Casino Royale (2006)

Watching the exhilarating foot chase that serves as the first major action scene of Casino Royale, I was immediately overwhelmed by a profound sense of déjà vu. Yes, I had seen something just like this somewhere before, and fairly recently. This feeling had nothing to do with the reemergence of Bond from his brief dormancy — and the familiarity and comfort which attends each new installment of the 40+ year old franchise — and everything to do with the man Bond is pursuing through a construction work site.

A freelance bomb maker hunted down by 007, he runs, bounds, jumps, clambers, bounces, twirls, slides, dives, rolls and pirouettes with a preternatural grace and agility, effortlessly navigating the multi-tiered obstacle course of girders, beams and cranes. It’s simply a wonder to behold – but even more of a wonder that Bond, fast and strong but not at all graceful — is able to keep up with his quarry for even a minute or two, let alone eventually track him down to an embassy and finally apprehend him.

And then I had my “a-ha” moment, recalling a slight but energetic French action movie I caught last summer that featured the same sort of chase scenes, the same sort of fluid baltetic movement: Pierre Morel’s Banlieu 13. I remember reading at that time that these chases were actually exponents of a burgeoning urban sports craze in France called parkour. And sure enough, one of the bonus features focusing on the film’s stunts contained on the two disc Casino Royale DVD set reveals the bomb maker is played by one Sebastien Foucon, who has created his own British version of parkour called free running.

Though it seems there is some sort of philosophical /aesthetic rift between the two variants, both focus on running along the quickest path from point A to point B, except A and B are generally separated by obstacles and barriers of varying degrees of difficulty to overcome, ranging from easily jumpable fences to vast vertiginous heights. Rooftops and abandoned buildings seem to be the choice domain of this nascent sport, but its adherents claim that any landscape will do, the more rigorous and formidable the better. Where free running separates itself is in its emphasis on aesthetics over efficiency. Foucon and his acolytes favor a style that is equal parts running, gymnastics, acrobatics and ballet. And if what we see in Casino Royale (and Banlieu 13) is any indication, it must be a truly breathtaking and beautiful sport to watch, if it were possible for a spectator.

I began this review with this little aside because a) I thought I could make some sort of analogy between the efficiency and grace of free running and the film itself (not totally the case, but more on that in a second) and b) it seems that most of the sundry critical angles on this new, reinvigorated Bond have been exhausted ad nauseam since its release. I guess I could go on about how genuinely and pleasantly surprising and exciting Casino Royale turns out to be, how its just the thwack in the nuts (for those of you who’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) the ailing franchise needed, how Daniel Craig was the perfect choice to rehumanize an icon that was on the verge of lapsing into caricature (well, if it hadn’t already). And all that’s true, and been beaten to death

And for some reason, this free run chase – minimalist, spare, rough and tumble – was the point I realized that a new Bond was born. Even at a long 150 minutes (the longest Bond in ages), Casino Royale always feels sleek, lean, shorn of fat, lithely running freely along that relentless but perilous path from point A to point B. In some ways, the opening chase both heralds and perfectly complements the new aesthetic of the Bond franchise: less explosion riddled cartoon, more ruthless efficiency. But elegant and graceful Casino Royale most decidedly is not. Gritty, hard, cold hearted and bloody, this is a Bond we haven’t seen in what feels like a generation, if ever. Stripped of glamour, insouciance, the knowing smirk, Craig replaces Pierce Brosnon’s breezy and anachronistic Bond with one hewn out of flint and steel — and yet he is somehow all the more human for it, and chiefly because we are seeing him as he is “born” and struggling into the exigencies of what he is becoming.

Refashioning rickety franchises is all the rage these days. In this respect, Casino Royale is more in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s brooding, nihilistic Batman Begins or Michael Mann’s twilit Miami Vice, than Bryan Singer’s tepid, totally unnecessary Superman Returns. Rather, this Bond entry, based on the first novel that Ian Fleming wrote, is indeed an origins story, opening on Bond when he just receives his double-o stripes from MI6. We are being invited to disregard the 20 films that have come before, to disregard the history, the cultural touchstone Bond has become, and see him with new eyes. And in this regard Craig and director Martin Campbell (who also helmed the last decent Bond, Goldeneye) succeed swimmingly, if not completely.

