Sunday, December 10, 2006


Daniel Craig and the makers of Casino Royale have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Or embarrassed about. Or concerned about.

(Well, maybe Daniel Craig should be a little concerned about some of the Daniel Craig haters. Some of those people really hate Daniel Craig. There was a whole Web site dedicated to hating Daniel Craig. Probably more than one. They were making fun of him because he couldn't drive a stick shift. (Which IS kind of lame, come to think of it.) I guess they really miss Pierce Brosnan or something. Sheesh! As if Die Another Day was such a great movie. It was a classic of its kind. So full of action and flash and color, it seemed like it got a little motion sickness and vomited its contents onto the screen. Not the dumbest movie ever made. Well, maybe it was. It's been a while since I saw it.)

I liked the new Casino Royale. It wasn't quite a James Bond film. It was a movie about James Bond, kind of like On Her Majesty's Secret Service. As they do every so often, they have taken a bit of a new direction for James Bond, but since they did it with a new actor, it seems a bit jarring. It's still good. It's great fun. But it's different, and it didn't quite have the feel of a Bond film. When Daniel Craig has appeared as Bond in one, maybe two more James Bond movies, then it will be just fine.

Casino Royale is a little more realistic and down-to-earth than a James Bond film has been for some time. There are no satellites or palaces made of ice or invisible cars or race-change operations. The villains are not comic-book super-villains, they are an international ring of terrorists and their accountant/investor. (Don't think about this too much.) And Bond relies a lot less on gadgets and more on his big shoulders and his firepower.

And Bond gets hurt. He gets beat up here and there. And he gets captured and tortured and it's pretty brutal. All the guys in the theater were involuntarily sticking their arms between their legs and going "Ouch!" That's quite a bit of why Craig is such a great James Bond. Despite being huge, Craig is the most vulnerable James Bond yet. Aside from the beating and the torture, he also gets poisoned and is only saved by a very elaborate first aid kit in his car and the fast thinking of Vesper Lynd (well played by the beautiful and capable Eva Green).

If Roger Moore is the Bugs Bunny of the James Bond films, Daniel Craig is more like the Thing, from the Fantastic Four. Whereas Moore seemed to be totally fearless and also completely aware he was in a movie (a characteristic that became more and more pronounced as the series went on), Craig is facing real problems that need to be solved, and he tackles them like the Thing. He crashes through walls when chasing a bomb-maker in Madagascar. He wisecracks when being tortured. He just pushes his way through and administers some brutal beatings to the bad guys that get in his way.

It's pretty neat! He's not going to make us forget Sean Connery. Or Roger Moore. But I'd say Craig has a pretty fair chance of making us forget Timothy Dalton. No? George Lazenby? Barry Nelson?

Well, maybe it will ease the pain of Die Another Day the way For Your Eyes Only helped us in our period of mourning after Moonraker.

Plot-wise, Casino Royale uses quite a bit of the basic plot of the novel that started it all, but it changes a lot of details and adds a bunch of scenes to the back story. For example, the following locales from the movie are not in the book: All of them.

(For the completists, this would be Prague, Uganda, Madagascar, the Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, Venice.)

Bond is tracking down members of an international terrorist network and he ends up chasing a guy in Madagascar through a construction site and blowing up an embassy of a made-up country. M gets mad at him and gives him a bunch of shit. He tracks the bad guys to the Bahamas, then to the Bodyworks exhibit in Miami (which was a touch I especially appreciated because I never got a chance to see the exhibit in Los Angeles, but unfortunately I wasn't paying much attention to the movie for a few minutes because I was looking at the exhibit.) Then there's a bunch of running around and blowing up shit at the Miami airport and Bond steals a cell phone and they figure out that the next target for Bond should be the man known as Le Chiffre. (They start using the novel at this point. For some crazy reason.)

Le Chiffre is the banker for the terrorist network, but he uses the money to fund his own little schemes, often based on his own inside knowledge of terrorist action. One of his risky deals go bad when Bond foils a terrorist act in Miami and Le Chiffre is a little worried that the terrorists he works for might be a bit peeved and will try to kill him. (They are not nice people, prone to a little paranoia and a lot of violence.)

So Le Chiffre sets up a multi-million dollar poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, planning to win so that he can pay off the bad people. Bond goes to Casino Royale to beat Le Chiffre and force him to hook up with MI-6 for protection from the bad people. Bond meets with Vesper Lynd (much better written as a character here than in the novel) who is with the British government and has access to millions of dollars (or euros or whatever) to stake Bond for the match. This poker tournament is the heart of the film. Sadly, the card playing itself is not nearly as good as the same scene shot for the 1954 TV version with Barry Nelson as Card Sense Jimmy Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. But it's really a minor weakness that probably means nothing to everybody else.

Mads Mickelson as Le Chiffre is pretty scary looking, not just for his weird eye and the scar and the way he cries blood, but also for just how cold he is. A reptile. He is really good, and he joins Peter Lorre and Orson Welles in the pantheon of the actors who have played Le Chiffre and played him well. I almost feel bad for making fun of his name earlier in the year. Almost. I was just funnin'.

In the book, they play baccarat, a fancy-schmancy European card game, in France. In the movie, they play Texas hold 'em, a form of poker from Texas, in the former Yugoslavia. (It makes sense in the movie because … poker is very popular on American television? I got nothin’.)

The scenes at Casiono Royale are really the heart of the movie. Hence the name, I suppose. Intrigue, violence, cards. Bond kills two terrorists in the stairwell. James and Vesper hate each other, then they love each other, in the familiar pattern of Hollywood romance. The movie incorporates some scenes from the novel, including the chase and the torture and the weird rescue by the guys who are out to get Le Chiffe but have no reason to save Bond. Or do they?

OK, so maybe the film does fall apart a little bit in the sense department if you dwell to long on it or think about it for too long. I called one of my friends to talk about how great it was and it took about two seconds before we were both laughing about how silly it really was, when you start talking about it. But I bought it while I was watching it. And I was never bored.

(Note: This is the fourth time I have reviewed Casino Royale. I think that's pretty neat! Did you know it was written up as stage play in the 1980s but it was never produced? Maybe I can find a copy of that!)


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