This is the one people have been itching to know my thoughts on. (Well, four of you.) Tonight I had my advance screening of Casino Royale. And I can say, with complete confidence, that this is easily the best James Bond film in over 20 years.
I’ll let you think about that for a minute. “The best James Bond film in over 20 years.”
Still there? Okay. Good. Now, you ask, why would I make such a bold claim? Because, simply put, this film is awesome. It’s harsh, it’s unforgiving, and it sticks very closely to the original novel, making Daniel Craig (formerly ridiculed as “James Blonde”) one of the best portrayals of the character since George Lazenby (although Timothy Dalton did a pretty good job, too). Director Martin Campbell, whose last film was the horrid The Legend of Zorro last year, deserves a “best comeback” award. The screenplay, while written by the two guys who did the last two Bond films (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade), was given a very impressive polish by two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis, and it makes a huge difference!
The story is pretty straight forward. In the pre-title sequence, Bond gains his 00-status, and we see how the famous “gunbarrel” opening shot came to be. Pretty slick. So now Bond is in Madagascar hunting down an African terrorist bomb maker, in an incredibly fast-moving and exciting sequence. After causing a bit of an international incident, M (Judy Dench) sends Bond on vacation to the Bahamas to “think about things”. But there he encounters Fisher (Daud Shah), the man who hired the African bomb maker. So, Bond is on the case, and it takes him to Miami where we are blessed with another amazingly tight action sequence.
The plot starts to form when we learn (this isn’t really anything I’m spoiling, folks!) that terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) has been using his backer’s finances to make bets – and Bond just caused him to lose twice, big time. Now he’s holding a $150-million private card tournament, with 10 people, at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, to try to win it all back – otherwise, he might be killed by his terrorist backers once they discover they lost his money. Since Bond is the best player in MI6, he’s teamed up with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to make sure he wins the money, forcing Le Chiffre into a situation where he will need MI6’s protection – and essentially give them all he knows about his terrorst backers.
But of course, things aren’t as simple as that, and who knew, honestly, that watching people play cards could be exciting? Luckily, the tournament is broken up into chunks, with breaks every few hours – allowing Bond to get into some kind of trouble. One thing is for sure about this portrayal of James Bond – he gets hurt. He bleeds. He gets emotionally wounded. He’s a full rounded character, and in Casino Royale we see ultimately how he becomes the “James Bond” that we all know. It’s an origin film, and exceptionally well done.
But, that also brings up the underlying question – at the end of the film, Bond is “James Bond” – so does that mean any future outings with Daniel Craig will seem…. less well rounded? We’ve already witnessed his character arc, so where is there to go from here? Something to ponder, for sure.
The production design is by Bond veteran Peter Lamont, who has worked on something absurd, like almost every James Bond film except for 3 or something like that. He does a great job as usual, giving us large scale action set pieces, as well as small intimate details that help round out the characters. Editor Stuart Baird, who we last saw trying to direct his third feature film, Star Trek: Nemesis, proves once again that he’s best behind an editing rig than behind the camera. The tight action sequences are nicely balanced with character building scenes, deftly written by Paul Haggis.
The music is by David Arnold, who has also scored the past three James Bond films. What’s cool about his score this time out is that he knows it’s an “origin” story, and so he rarely uses the famed James Bond Theme, except for a few moment here and there where he hints at it. In fact, the title song “You Know My Name”, which was written by Arnold along with singer Chris Cornell, provides much of the thematic material heard in the score. And even cooler, some of the themes can naturally evolve into the Bond theme. It’s like they’re the musical ancestors of what we’ve already heard. Pretty cool concept! By the time the film comes to the end, Bond has become “James Bond”, and so he’s earned the theme fully – and that’s what we get for the end titles. The movie runs almost 2.5 hours long, and with only 85 minutes of score, there is plenty of room to let the scenes breathe. Now that’s how you use music in a film! (You could call it the Family Stone of Bond films. Heh.)
I haven’t been this excited to see a film a second time so soon after seeing it in a very long time, and I hope that if you were unsure about seeing the movie, what I’ve written above compells you to go. Even though I didn’t achieve my goals for Bondfest 2006, I will still continue with the remaining movies. Which is going to be even harder now, because after seeing Casino Royale, watching Moonraker is going to be torturous!