Goofy gadgets? Gone! Preposterously loquacious villain hell bent on unleashing a doomsday device? Gone! Gratuitously explosion-heavy action sequences that lapse into cartoonish ridiculousness after about two minutes? Gone! Iconic theme song? Gone (well, mostly)! The line, the Line, the money Line we all wait breathlessly for? Well, not gone, but you’ll have to wait till the very end, kids (oh, but it’s sweet when it comes).

Campbell smartly realizes the primacy of addition by subtraction if the Bond series is ever to get back on its legs, to become relevant again in a world overrun by terror and paranoia. And sheering down the action and overplotting and throwing out the self-awareness are only the first steps. You still need a new 007. And Daniel Craig, a controversial but bold choice (me, I had been pulling for Clive Owen, which, in retrospect, probably would have ended up being just more of the same), is the right man, in the right place, at the right time. The howls that went up at the thought of a blonde haired, blue-eyed Bond are quashed in the opening minutes of the film, as Craig puts a bullet in a man’s head to gain his second kill (well, this after beating the snot out of, and then killing another man in a public bathroom, seen in flashback), and his double-o status.

He’s steely and stern, yet we see him roiling beneath, as the sociopath does battle with what’s left of the man for ascendancy over his soul. And his armor does crack during the film — several times — and it always shocks, as does the possibility that he may sail off into the sunset and retirement with British treasury agent Vesper Lynd (a ridiculously elegant and formidable Eva Green). But who are we kidding, here? Two-timed by the girl in the end, Bond qua Bond eventually wins out, and he is finally born (reborn) to become what we always knew he must.

Make no mistake — Casino Royale is nothing profound, no deep probe into the darkening soul of the man. There’s only so far you can drag the franchise out of the overheated testosterone-addled fantasy world that is Bond’s chief appeal. So no worries — you can still switch off your brain and let the typical Bondian fun overrun you. And Casino Royale is plenty fun, the most fun I’ve had watching a film in ages. It’s exciting in all the right ways at all the right moments, gives you enough but always leaves you wanting more, and, most of all, makes you very, very excited for the next film.

Arriving on DVD with a second disc devoted entirely to extras, Casino Royale’s supplementary material is mostly interesting, if not nearly in-depth as one could have hoped. But first, the glaring omission of a commentary track for the feature is unfortunate. This is one of the rare times I actually looked forward to watching a scene-by-scene breakdown of directorial / actor decisions, and the aesthetic and practical choices, which went into rejuvenating the Bond franchise. Some of these concerns are addressed by a feature focusing on the gestation and preproduction of the film (I was surprised to learn that Casino Royale had been filmed already not once (the infamous and spectacularly awful 1967 Bond spoof) but twice, the first time as a made for American television film.

The copyright holdover from that film has only lately expired, thus the decades-long delay in making the “first” Bond film) as well as the controversy surrounding the choice of Craig (who received a staggering amount of hate mail peppered with the occasional death threat). A second feature is a fairly straight forward breakdown of the major action set-pieces of the film, including the opening chase scene, and the spectacular car crash in the film’s latter half (which, it turns out, set a Guinness World Record for most rolls in a controlled car accident).

The centerpiece of the extras, though, is an hour long documentary entitled “Bond Girls are Forever”, which purports to trace the history and lasting cultural impact of the inevitable parade of eye / arm candy that accompanies each Bond adventure. Hosted by Maryam d’Abo (who starred alongside Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights) and made up mostly of old clips and current “where are they now” interviews with a handful of the actresses, the program tries to walk a fine line between celebrating the frivolity and sexiness of the typical role of Bond Girl and asking hard questions of what sort of image of women the films actually reflect.

Though its overarching slant of trying to champion the Bond Girl as evolving into some sort of feminist icon is forced, it is well intentioned in trying to reconcile fantasy with cultural responsibility, if not entirely revise the progressive arc of the recurring role. And, given the tendency of Bond Girl casting choices in the last decade towards stronger and more formidable females, there may be a sliver of veracity to this thesis (though I might be too swayed by the inspired casting of Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies). Though shot in 2002, the program has been updated to now include Eva Green, who’s sly and knowing portrayal of Vesper Lynd complements Craig’s Bond rather well, leaving open the hope that hitting the “reset” button on Bond himself entails a similar move for Bond’s female companions.

RATING 8 / 10