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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ten Years Later... Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen

In so many ways, 2006 feels like it was a lifetime ago. One of those ways is with respect to the Bond franchise, that behemoth of a series that has transitioned and survived through multiple cultural ages with multiple actors playing the lead role. Before 2005, who knew that the most defining characteristic of that role - which had been played at that point by a Scot, an Australian, a Brit, a Welshman, and an Irishman, the actors ranging in age from 30 to 58 so that in transitioning from actor to actor the character's age is in constant flux - was apparently the hair color? The way that people freaked out at the prospect of - gasp - a blond Bond, of all things, is precisely how I know that no matter how good he might be in the role, Idris Elba is never going to get a chance, even though Daniel Craig is now considered one of the best Bonds (if not the best Bond). What's funny is that the shrieking panic of the people behind things like danielcraigisnotbond.com isn't entirely off the mark, in that an argument can be made that the Bond played by Craig isn't "Bond" as moviegoers had known him up until that point. But we'll get to that.

The Story

Casino Royale goes back to the beginning, centering on a Bond who is new to the "00" game and a thorn in the side of M (Judi Dench), as she wonders if he's too reckless and was promoted too soon to be of real value. Nevertheless, Bond is allowed to prove himself by going on a mission to Montenegro alongside British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to lay a trap for terrorism financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikklesen).

The View From 2006

The Good: "This is the first Bond movie in many years that isn't an exercise in nostalgia or an attempt to initiate new pledges into an ancient cult. Neither is it one of those joyless efforts like the flat Timothy Dalton Bonds of the 1980s, which self-consciously tried to recapture the "authenticity" of Ian Fleming 's initial inspiration. Casino Royale is fresh, actually fresh. When you consider how long the Bond series has tried to regain, imitate or fabricate freshness, that's quite an achievement." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

The Bad: "Casino Royale is just swell when Bond is busting up bathrooms in Prague, busting up embassies in Madagascar and busting a move in Nassau. But when he gets to, well, Casino Royale (here, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro), the film goes utterly flat" - Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

The View From 2016

I have to confess that I'm not big on the Bond movies in a general sense. It's not dislike, it's more disinterest. Until sitting down to watch Casino Royale I actually don't think I'd ever actually seen a whole Bond movie from beginning to end, though I'd seen chunks of several of the movies (including this one) previously. My overall reaction could best be described as "... *shrug* meh," but of course I'm really not the target audience for the series, and that reaction is more a reflection on this one film, which is so long and self-indulgent, then it is on the series itself. Now, this isn't to say that there weren't things that I liked about Casino Royale, because there absolutely are. For one, I think Craig is a solid lead and brings a lot of emotional nuance to the role - it probably helps that he has that natural pout, which only underscores the wounded nature of his pronouncement that "the bitch is dead" - and Eva Green is always a welcome presence on screen. The two have good chemistry, sometimes combative, sometimes gentle and romantic, sometimes both, and Vesper is a character with more agency than the women of the Bond series are usually credited with getting.

Overall, though, Casino Royale is a film that feels a bit at loose ends. Watching people play poker isn't particularly interesting, the villain (or, rather, the subvillain, since he's at the mercy of people more powerful and menacing than he is) doesn't make much of an impression (despite being portrayed by Mikkelsen, an actor who generally has no trouble making an impression), and the resolution feels like a bit of an afterthought. There's plenty of action, including an admittedly fantastic climactic sequence set inside a building that is collapsing into Venice's Grand Canal, but the narrative is so baggy, full of diversions and things that feel extraneous to the actual plot, that the film has trouble maintaining any sense of urgency.

Yet, objectively speaking, it's impossible to argue that Casino Royale isn't a success. While I disagree with the notion, developed in the wake of the sight unseen aversion to Craig's Bond transforming into an unhesitating embrace of his portrayal, that the reboot saved a flagging series, given that when you adjust box office for price inflation the Pierce Brosnan starring Die Another Day and Tomorrow Never Dies both grossed more than Casino Royale, Casino Royale did do exactly what it was intended to do, which was to change the direction and image of the series. While the petitions and screeds that followed Craig's casting tended to have a bizarre and superficial focus that centered on how Craig looks, I'm not sure it's wrong to say that the Bond who emerges in Casino Royale is fundamentally different from the Bonds played by Sean Connery up to Pierce Brosnan. If the things that you associate with the series are dry quips and double entendres, impossibly named women, colorful villains, and nifty gadgets, then the absence of these elements ("Vesper" notwithstanding, though it might as well be "Nancy" compared to Christmas Jones, Honey Ryder, Holly Goodhead, and the one-two punch of Octopussy and Pussy Galore) might make Casino Royale feel less like a Bond movie and more like just a regular action/spy movie. In truth, the film has more in common with the Jason Bourne movies than it does with, say, any of the Bond movies starring Roger Moore. This isn't a campy take on spy work that emphasizes glamour; it's a gritty take that emphasizes violence and darkness. Casino Royale is the American-action-movie-ification of James Bond, which is ironic since this is supposed to be a film that takes the character back to his "roots." But that doesn't matter because it worked! We're now four films in with Craig's Bond and the only person who seems to hate him in the role these days is Craig himself. So kudos to whomever was in charge of casting Casino Royale, for truly they have had the last laugh.

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