Casino Royale (US - DVD R1)
Daniel Craig's James Bond is a kick to reviewer Gabe Powers' Thunderballs...
Bond, James Bond (played for the first time by Craig, Daniel Craig) has finally achieved Double 'O' status after killing a MI6 mole and his contact. On his first order of business he ends up killing a key witness and blowing up an embassy, which sticks him back into the dog house with M (Dame Judi Dench). But Bond isn't one to take leaves of absence, and continues his investigation, effectively getting himself involved in an elaborate scheme on the part of his majesty's secret service.
Being the best poker player with a Double 'O' in front of his name, Bond is required to defeat terrorist cell banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) at the Casino Royale tournament. If Bond succeeds, Le Chiffre will be forced into MI6 protection, and will give up the names and locations of his contacts. Bond's money girl is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a bright and beautiful young woman seemingly immune to his seductive charms.
If ever a franchise needed a facelift it was this one. The last two Bond films, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, were so brutally awful that they made me second guess all the films in the canon. The only franchise I can think of that was possibly in more dire straights was Warner Bros.' Batman series. The problem with Bond was that even these awful films managed to make money, whereas Batman and Robin ended up haemorrhaging cash. Had someone in charge of the franchise only returns on their production mind they may've driven these campy crap-fests into the ground.
Thankfully, someone had the good sense to realize that a really good movie could probably make more money than a really bad one. The other option is that perhaps they even, gasp, wanted to make a good movie. Bond's been rebooted more times than any other continuous franchise character (Dracula and Tarzan don't count because varying versions of the characters were usually unrelated films), this time marks the sixth, but this one really had to count for something.
It's become a bit of a cliché to darken and make previously campy characters more reality based lately, but sometimes it's called for, as was the case in Batman, and as is the case here. There had been attempts at darkening Bond in the past and getting him back to his original novel roots, but none had been entirely successful up to this point. Often 'dark' was simply confused with 'violent'. Watching the invisible car in Die Another Day I was reminded of my community college Psychology 101 class where my teacher used Bond as an example of a text book psychotic—a narcissus with a penchant for bloody violence, even murder, who enjoyed his without much emotion or restraint. It was just our luck that he was on our side. This was the Bond I wanted to see, and this 'melting ice palace' thing was insulting my intelligence.
When the recasting Pierce Brosnan came up my first choice, contrary to apparently everyone else (Clive Owen was a big favourite), was Eric Bana. Bana is easily one of the best and most underutilized actors working in Hollywood right now, and anyone who's seen Chopper knows how dark he can get. I had my heart set, but the second Daniel Craig's name was dropped I smacked myself on the forehead. ‘Of course!’, I exclaimed, having just seen Layer Cake. I don't blame any of the Bonds (Brosnan least of all) for their bad Bond movies, but this was the kind of left-field casting that could make for a classic.
And it did. Boy did it ever work. Craig made the character an original, not like any previous Bond, contrary to the Connery comparisons, but still maintained the character's most important traits. Though Craig was already established to a certain extent pre-Bond, he will go down with Brendan Routh as Superman, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, as some of the best 'non-star' casting of a culturally embedded major character in modern history. This casting and subsequent film left me second guessing my 'psychotic' Bond premise, because despite his cool attitude, Craig's Bond is a three-dimensional character, with feelings and emotions thinly veiled in a rock hard shell. This is the real-world Bond, a secret agent that has emotions but refuses to wear them on his sleeves. I was wrong.
Some folks like the old, campy, womanizing, bullet-proof Bond, and that's cool. They've got twenty-some movies of that to enjoy. This is a Bond for people like me, who've seen all the Bond films but can't tell them apart in our head, beyond the handful of really great ones. Craig isn't the vicious Connery Bond, though he does beat a man nearly to death before the opening titles. Craig isn't the touchy-feely, glitz and glamour Lazenby Bond, though you'd have to be a pretty insensitive not to believe his love (one especially conservative film critic called him a metro-sexual for only having sex with two girls during the film). Craig isn't the campy, dapper, and fey Moore Bond, though he's not without a wry sense of humour. Craig isn't the cold and calculating Dalton Bond, though he has his wits about him, and by the end of Casino Royale the character may be going this way. Craig isn't even the cool, stone faced, clothing ad Brosnan Bond; he doesn't even want to wear a tux, even if he does look great in it. Craig is all of these Bonds and none of these Bonds at the same time.
