James Bond is back and in top form with Casino Royale, a terrifically entertaining franchise reboot that introduces a new actor into the role of the British agent (Munich’s Daniel Craig) while bringing back the more realistic, low-tech approach of such early entries as Dr. No and From Russia With Love that die-hard 007 fans have been clamoring a long, long time for.
Royale opens with a terrific black-and-white sequence that shows Bond earning his License to Kill, which leads him to his first assignment: to track down the financier of international terrorists. His attempts to apprehend a bomber named Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) don’t quite go as planned, resulting in an embarrassing diplomatic situation for the British government and a bad first move for the newly promoted 007. Of course, this doesn’t stop him from digging deeper into a terrorist plot that he eventually manages to disrupt. This brings him back into semi-good graces with M (Judi Dench) and makes things very difficult for Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) the terrorist financier he was investigating.
To recover money which was lost on the foiled terrorist plot, Le Chiffre assembles a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro at Le Casino Royale. MI6 assigns 007 to play against Le Chiffre, knowing that another loss would destroy his organization (if Bond loses, the British Government will have directly financed terrorism). But there are strings attached to Bond playing in the game: treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), whom M pairs up with Bond in order to keep an eye on him (and the British government’s poker stakes). At first skeptical of what value Vesper can provide, Bond’s interest in her deepens as the marathon game proceeds with increasing volumes of dirty tricks, violence and danger.
Being a pretty big fan of the 007 series, even I would have to admit that the recent entries, 1995’s Goldeneye aside, were lacking proper elements to make them truly memorable. The problem certainly had nothing to do with Pierce Brosnan, who made for a fine Bond. But iffy screenplays filled with weak villains and an overdependence of stunts and visual effects were to blame. Those deficits hampered both 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies and 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and downright sunk 2002’s Die Another Day.
For as much of a creative dud Day was, it did rake in close to a half billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide, making it an unqualified success worthy (from a financial point of view) of the old adage “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fortunately, the producers thought otherwise and decided to give the franchise a creative kick in the pants by going back to square one. And what better source material to use for an origin story than Fleming’s first Bond novel, published in 1953? Creatively, this type of thinking is commendable. Financially, it’s a gamble: why tinker with an economically sound and still-beloved franchise and risk alienating your reliable fan base?
The only people who can answer those questions are producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Fortunately, as many discovered in the fall of 2006 (to the tune of $593 million at the box office), their gamble paid off handsomely. Royale, expertly directed by Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) and smartly written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Crash director Paul Haggis, is an exciting, intense and surprisingly involving espionage thriller that rarely misses a beat.
With Fleming’s book as its source material and embodied in an outright terrific performance by Daniel Craig (whom I never doubted would excel in this role), Casino Royale presents Bond as an arrogant, rough around the edges individual who has yet to evolve into the tuxedo-wearing, martini-swilling, double-entendre spouting agent we all know and love. Bond is fallible: he screws up, bruises, bleeds and makes a lot of mistakes, including the one of falling in love (a big no-no with secret agents). Darker, edgier and more human, this is a different sort of 007 that Craig perfectly conveys, taking one of the most known characters in cinema history and moving him in completely new and welcome directions.
Our hero isn’t the only one who gets a revision: Le Chiffre (played with a cool, menacing intensity by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), isn’t your typical Bond heavy out for global domination or to destroy the world with a deadly laser. He’s merely a financier who is in very deep trouble with his clients. And as played by the beautiful Eva Green, Vesper is not your typical Bond Girl. She’s a smart, calculating individual who proves to be James” equal in many ways. Dench, the sole holdover from the Brosnan series, excels again as M; Giancarlo Giannini is enjoyable as a local in Montenegro who helps 007, while Jeffrey Wright makes for a fine Felix Leiter.
If you are worried that Royale is nothing more than a dark character study, rest assured that there are still plenty of old-school Bond bits (exciting action scenes, explosions, beautiful women and fast cars) to be had. Not as much as before, but still delivered with the signature style and panache to which we’ve become accustomed.
