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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

It is important to judge James Bond films within the context of the James Bond series. Good James Bond films are frequently just mediocre films with regards to acting or pacing or what have you, but are great when compared to other James Bond films. For example, Live and Let Die is a pretty decent James Bond movie. It has a hot Bond girl (Solitaire played by Jane Seymour) and a cool villain (Baron Samedi played by Geoffrey Holder) and plenty of good chase sequences and fight scenes. Is it a good film in general? Heavens, no! By general standards it’s cheesy and ridiculous.

My reason for the long prologue is because Casino Royale is one of the most unusual and unconventional Bond films ever made. While it falls short of the some of the standards of its genre, it triumphs in regards to other aspects of filmmaking. As Casino Royale opens, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is new to his 007 title. Even though Casino Royale is supposed to take place at the beginning of his career, the film takes place post-9/11. The villain? Terrorism. Instead of focusing on one kind of terrorist to battle (which could have been disastrous), Casino Royale focuses on the real problem: financial support of global terrorism. An evildoer named Le Chiffre (which is French for “The Chiffre”) backs terrorist acts in order to force stocks down, then makes a tidy profit. Unfortunately, he loses 150 million after James foils one of his plots, so he has to go to Montenegro to win the money back (lest he face the wrath of his backers, who are all pretty mean). Of course, James Bond has to beat him at cards to keep him from taking the pot. If Bond loses, his government will have directly financed terrorism. God, I love this plot. Craig’s Bond is an intense, violent badass. He comes off as more of a vigilante than a secret agent. The fight scenes in Casino Royale are simply breathtaking. A chase sequence around a construction site in the beginning is one of the most incredible things I have witnessed in an action movie this decade. After an incredible beginning, however, Casino Royale starts to drag a little, if only because so much of it takes place at a card table and in a hotel room.

As I said before, Casino Royale breaks a lot of the standard James Bond conventions. If there is a problem with the film, it is that it doesn’t break enough Bond conventions. By only going halfway, the filmmakers create a slightly lopsided film that gives us a brand new take on James Bond while trying desperately to remind us what James Bond movies are supposed to be like. Are there scenes at the card tables with vodka martinis? Yes, but they’re playing Texas Hold ‘em. Bond has a cool car, right? Well, sort of…but it’s a Ford. Casino Royale shows us a James Bond who is rough around the edges; he lacks the sophistication and chivalrous qualities of previous Bonds. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; after all, it’s nice to know that the James Bond we know and love didn’t just spring, fully formed from his father’s head. Like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Casino Royale attempts to show its protagonist’s evolution while revolutionizing its genre for modern audiences. Bond is, above all things, a symbol of the sociopolitical zeitgeist. The cold war is over, as M reminds us in the beginning of Casino Royale, and the time for soigné spies has come to an unceremonious conclusion. Today, Bond is a cavalier hawk who fights terrorism by shooting one mad bomber at a time. Make no mistake, Casino Royale might be about MI 6, but it’s really a comment on how the United States is handling the war on terror. Bond drives a Ford, Bond plays Texas Hold ‘em, Bond breaks through a wall while the guy he is chasing uses the door. In the first fifteen minutes, Bond breaks into an African embassy and kills everyone for no good reason. Bond is a callous, impetuous juggernaut who has been given too much power too quickly. Bond is the United States of America.

Casino Royale has the benefit of an excellent cast. Eva Green is good as Vesper Lynd; she is everything a Bond girl should be, plus a little added depth. Oh, as a side note, I would love to delve into the sexism that runs rampant through this film, but I checked my feminist hat at the door when I entered the theater. Vesper is a stereotypical martyr character, punished horribly for the stereotypical "weaknesses of her sex." Does that bother me? Okay, yeah, it kind of does, but asking for an enlightened portrayal of women in a Bond film is as futile as asking for Oliver Stone to tone down his use of gratuitous violence. Jeffrey Wright (Broken Flowers, Lady in the Water), one of today’s great character actors, plays Felix Leiter. Scary Danish guy Mads Mikkelsen is just right as Le Chiffre. Director Martin Campbell knows how to make a great action movie (GoldenEye, Mask of Zorro) but also has a flair for portraying the dark, sinister side of human nature (Cast a Deadly Spell). I thought Casino Royale was a good film. As a James Bond film, however, it was somewhat lacking. The parts of Casino Royale that felt the most awkward were parts in which square Bond conventions were being hastily forced into round holes (clumsy sexual dialogue, bad puns, martini-dry one-liners). Daniel Craig is too good for the Bond conventions. He can’t quite make the smarmy lines sound convincing; when he says them, they seem so cheap and noticeably dated. I thought his performance overall was quite astounding in its depth and sophistication. If they can just get writers to keep up with him, the next Bond film should be a real firecracker.

The amount of money I would pay to see this film: $7

P.S. Before I get any e-mails for corrections, let me note that "Le Chiffre" is actually french for "the cypher." I was just being glib 'cause I'm a smart ass.


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