The question this line of thinking leads to is a valid ‘why bother?’ Why make a real-life, dark, brooding, and emotional character, and then name him James Bond? Can't the people that want that kind of thing just watch the Jason Bourne movies? I'm not sure I have the answer to this question, but using the Bond brand name makes the film's good marks all the better. When a character named James Bond is fed a poisoned cocktail or has his testicles smashed with a thick chunk of rope it makes a point. It makes a hero vulnerable, and in effect does the same to an audience. I think it's a great idea, and it prevents the brand name from entering an equal plane with the Austin Powers series.
The films problems lie in the fact that sometimes it’s a little too obvious in its assurance of this new Bond. Had a lesser actor than Craig been required to say he didn't give a damn if his martini was shaken or stirred it could've sounded pretty trite. This 'self-awareness' doesn't work for the real world Bond, where people bleed when they're shot. It never derails the film, but threatens to every time it comes up.
It's also possible that the filmmakers haven't gone far enough. Casino Royale is a great film, especially when compared to Die Another Day, but image if it'd been the real opposite. Imagine a hard 'R' rated Bond, with cursing, more graphic bloodshed, and (Lord help us) nudity, in addition to turning its back on gadgets and fantasy excess. I don't think it's possible to go too far with a dark and realistic Bond myself. There is no line to be crossed, and I'd like to be taken to a place where the Sean Connery from From Russia with Love looks like a pussy.
The action is grand, and not the cartoony type seen in the franchises last few offerings. Director Martin Campbell, who will hopefully be around in another fifteen years when the series will need another reboot (he directed Goldeneye, you see, and not much else of note), does well for himself, and ups the anti without making the film look too ridiculous. The action rarely stops the film, and isn't gratuitous by any means—over-the-top, yes, but never gratuitous. The brutality of beating people to death is very real, the hits and falls are painful to watch, and the dangers of Bond's world seem very real. The first action sequence, a free running mini-epic, and easily the best directed and edited action scene of the year, possibly even the best on-film foot chase of all time.
Casino Royale's rustic charms didn't surprise me, but its unabashed romantic streak did. I expected a more realistic Bond, sure, and I expected his misogynist tendencies to be put in check even more than they was in the Brosnan era, but I didn't expect to believe he was falling in love. Bond and Vesper Lynd's introduction to each other on the train is the moment that sets this film apart from pretty much every Bond film ever made. The scene is snappy, clever, and doesn't pander to the audience.
‘How was your lamb?’
This effortless display of screen entertainment is easily attributed to the acting prowess and chemistry of Craig and co-star Eva Green, but is also a testament to the film's epic length; it takes the time to tell its story.
This brings us briefly to the subject of length. I'm probably going to be the only person alive who'll praise the film's length in print, as it seems to be the most common complaint of the best reviewed major release of last year. This leisurely pacing and the multiple climaxes make for more realistic characters, and after a second viewing really seems the only logical way to tell the story of a young, realistic, and vulnerable Bond.
Casino Royale is at times such an effective retelling of such an old tale that I'm not 100% sure I want to see where it goes from here. This is a grand stand alone film; one that takes a character on a full arch, then puts him back where we remember him being. This will be the only James Bond film in my DVD collection, and in a way I think that's appropriate. This may be what turned the few people who didn't like the film off. This isn't meant to be a prequel, like Star Wars or Infernal Affairs II, this is a reboot. We're not filling in the back-story, we're building a new one here, and though the film ends as strong as any great film in recent memory, I'm not sure I care where this back-story will end up.
