 2.40:1 theatrical dimensions at a generous 2.25:1 ratio across my television, with colors that are sometimes so bright and dazzling they practically pop out of the screen. The hues may, in fact, be too brilliant to look entirely realistic, and with black levels as intense as they are, they can make some more shadowy scenes look a tad murky. Skin tones don't always fare well, either, sometimes leaning toward too much yellow or orange to be lifelike, although blues and reds look superb. The disc's standard-definition format yields satisfactory results, with object delineation usually good, if at times a little soft. But to be fair, I remember the picture looking slightly soft in a motion-picture theater as well. These are minor grumbles, though; overall, you get quite fine, eye-popping visuals, with zero artifacts and nary a shimmering line in sight.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is exemplary in every way. The bass is exceptionally powerful and deep; the frequency response has a wide range and enormous impact; the midrange sounds clear and natural; and the channel separation among all five-point-one channels is wide spread, with the surrounds seeing plenty of action. Naturally, one would expect the sonics to provide half the fun in a new Bond film, and they don't let one down here. Watch those ricochetting bullets; they're flying everywhere.
Disc one of this Two-Disc Special Edition contains the widescreen presentation of the film; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; twenty-eight scene selections; and several widescreen theatrical trailers at start-up.
Disc two contains, among other things, three documentaries. The first is "Becoming Bond," twenty-six minutes, which tells us about Craig, how the filmmakers chose him, how he prepared for the role, and how the public reacted to his being the next 007. Next is "James Bond: For Real," twenty-three minutes, a behind-the-scenes affair showing us how the filmmakers went about shooting some of the action sequences in the film. And after that is perhaps the best bonus documentary of all, "Bond Girls Are Forever (2006)," in three parts totaling about forty-eight minutes. It is written, produced, and hosted by Maryam D'Abo, who co-starred in "The Living Daylights." The three segments--"A New Kind of Woman," "Children of Our Generation," and "Bond Meets His Match"--feature many of the ladies who graced earlier Bond films. For all of this, Sony Pictures provide subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
Things wrap up on disc two with a music video, "You Know My Name," performed by Chris Cornell; and widescreen, anamorphic trailers for "Premonition," "Spider-Man 3," "Rocky Balboa," "The Pursuit of Happyness," "The Holiday," and "Spider-Man 2.1."
Early on, Bond says to M, "I understand double-0's have a very short life expectancy." On the contrary, I think this 007 will be around for a very long time.
Addendum: I almost always review standard-definition DVDs like this one on a standard-definition player. I think it is the only fair way to assess what the average viewer is likely to expect from a disc in terms of its audiovisual quality. But in the case of "Casino Royale," I went back and watched it a second time with the Wife-O-Meter, this time upscaled. The difference is remarkable. It is not, I'm sure, the equal of the Blu-ray edition of the movie, but it looks darned good for standard definition. We saw detail, color saturation, richness, and definition all improved, further enhancing the video's excellent picture output. Upscaled video: 10/10.