Friday, November 17, 2006

Movie Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Length:144 mins.
Rated: PG- 13 for violence, language & sexual content
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Ivana Milicevic

The Ian Fleming-created spy franchise gets a makeover for the new millennium and for the most part comes out smelling like a rose.

Normally I never go to a movie on the day it's being released, a lesson I learned when I nearly got trampled and/or shot to death in the lobby of the Dedham Cinema the night of the original Batman premiere in 1989. But the wife & I both had the afternoon off so I figured we'd see what all the fuss was about concerning the new Bond before the weekend crush started tonight.

Let's just say reports of the demise of the superspy and his lucrative franchise have been greatly exaggerated. For months the chatboards & blogs have been filled with venom regarding the successor to Pierce Brosnan. Daniel Craig was a little-known Aussie actor who made a small splash with good turns in Munich & Layer Cake, but that wasn't the worst of his problems: he had the nerve to be blond & blue-eyed, 2 things that the legendary Bond certainly was not. Immediately fans called for his removal on the grounds that his fair tresses & macho-but-not-gorgeous looks would never fly for the man with a license to kill. Evidently none of those posters were of the female variety, because the words used to describe Craig by my wife included "mmmmmmm" (you know, with a leer), "yummy" and "the best Bond yet, much better than that Brosnan guy." Okay, everyone could see that Craig was buff & beefcake-ish from the trailer with him rising out of the surf in a swimsuit- the question for me was 'could he pull off the role minus the suave & debonair charm of his predecessors?'
{A quick aside: there have been debates for decades regarding who was the Best Bond Ever? Loyalists formed camps backing their guy: one group swears that the argument begins & ends with the Scottish Sean Connery; others claim the quick-witted & slick-suited Irishman Brosnan fit the role to a tee; while most baby-boomers swear by the smug Brit Roger Moore. (we won't count the mistakes known as David Niven, George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton.) My thoughts have always been that each Bond fit the mood and attitude of the era. Connery epitomized the man's man in the '60s-'70s, when males were still dominant outside of the home and women often bowed to them. Moore's swagger reflected the high-livin' '80s, more eager to down a few too many shaken martinis & bed the nearest thing that moved rather than be bothered with killing people & saving the world;all style, no substance. Brosnan took the role into the '90's with a metrosexual flair he made cool way before "Queer Eye" came along. Easy to look at for the ladies & easy to like for the guys, the former Remmington Steele smoothie took the reins from Moore and steered the troubled franchise in the right direction.}

Which leaves us where we are at now- at the beginning. This is the new millennium, where old is new again (martinis are back in vogue) and stereotypes are being turned inside-out: we've got female CSI agents, thought-filled superheroes, gay cowboys and now a blond Bond- and I say it's about damn time. The stale series needed something to give it a jolt of life, and if it took an Australian goldie locks with perfect pecs and ice-blue eyes then so be it (and no, I don't have a man-crush on him-yet.) Not to mention a former Bond director (Martin Campbell, GoldenEye) taking the helm for the re-telling of the original Bond tale.

Before a cartoonish, 60's-inspired opening we are introduced to Bond as he goes through the process of becoming a "double-O" classified agent. The process consists of committing 2 kills, and as we see James first use his bare hands to commit murder, then his silenced piece to mercilessly dispose of another, we realize that this isn't our father's 007 anymore. After the opening piece, which was a bit goofy for me (the Bond theme "You Know My Name" by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell was too wishy-washy for a Bond flick), we get thrust into a full-blown Bond chase scene. Tracking a suspected bomber in Madagascar Bond and his prey climb to dizzying heights in a wall-climbing, base-jumping high-flying chase scene straight out of District B13 or a Jackie Chan film. But a funny thing happens when the barely-winded Bond catches up to his mark; even though the man has taken refuge in the local embassy, Bond assassinates him in front of witnesses & cameras just to get what he was after. A reckless & edgy Double-O- 7? Hmmm.

The story evolves from there, (who are they kidding? every fan from Diamonds are Forever to The World is Not Enough knows that plot runs a distant 3rd or 4th on the importance scale in a Bond flick), and although it won't win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it does the trick. A high-rolling banker known as Le Chiffre (Mikklesen) uses terrorist dollars to fund his high stakes lifestyle at poker tables around the world. Bond must enter the latest big-dollar game in order to stop the flow of cash funneling into terror cells around the globe. This job requires the assistance of an agent from the treasury department to monitor the loot James needs to use in order to keep his cover. And wouldn't you know it the agent turns out to be a hottie in librarian's clothing, the lovely Vesper Lynd (Green, best known for the French softcore porn film The Dreamers.)

