Friday, March 28, 2008

Casino Royale...with Cheese

For anyone who hasn't seen the latest James Bond film, Casino Royale, be warned: there are spoilers ahead, so if you haven't seen it, avert your eyes.

Avast ye mates...prepare to come about.


So the past several weeks have been a bit of a blur.

Between having a birthday and all the requisite activity and excitement that that brings, coupled with the typical huge workload and the various other facets of my day-to-day life, and planning a party at a new venue, it's been a tad crazy.

That's when I managed to get ahold of a copy of the Blu-Ray version of Casino Royale.

So I finally fired it up and, on first view, I'm at once both really impressed and really disappointed.

First, if you're a regular visitor herein -- and if you are, you have my sincerest apologies -- you will likely recall I chose the recent Daniel Craig film "Layer Cake" as a "Worth Viewing" suggestion.

Now, having seen "Casino Royale," Mr. Craig's first foray as James Bond, I stand by the "Layer Cake" recommendation and can mostly recommend "Casino Royale," albeit with some reservations.

"Casino Royale" is a re-do on several levels. First, it's what is ostensibly a remake of a previous James Bond film featuring George Lazenby, a one-hit wonder as Bond, that was made for all the wrong reasons. That film was one of the first examples of the conflicts between factions looking to own the Bond franchise. Despite all the Bond films featuring a basic formula of hot women, hot cars and cool, breezy action, there's been so much behind-the-scenes politics, bullshit and in-fighting that it sometimes suggests that the behind-the-scenes Bond action might be more interesting than some of the action committed to film (eg Moonraker, Never Say Never Again).

Second, instead of picking up where Die Another Day (the last film) ends, this one returns to the days before Bond had the famed "Double-O" status. In other words, this film begins with Bond not having a license to kill. Of course, the notion of a license to kill is complete crap; as soon as you're handed a firearm by a governmental agency, you've got a license to kill. But that's neither here nor there. For continuity's sake, and for the sake of re-telling and revamping the entire Bond saga, this film at once goes back to the future. Meaning -- the film wants to go back to the time before Bond is a Double-O agent, but it's set in the present. Cell phones, computers, the Internet (Google)'s all there. The fact that Bond's been a Double-O for 40+ years is a non-issue. That whole "suspension of disbelief" thing must always accompany the viewing of a Bond film, and for this one, it's more crucial than a tub of popcorn.

Speaking of this film, it has it all -- a slew of yummy women, lots of tension, some eye-popping stunts, and a visceral good vs. bad dichotomy that only James Bond films can present with a straight face, so to speak. This one pits Bond against a Banker-To-The-Terrorists named Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game.

Yep, that's the showdown -- a poker game.

Now granted, this isn't the same cavalcade of Riker's Island rejects that you see sitting around a poker table on ESPN2 at 3AM; these people are wearing tuxedos and look like they're respectable members of society. Problem is, one of them's a bad guy.

Okay, so on the surface it seems shallow, even for a Bond film. The thing is, if you accept the fact that this film's premise is less sophisticated than the patent for "Crazy Straw," you'll be fine.

Once you get by that, what you have is a pretty solid film. My main apathy regarding this film, prior to a moment of it even being filmed, was that I think Pierce Brosnan was a perfect James Bond. I'll always regard Sean Connery as THE Bond, but Pierce was really the ideal Bond. He was the most able example of the spy who could withstand a barrage of enemy gunfire, an impending doomsday clock ticking down and the possible destruction of the free world -- and look like the only concern he had was that his hair looked good while he was saving the world from assured annihilation. So when they replaced him -- suddenly -- with Daniel Craig, I was less-than-thrilled.

But the truth is Daniel Craig makes a good Bond. He looks athletic enough to be taken seriously as Bond, and he rarely had more than three consecutive sentences so he was plenty quiet and methodical on-screen, which the post-Roger Moore Bond should assuredly be. And as far as gadgets and goodies, this movie was light on the fluff and the only real toy crucial to the film is the Aston Martin DB-S.

Anyhoo...some points of contention... There's a scene in which 007 flips the Aston Martin during a high-speed car chase. Um...unless the Aston's reaching speeds of 180+, there's almost no way a driver can flip that sucker unless he hits a one-wheel speed-bump (which is probably how the feat was accomplished in the first place). It looks fantastic on-screen -- very dramatic and very cool -- but as someone who's driven cars at high speeds, I can't really get past the fact that it's complete bullshit. For the "here's a better way to have accomplished the same thing," why couldn't the bad guys have planted a land mine or something similar on the road instead of laying out a prone, tied-up Vesper Lynd across the road? I guess drama and excitement bely and defy the rules of physics, natch.

