Casino Royale

Casino Royale ★★★★★

Casino Royale was a revamp of the entire franchise, a success to stay close to the heart and soul of the original Ian Fleming novels. Bond still has a license to kill, but missing are some of the gadgets that prompted previous Bond movies into stylized fantasy action. Bond is now a serious bruiser. He inflicts pain, and he’s vulnerable to pain. Bond became serious stuff.

An action scene in Africa is typical yet of any Bond movie. Craig as Agent 007 has to chase a suspect bomb-maker through a construction site that is exploited like an American Gladiator obstacle course. Obligatory it well is, but is also terrifically choreographed, photographed and edited with panache, the best of its kind. Another explosive action scene also takes place at a Miami airport, and he’s momentarily more of a Die Hard hero than vulnerable agent.

These are the early days of Agent 007, but it’s clear that it’s establishing an entire new take on the character. Craig is a British actor whom had certainly impressed the critical community with “Layer Cake” (he played the lead in this entertaining down-and-dirty gangster movie) and “Munich” (subtle work as a member of an assassin team). What did Craig bring? I say he brought greater depth and inner turmoil than any previous Bond actor. Not that Sean Connery has anything to worry about with his Bond legacy whose own mystique as Bond remains untouched.

As for the convoluted plot, it comprises an entanglement of terrorism, the stock market and the interlink effects the two have on global economy. Villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) wants to cash in on the stock market following terrorist calamities. We know he’s a villain because he has tears of blood coming out of his eyes. That his complexities expand is due to first-rate screenwriting. As for the romance angle in Casino Royale, Bond is suckered in by government Treasury Official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “The Dreamers”). This is where this Bond entry exceeds all others, the passion, the verbal foreplay, the dynamics of trust, deceit, lust –– Craig’s got game. Still, Vesper, the greatest match of wits Bond has ever had, bites back.

By the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn't come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means you were at that school by the grace of someone else's charity - hence that chip on your shoulder. And since your first thought about me ran to "orphan," that's what I'd say you are.

As spy partners, Lynd supplies Bond $10 million in cash to enter a high-stakes poker game that will be attended by Le Chiffre. Character actor Jeffrey Wright plays American CIA agent Felix Leiter (is this guy ever going to be a future Oscar winner?). There are mano-to-mano fight intervals with henchmen, but mostly the poker game dominates the mid-section. (Perhaps Bond should study Matt Damon in “Rounders” to understand the art of the check-raise. Poker players can find fault in Bond’s strategy.)

The third act is dense with stunts as well as whopping acts of betrayal, as the casino money itself becomes a pursuit. Bond’s ballistic heroism in Venice, Italy where he literally brings a building down is a rip-roaring highlight. Among the greatest action scenes ever filmed, I think, it also helps the emotional stakes involving Vesper are high. Green, as Vesper, is a supreme woman of sophistication, magnetism, caginess and stunning. There's never been a woman that has this completely exceeded Bond's expectations.

Beyond Venice, the other locations are continuously among the film’s assets. There has never been a more luxurious and decadent ambiance for a Bond movie. And it’s not like Bond movies haven’t trekked over the exotic in the past as superficial Hollywood takes on exotic globe-trotting. When Craig’s 007 travels to the Bahamas, or Prague, or Lake Como, these feel like genuinely rich settings populated with real upscale people. Director Martin Campbell (previously of the more commercial stylings of "The Mask of Zorro") strips away the phoniness and artificiality.

The final scene of the movie is a shocker. It is shocking because it reveals a side of Bond that we’ve never seen before–a sadist that adheres first to personal agenda, second to love of country. Bond was, in this moment at least, operating with extreme prejudice and it will forever be interpreted to me as a kill shot (the target was meant to slowly bleed to death; however the "Quantum of Solace" re-thought things and wanted you to think otherwise). It was a shame the next installments of Craig never quite held onto this complexity of Bond acting with malice, with convenience, though there might have been a couple exceptions. But what's great here and less satisfying later made us appreciate... what we had here. IMO, Casino Royale was the best Bond ever.

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