The film turns a subtler cheek while Bond, Le Chiffre and Lynd play out thier hands at the $10 million tournament in Montenegro. The Texas Hold 'Em craze appears to be finally dying down, but this film is based in the world of gambling so here the setting is appropriate. The gruff-but-cocky Bond thinks he's got the creepy Chiffre read like a book, but gets tripped up by a surprise enemy forcing him to lose over $14 million of the government's money. Determined to make things right Bond tries to bleed more cash from Vesper, only to be rebuffed. But a quick save comes from a fellow agent, a CIA operative played by Jeffrey Wright who puts up the $5 mil James needs to get back in the game for the right to capture Le Chiffre. Bond finds a bit of a delay in his plan when he is poisoned by Le Chiffre's arm candy, the ultra-tanned, ultra-blond, ultra-hot Valenka (Milicivic, Love Actually) and he is barely saved from the jaws of death by a heady Vesper. But this close encounter is nothing compared to the horror he is about to go through at the hands of the guy with the leaky eye.
A fully-recovered Bond heads back to the table and then proceeds to clean Le Chiffre out of all his "borrowed" cash, a grand total of $114.5 million in winnings. Company girl Lynd is ecstatic and they head back to the hotel for a celebratory dinner. Something seems foul when Vesper gets a call to meet their contact, Mathis (Italian acting legend Giancarlo Giannini) and Bond immediately rushes outside to see her being forced into a car. James heads for his only real gadget in the film, an unbelievably gorgeous Aston Martin DBS, and he races up winding hills to rescue her. Suddenly he sees her bound body in the middle of the road and veers the supercar around her, causing it to spin& flip like BillyJoe Bob in a Busch race (why must they always destroy beasutiful cars in these films?) and next thing you know both of them are being taken prisoner by the desperate banker & his henchmen.

This is when things got really squeamish, especially for the guys in the audience. Bond is stripped nude (prompting the "hmmmmm" from the wife) and strapped to a wicker chair with the seat cut out. You can let your imagination run wild as to what Le Chiffre has in mind for torturing Mr. Bond and you still probably couldn't come up with what fate is in store for 007. Let's just say he would probably never be able to father children, which may not be a bad thing for a man who proclaims to prefer married women. But for reasons to be uncovered later Bond & Vesper are freed by an unknown man, and James spends weeks recovering at a mountainside hospital.

While there Vesper confesses that she has fallen for James, despite the fact that she saw him kill two men with his bare hands and lose over $14 million one minute, only to win over $115 mil the next. Or maybe it was because of those things. Either way any novice Bondie knew he would get the girl- this may be the new millennium, but some things never change. All of this leads to the less-than-obvious conclusion, which contains some twists, turns, the sinking of a building in a Venice canal, and the infamous love-'em-&-leave-'em bachelor uttering the words "I love you"- definitely not daddy's Bond, more of a new-age Bond for the Oprah generation.

As for the verdict on the revamped Bond? All in all the movie lived up to the legend and planted the franchise squarely back on the map of relevance in today's pop culture. Much like the excellent, dark and brooding Batman Begins did for the Caped Crusader, the Blond Bond does for the aging superspy. By going back to his roots you can retell the story any way you want, as long as it is entertaining, sticks to the basic Bond themes, and doesn't get too schlocky, which is what the past 10 or so installments had devolved into. Let's check it out:

True to the Game:
-Beautiful locales & women? Check.
-High-speed races and thrilling chases? Check.
-A license to kill & not afraid to use it? Check.
-Appearances by a classic Aston & Dame M? Check

New to the Game:
-Blond & blue-eyed? Check.
-Soft side but ruthless? Check.
-Fewer gadgets but more hands-on approach? Check.
-Drink of choice? various (like the delicious Vesper), but when he does ask for his trademark martini we get to the true heart of the new Bond. Asked whether he would like it shaken or stirred, Bond replies "do I look like a man who gives a damn?"

No, he doesn't, and when you put it all together you have a new Bond for a new era, the Ty Pennington of the Double-O set. And we all know how popular Extreme Home Makeover is.


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