Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Casino Royale

It's perfect. It's absolutely perfect.

That's the spoiler-free version. If you don't mind my talking about specifics and possibly ruining something for you, keep reading.

Spoilers Below

I've talked before about how the novel Casino Royale is my favorite Bond book. Actually, there are times when I think it may just be my favorite book of all time. It's definitely in the Top Five. So, how picky was I going to be about a straightforward adaptaion of it? Not very, it turns out.

Well, I guess I was picky on whether or not it captured the spirit of the novel, and I wasn't disappointed there. But as long as it managed that, I didn't care so much about most of the details.

The first half of the movie is all new story. The adaptation doesn't kick in until the second half. This isn't bad though because if the book has a weakness, it's that it takes a couple of chapters to get going thanks to some false starts that cover how the case came across M's desk and how he decided to give it to Bond. In the movie, Bond is led into the case more naturally, as the result of something else he's already working on. That gives the filmmakers lots of room in the first half to do some of the traditional stunt sequences that Bond movie fans are fond of. And they're great ones too. There's a footchase early on where you can't imagine how in the world Bond is ever going to catch a villain who employs Spider-Man-like acrobatics to get away. There were several times during that sequence where I couldn't figure out how Bond was going to make it out alive, much less get his man.

The one thing that the first half has that's straight from the book is how Bond gets his double-O status in the teaser sequence. You have to make two kills in the line of duty to get your "license to kill," and though the specifics of Bond's kills are a little different between the book and movie, the general idea of them is the same. One's neat and clean; the other is horribly, horribly messy. And the way that the teaser seques into the famous Bond-shooting-at-the-gun-barrel bit is so very, very cool.

The second half of the movie -- the adaptation part -- is also perfect. If I'm going to be picky, I'll express a little disappointment that the card game has been updated from baccarat to Texas Hold 'Em, but I'll live. The important things are the tension around the game, the character of Vesper, the torture sequence, the revelation of the story's real villain (the one that continues into the next several stories of the series), and what happens to Bond afterwards that changes his attitude about his work.

Daniel Craig is perfect as Bond. Just like in the book, he's a cold-hearted bastard who takes a little too much pleasure in his work at first. But, like in the book, that changes as the story progresses. Someone on a message board said that this was the first Bond he ever gave a crap about. Yeah, Connery was cool and the rest of the actors have had varying degrees of success at imitating that cool, but this is the first time that Bond has been a real character. Dalton gave us glimpses of this side of Bond, but it's fully explored in Casino Royale and Craig pulls it off flawlessly. I wanted to stand up and freakin' cheer at his response to the bartender who asked him if he wanted his martini shaken or stirred.

It's a Bond movie, so I didn't have a problem with the weird continuity of Judi Dench's having worked as M with Pierce Brosnan and now having to break in a new 007. Continuity has been weird with Bond films since On Her Majesty's Secret Service when George Lazenby gets beat up in the teaser and quips that "this never would've happened to the other guy." The only choices you have are to ignore it, or buy into the theory that the name "James Bond," like the 007 number, is something that England passes on from spy to spy. I hate that theory, so I choose to ignore it. As far as I'm concerned, this is the first Bond movie, with Daniel Craig as the real James Bond. In spite of my usual obsessive geekiness about this kind of thing, because it's a Bond movie, I can do that without taking anything away from my enjoyment of, say, Doctor No or Thunderball.

And as an origin movie: again, perfect. I loved seeing those first two kills and Bond's attitude about them. I loved seeing him get the Aston Martin. I loved watching him develop as a character. I loved how he doesn't introduce himself that way until the very end and how they save the theme music for that exact moment.

But the thing I loved most about the movie on any level; the most important thing of all: he said The Line. Not a line from another Bond movie, but the last line in the novel. The one that's my favorite line in the history of literature. The line that completely defines who Bond is throughout the rest of the series. I was nervous watching Casino Royale up until Craig said that line, but at that point, I knew that it was a perfect movie.

They'll never do it, but I wish they'd go ahead and remake the rest of the Fleming novels -- in order -- with Daniel Craig and the feel of this movie. Man, it was beautiful seeing "based on the book by Ian Fleming" in the credits again. If they could pull off an entire series like this, building the way that the novels do, it'd be better than Star Wars and Lord of the Rings combined.

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