Whether or not future 007 installments will continue the level of quality found in Casino Royale is anyone’s guess. For all we know, the next one could turn out to be another Moonraker or Die Another Day. For now though, Bond fans should be ecstatic that the cast and crew of Casino Royale got this one right and did so in a big, big way. The end credits once again promise that James Bond will return. And for the first time in a very long time with this series, I am genuinely thrilled by that prospect.
In terms of home video presentations, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of Casino Royale is also quite thrilling to experience. Boasting a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC Encode and presented in its 2.4:1 theatrical ratio, Casino’s colors are vibrant to the point of at times almost going overboard. Black levels are rock solid, and flesh tones are spot on, the exceptions to the latter being some of the brighter scenes in the Caribbean and Madagascar. But I believe this to be an issue with the actual film and not the quality of its video transfer. The prints I saw in the theater of this film possessed the same blown out visual appearance in the exact same sections as the Blu-ray edition. Detail is also quite good for a majority of the film, although I noticed a bit of softness in facial close-ups and backgrounds every so often. As for the print itself, it is exactly in the shape you would expect for a five-month old, $150 million production: flawless. There are no scratches or nicks to be found anywhere. The same goes for compression artifacts, they simply do not exist.
Sony gives us two audio choices for our next-generation DVD viewing of the latest 007 adventure. And if you have seen any of the James Bond films in the theater since 1995’s Goldeneye, you know one thing for certain: these movies are loud, sometimes a bit too loud for their own good (the opening action sequence of Die Another Day is a prime example of that). For Casino Royale, we are given an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Both are quite good at getting the job done. The PCM track has a more spacious feel to it, while the Dolby Digital comes off as louder and more aggressive (perhaps because of the compression?). Both convey the vast array of bullets, explosions and other audio effects with great ease and feature excellent separation effects. Bass is also practically non-stop as well, which is always ideal for a big-budget action film.
The one place where Casino Royale, as a home video release in general, falls short is in the supplemental department (extras are the same on both regular DVD and Blu-ray). There is approximately two hours of bonus materials to be had, but that sounds a lot more promising than it actually is.
The first mini-doc is Becoming Bond (which runs approximately 27 minutes), is a brief but interesting look at how Daniel Craig stepped into the shoes of 007 and how the filmmakers went about adapting Ian Fleming’s novel. It has some nice behind the scenes bits, but it’s a bit too short to really be worth watching more than once or twice. I enjoyed the second mini-doc on the disc, the 24-minute James Bond: For Real. This feature takes a close look at the stunts performed in the film and how the stunt team strived for as much realism as possible while setting a world record in the process. These two docs are presented in 1080p video (and Dolby 2.0 stereo) and look quite nice.
The third behind-the-scenes special is an updated 2006 version of the 50-minute American Movie Classics special Bond Girls Are Forever, which is presented in standard-definition full screen and 2.0 stereo. Hosted by Miriam D’Abo (The Living Daylights), this is a look at the female participants of the Bond franchise throughout the years and features interviews with actresses such as Ursula Andress, Halle Berry, Judi Dench, Maude Adams and Royale gals Eva Green and Caterina Murino. While their reminiscences are interesting (even if they make them out to be something more than they actually were), the special is sidelined by horrid voiceover narration and an overall aura of cheesiness. Like Becoming Bond, this is worth one viewing and that is it.
Closing out the extras is Chris Cornell’s Music Video for the film’s theme song, You Know My Name, which is presented in 4×3 standard-definition widescreen and 2.0 stereo. I think the song is decent (hell, anything is better than Madonna), but this video is pretty lame. If you want to see a cool video of the song, watch the film’s opening credits. No theatrical trailer has been included, which strikes me as odd since a High-Definition version of it exists on the Blu-ray of the Will Ferrell film, Stranger Than Fiction.
When I first saw Casino Royale back in November, I thought that it was easily the best 007 adventure to hit movie screens since 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Then I saw it again, and thought it was the best since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. After a few more viewings, I have decided that in my book, only Goldfinger is the better Bond flick (I even watched the two back to back just to make certain). Hopefully the quality of this film is an indicator of things to come and not just a simple one-off. Sony’s Blu-ray presentation of the film is a beauty, even if the extras that come with it are mediocre at best. Sit back, pour yourself a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and enjoy the ride.
– Shawn Fitzgerald