Very cool scene...just wish it was physic-ally possible. Which it most likely isn't.

The other scene was the opener...Bond confronts a rogue/corrupt double-O agent at the film's inception (not quite a fellow agent as this film opens with Bond not yet having attained the famed double-O status himself). The confrontation is very mild-mannered -- for you serious Bond fans, think back to Dr. No where Bond waits in his dark hotel room for the assassin to show himself and then, once his six shots are emptied into what should be Bond's sleeping figure in bed, he closes the bedroom door and puts a bullet into his would-be assassin. So this scene was pretty much a direct rip-off of that Dr. No sequence.

No problem -- I don't mind a lack of originality when it comes to Bond. Tradition and a nod to past glory and all that -- no problem. Problem is -- after the fellow agent aims his pistol at Bond and pulls the trigger to find his gun is empty, Bond shows him the magazine to the weapon and says "I know where you keep your gun." Unfortunately, it's hard to believe an agent who has kill clearance for a secret service (for England or the US or Upper Volta, it doesn't really matter what nation) would holster his/her weapon and not notice there was no magazine or, if there was a magazine, that said magazine was empty. In other words, rather than show your opponent the magazine filled with bullets, better to simply show a handful of bullets and say something similarly clever, like "You should be more careful to make sure you're drawing a loaded weapon." This scene could and should have been a lot more impactful but I kept going back to it because it didn't really work. And considering this was Bond's last pre-Double-O mission should have made the entire thing work properly instead of sorta-kinda-not really.

Overall, this was a pretty solid film. The locations and the photography, as per usual, were better than what you see on National Geographic, the Travel Channel and Discovery HD combined. The characters are, for the most part, somewhat two-dimensional -- another typical Bond staple -- and the acting was at least solid, if not great.

But overall, the main thing I couldn't really get by was the fact that this entire film was based on a showdown between good and evil that takes place at a poker table. Even if a true blue-blood Bond fan like me could get by the comparison of this poker showdown to the impotent, ridiculous video-game showdown between Connery's Bond and Klaus Maria Brandauer in Never Say Never Again, the thing is that there's no spy or agent who would willingly accept an assignment where he has to play poker against the bad guy when -- duh -- the guy is out in the open. Send two burly guys with guns and a little Jewish guy with a warrant, put the bad guy in a cell, inject him with sodium pentathol and you get all the info you need. Why pony up the $15 million for the poker-game buy-in? Why bother with all the bullshit? Toss the full-house tension and get the answers you need (the theoretical point of why this whole poker game was played was to cut off Le Chiffre's financial base -- which in theory was actually his terrorist cronies' money -- and thereby forcing him to cooperate with the British Secret Service/MI6).

Among the other lowlights were the preliminary chase sequence between Bond and some terrorist/arms dealer in an African country. Bond chases a bad guy through a construction site and the guy he's chasing is so lithe and athletic he practically bounces up, around, over and/or through the construction site. In fact he DOES bounce. He swings, he arcs, and he glides through the air. The only thing missing was a tutu or tights, a pair of Capezios and a big bulging turtle shell shielding his camel-toe. And trust me, that would not have made the movie any better.

It just seems to me that if you're a bad guy working for a government (or for a rogue agency within the confines of a government or an African nation) and you're carrying a gun, you're not going all Baryshnikov and channeling the mighty Gazelle as you evade someone wanting to kill you. It makes for interesting chase sequences but it belongs on Broadway or at The Met, not in the middle of a construction site chase sequence in a James Bond film.

The highlights, by the way, were numerous. Judi Dench is always solid, and here, as M, she is spot-on. Eva Green and Jeffrey Wright (as, respectively, Vesper Lynd and Felix Leiter) are both very talented and acquit themselves very well. And Daniel Craig was and is a respectable Bond. I still would prefer Pierce Brosnan as Bond, but now I know how people who voted for John Kerry feel.

Consequently, this film turned out far better for Pierce Brosnan supporters than did the nation after John Kerry's defeat. Then again, that's not saying much.

Incidentally, one thing I noticed about this film was it was inordinately long (it took longer to watch this film than read this critique thereof). Clocking in over two hours (where most modern films rarely exceed 95 minutes) says a lot. But whereas quality films like "Goodfellas" clock in at well over two (and sometimes three) hours, this film kept going and twice I caught myself wondering "When is this thing going to end?"

Truth be told, this was a solid first outing and I'm glad I saw it, and considering the high-def quality of the print (not to mention the sound and the visual effects), it was pretty impressive. I just wish they'd thought this through a bit more thoroughly, and I hope the next film winds up showing evidence of thought that results in a better product on-screen and less excitement, bullshit and politics off-screen.

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