Not unexpectedly, this is a good-looking disc. The film takes place in a variety of countries, and each location brings something new to the colour pallet. Colours are bright and impressively reproduced with the exception of some of the skin tones cloaked in shadow, which are a hair too green. Blacks are rich and deep, and are mostly noise free. Grain and noise is minimal overall, but not absent. Again, it is in the darker flesh tones that problems can be found. The details are very crisp, but I did notice some image doubling when white, on-screen text was present. There are also a few obvious instances of compression artefacts, but these are still pretty hard to single out.
Something a lot of you may notice about this R1 release is the lack of DTS. This will make some of you angry, and is the first of several clues to another, bigger release in the near future. Personally I can't see a full on DTS track being any better than this solid Dolby Digital track, but maybe I'm just nutty.
Anyway, the track is huge. Needless to say dialogue is clear and centred, and surround channels are effective. The LFE is punchy and never warbles. Sound effects whip from side to side and from front to back in high fidelity, there is no distortion, and spatially the track is never muddy. Explosions will rattle your couch without deafening you or destroying your speakers. Though Casino Royale is action packed, the track's music is what makes it most impressive. I'm happy the typically big and brassy score was utilized for this reboot, but I didn't like the cheesy Chris Cornell opener.
There's just no way that this is the last word on a Casino Royale DVD release. Perhaps Sony is assuming that Blu-ray will overtake the industry within the year and a full on, special edition DVD was a waste of their time. Either that or they wanted fans to buy more than one copy. Lord knows they'd never have done that with the original film releases.
The second disc extras consist of three twenty-five minute featurettes, all very obviously made for TV. In comparison with the original Special Edition releases of the older Bond films, these docs are kind of depressing and thin.
‘Becoming Bond’ is a look at the hiring process, that gets its teeth into all but one of the most important aspects of the post-Brosnan Bond search, we're never told who else was really up for the job. There were always rumours, but I want to know the facts of the case. The featurette even teases us further by stating plainly that three other actors were brought in for screen tests. That means that three other actors were honestly considered, not just rumoured. I'm sure there's some legal reason for this, and if I did a little net research I could find my answer, but I was left frustrated nonetheless. The doc acts also, briefly, as a behind the scenes of the script writing process and the building of the new character. The doc is all too self-important at times, basically letting its viewers know that the rebooting of Bond is the best thing since the erection of the pyramids.
‘James Bond: For Real’ looks strictly at the stunts and destruction of Casino Royale’s three key action sequences. I can't say I need to know anything else about the filming of these scenes, and even at a rather brief run-time this feature does its job well. When coupled with the ‘Becoming Bond’ featurette it makes for a good start to a really great full-length documentary, but the story ends here. The screen might as well say 'To Be Continued...on the Ultimate Edition DVD'.
I know for a fact that ‘Bond Girls Are Forever’ was made for TV because that's where I first saw it. Originally produced as a companion piece for Die Another Day this brief and fluffy look at the women of Bond's past is entertaining, and has been awkwardly updated for Casino Royale. The dichotomy of the Bond Girl and the modern Western World Woman is an interesting enough subject to fill the whole half-hour, and with the edition of the 'where are they now' angle, this could easily have been a feature length documentary. As it stands it's merely entertaining filler.
The disc is finished off with a series of Sony trailers, though noticeably not a single Bond release, and a music video for the noisy opening number. The Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man 2.1 trailers are a good time though.
On my personal Bond scale, this one rates third, just behind Thunderball and From Russia with Love, and just ahead of Goldfinger. It really is leaps and bounds beyond my expectations, hopes, and dreams for the character. I'm assuming the follow up has to be a step down simply because the spot the character is put in by the end. This DVD screams 'double dip' from the highest rooftops, but will get you by with a solid A/V, and a few entertaining extras.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 13th March 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby 2.0 Surround French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Becoming Bond, James Bond: For Real, Bond Girls Are Forever, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Martin Campbell
Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright
Genre: Action and Thriller
Length: 144 minutes
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