Thursday, May 22, 2008

007: Casino Royale

Title: 007: Casino Royale
Director: Martin Campbell
Studio: MGM and Columbia, under the umbrella of Sony Entertainment
MPAA Rating: R
Excellence: 2.5 stars, as Bond films go, definitely one of the better narratives
Summary in a sentence: The "source story" for Bond - definitely more story-driven than what we've seen in the past.

When I came back from the theater Saturday night I immediately looked up the writer for this movie, and not to my surprise, it was Paul Haggis, who wrote the incredibly complex and excellent screenplay behind last year's Crash. I knew this movie would be "different" ever since the buzz started, 2 years ago, that Pierce Brosnan was on the outs. Poor Daniel Craig seemed to have such big shoes to fill (though he fills them more than adequately), as Brosnan seemed to grow into the role where Roger Moore plauteaued. All this behind the backdrop of this being the "source" story - where we see James earn "00" status and find out who the one girl he ever said "I love you" to was. From the start, with Chris Cornell (of Audioslave and formerly of Soundgarden) singing the vocals, we know that while Bond will always be Bond, this film will be decidedly different. Speaking of different, Sony decided to put quite a few mini clips up on the movie's official website.

Okay, after all that, let me issue a few disclaimers. Bond movies have plenty of cool gadgets, great fighting scenes, and good looking girls. This is something that any adolescent boy of the world gravitates towards and is often strong in his memory. However, while the cool gadgets and even the fight scenes are not so bad (especially in the old Sean Connery days, when we knew that the high body count was just a bunch of guys pretending to be dead), it's really the good looking girls, often scantily clad, that catch boys' attention. The formula was fully in effect with Bond's one and only love, Vesper Lynd, played by a stunning (seeming) ingenue in appearance (Eva Green, from Kingdom of Heaven), but is really a fairly complex creature - perhaps the most complicated Bond girl ever.

Judi Dench reprises her role as "M", which seems to suit her right down to the bone. She's fully herself, much more so than in her also-ran role in Elizabeth (a horrific movie anyway), and it's a treat to see an actress at the top of her craft, even in a decidedly action-based film. She is tough with Bond - being the tough mentor yet the almost grandmotherly figure, especially when she reveals part of the plot at the end...

The movie starts with Bond's 2nd confirmed kill, which gives him "00" status. As he sits there and his victim smugly sits waiting to shoot Bond, we see a very violent flashback struggle shot in Tony Scott-esque sepia and blocking. Bond then shoots this man and the credits roll, just as they have on every other Bond movie. We then proceed to the most dazzling foot chase scene I have ever seen in a movie, reminiscent of Gene Hackman's car chase in the French Connection or Steve McQueen's in Bullitt. Bond and his quarry run all over a construction site, up a crane, down a crane, and all the entire time, shot in such a way that you would think they had no wires attached. It reminded those who remembered of the French Nike ads from years ago with the young acrobats who jumped around Paris.

The formula is standard. Bad guy, Bond is the only man for the job, big conflict, exotic locations, cool cars, pretty girls. In this case, a man who plays private banker to the world's terrorists is revealed to really be a gambler. The minute he picks up a large new cash deposit from a client he calls his contact in Switzerland to ask him to short all his stock in an airline company (selling all of it betting the stock will go down) because he plans on destroying their brand new prototype. When asked by the suspicious warlord who wants "zero risk in the portfolio" if he believes in God, the villain, Le Chiffre (very unably played by Mads Mikkelsen) responds, "No. I believe in a reasonable rate of return." When Bond manages to foil this plan, Le Chiffre loses over $100M, money he can't lose, and so he sets up a high stakes poker game in Casino Royale in Montenegro for a $150M cash pot.

Of course Bond is the man for the job, and he is met on the train by the representative from the British Treasury, a startlingly beautiful Vesper Lynd. She is to provide him with the $10M necessary to play the game, along with discretion for a $5M rebuy, should he require it. Bond sizes her up as "too smart for her own good" which is why she dresses in masculine clothes and is so aggressive. He throws in a remark about her being an orphan. She, quite his match in wits, remarks about how much he overcompensates in his clothing for his probably very meager upbringing, how he objectifies women so as to not risk his emotions, and that he's an orphan as well. To her credit, Miss Green plays this role flawlessly, and her versatility is only showcased more and more throughout the film. For the viewer, it's a bit stunning to see a girl "talk back" like this to Bond. We know that "all women yield" to him, at some point, but based on this initial exchange, we might actually believe that this one won't.

Bond loses his $10M in embarassing fashion, calling a bluff that wasn't, and as he calls her an idiot for not financing his rebuy, we hear an echo from her of M's remark earlier in the movie - "this is about your ego." (an aside here, we hear Bond ask for a martini and when the bartender asked if he wanted it shaken or stirred, he replied "like I give a damn")

Pierce Brosnan chatted about this in an interview several years ago in which he talked about the "emotional development of Bond" aka "a kinder, gentler 007". Perhaps this is what Haggis is trying to do in the script. The two women we see interact with Bond the most are intellectually strong females who are his equal and don't hesitate to show him that his ego will be his downfall.

Ironically, it is Bond's ego that probably is born in this source story because of the ending, but onwards...

An undercover CIA agent stakes Bond, who stages a magnificent comeback (huge surprise) and there is so much card playing in here that you think for a moment you're in Matt Damon's Rounders, but it's still fun, especially for those of us still learning poker. Bond wins the money, but of course Vesper gets kidnapped, and he wrecks an incredibly sleek Aston Martin DB7 going right into a trap (aside, the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 makes an appearance at the beginning of the movie, in homage to Connery, but we also see shameless plugs for Sony Ericcson and Ford). He gets tortured, there are doublecrosses, but somehow he and Vesper survive through it all and he gets the money.

After he wakes, in recovery, and kisses her, she in tears tells him that with only his smile and little finger he's twice the man than any she's ever met, obviously keeping in mind his reckless, heedless-of-his-own-safety pursuit of her when she was kidnapped. He, desirous of "still having a soul" decides to quit MI-6.

They sail off to Venice, with $150M, and both of them resigned to be together forever. As Bond emails his resignation to M and hits "send" we know it's too good to be true for Bond. Of course, the girl is blackmailed, she has to doublecross Bond, and Bond gets his heart utterly broken, and resolves never to trust again. At the end of the movie, M explains how Vesper was blackmailed and how she still helped James escape. And in the end of the movie, something happens to indicate that Vesper really had James' best interests at heart, despite the desperate situation she was in.

An amazing reboot of the franchise. Daniel Craig has set a new bar.

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