Monday, November 20, 2006

REVIEW: Casino Royale (2006)

James Bond has been "rebooted" a few times before, in fact the hiring of a new regular actor to take the role has usually led the producers to talk about new directions and big changes. "Casino Royale" is noteworthy because this time they actually mean it, setting the film up as an "origin-story" that officially starts the franchise over from point A.

Newcomer Daniel Craig (what you've heard is true) is the freshly-promoted Agent 007, already an overly-aggressive "blunt instrument" of a spy on the outs with his superiors. The mission, tailored to Bond's in-agency fame as a card shark, is to mess with the poker-playing fortunes of "terrorist banker" Le Chiffre (Mad Mikkelsen) who likes to up his risk-factor by gambling with cash borrowed from his trigger-happy clients.

The thing about the Bond movies is that they are largely famous and beloved for the same things that they are mocked and called "dated" for: The outlandish bad guys, the zany gadgets, the jokingly-named femme fatales, the adherence to formula, and so on. The series' first great entry was "Goldfinger," featuring the nutty Fort Knox robbery scheme, the razor-brimmed derby and Pussy Galore; and it's cast a long shadow over the all the later entries.

"Casino's" solution, which probably owes it's entire genesis to the success of "Batman Begins," is to leave some of the trickier aspects of the series out (no gadgets, no Q, no Moneypenny) and hedge the series' future bets with the fig leaf of "a new beginning": The stuff people like will stay, the stuff people don't can be removed and chalked up to "hey, it was just the origin!"

On it's own, the film is a solid entry with (probably) the best script of the Bond series and great star debut for Craig, who's easily the best Bond since Connery and gets the added bonus of playing the closest approximation yet to Ian Fleming's original conception of a coldly fatalistic secret agent. Though here limited to more "earthbound" foot and car chases, shootouts and a painful-looking torture sequence, the action scenes are stellar and thankfully free of "Bourne"-style shaky-cam nonsense. And it knows not to throw out everything from the past: Dame Judi Dench returns as "M," a role she's occupied since the start of the Brosnan run. It was a gag at first, "ha-ha, James Bond takes orders from a tough older lady," but somehow she feels appropriate for it still.

As for the larger picture of the reboot... I'm not gonna lie, I've always preffered the Bond films that more brazenly straddled the line between realism and outright fancy. My favorite installment remains "You Only Live Twice," featuring the ninja army and the hidden volcano bad guy lair. I appreciate what they're aiming for here, and understand what necessitated it... but I hope they won't continue to be as restrictive to the "real" as the new series continues. Reality is fine, but I don't want to occupy a movie landscape where all the supervillian hideouts are just hotel rooms, and the Oddjobs just carry guns.

...of course, if so, there's always "The Transporter"...

FINAL RATING: 8/10