Ahh, Mr. Blu-ray Bond ... I've been expecting you.
Well, without a shadow of doubt, I can tell you that, although the wait from Casino Royale's theatrical release to the moment I span this Blu-ray disc hasn't actually been that long, it has been extremely impatient. Listeners to our Podcasts and regular readers will already know how big a fan of Bond I am and just how much I adored this movie, so much of what follows will hardly be surprising. To put it simply, Casino Royale was my favourite film of last year, beating both Pan's Labyrinth and The Prestige into my hallowed Hall Of Fame. In fact, Daniel Craig's debut in the tux has already rocketed way beyond the confines of the franchise that kick-started it all, leaving the Connerys, the Moores, the Daltons and especially the Brosnans way behind. That still leaves the odd Lazenby, though, doesn't it? Well, we'll come to that later. So, for those of you have got the stamina, let me indulge myself once again and explore the many reasons why Casino Royale has put James Bond back at the top of the Action Hero League, propelling the home-grown phenomenon into a wilder, fresher and altogether more invigorating direction.
“I made a mistake promoting you.”
“Well, my understanding is that double-0's have a very short life expectancy ... so your mistake will be short-lived.”
They only things in the years since Gladiator to have engaged my adrenal glands so completely have been Fronsac's revenge in Les Pacte Des Loups, Jason Bourne's Moscow smash 'em-up in The Bourne Supremacy, Kong's tussle with the V-Rexes in Jackson's remake and the simply awesome charge of Christian Bale's Batmobile in that other fantastic re-imagining, Batman Begins. Until now, that is. Daniel Craig has done much, much more than just re-stimulate an ailing franchise that was becoming backed-up on its bloated and pantomimic excesses. He has, single-handedly, given one of the cinema's greatest heroes a brutal, relentless and thoroughly testosterone-soaked makeover and audiences, the world over, a well-earned shot in the escapist arm. Twisting the cliché-riddled scenario around full-circle so that women were drawn back to the raw charisma of the “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” that had so turned them off during most of the character's tenure, and the men were reduced to grinding their teeth in envy of that toned and honed physique, Craig's stab at the icon has gone much deeper than anyone, especially his plentiful (and now very hushed-up) naysayers could ever have predicted. Returning to the series that he previously shook up with Goldeneye, Martin Campbell once again grabs 007 by the scruff of the tux and sends him out redressed, refined and re-tooled for a new era and an audience that won't settle for half-assed effects and a leading man too impossibly old to get away with the role. And what better way of doing it than with the Bond story that started the whole thing in the first place? Casino Royale is a quick read - a slim story that, although gripping, is hardly the tale that you would imagine could spawn such a global phenomenon. The bizarre thing is that, whilst most of the series post-OHMSS either just took the titles from Ian Fleming's celebrated novels or departed large-scale from the chain-smoking, liver-shot secret agent and ventured into the wild extremes of concept-pitches and stratospheric stunt-collages, Campbell and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Crash's Paul Haggis, have actually stuck surprisingly close to the original text. Oh, they've added a fair bit here and there - which, to be blunt, was vital - but the narrative remains the same and there is even a large dose of the original's cold dialogue retained to spice up and replace the usual damp one-liners and pithy comebacks. Hell, they even kept in that eyeball-popping torture sequence that no-one thought would be filmable. Mind you, there's a lot of blokes out there who wouldn't have minded it remained that way. And, as a side-note, this sequence does not differ from its theatrical presentation - it is filmed in such a way that it couldn't be cut.
“I thought M was a randomly assigned number. I never realised it stood for -”
“Utter one more syllable and I'll have you killed.”
Gaining his 00-license to kill via an immensely effective and jolting black and white pre-credits sequence, Bond stumbles onto evidence of something pretty big going down in the global terrorism market. Following up his leads whilst supposedly keeping his blonde head down to avoid the flack he has caused with a slight international incident, he bulldozes his way to the forefront of an MI6 operation to flush out and fleece the terrorists' main financier via a high-stakes poker game at the illustrious Casino Royale in Montenegro. Thus, the stage is set for a plot that revolves around saving the world in a much more realistic and low-key fashion. Alliances are made and bonds are forged, but in the world of international espionage the most important lesson for 007 to learn is that he can trust no-one. The new James Bond is unleashed into this hidden battlefield with a jazzed-up Aston Martin, a fledgling interest in vodka martinis, a tailor-made tuxedo and a body cut from stone - but he has the instincts of a predator, the unerring eye of a sniper and the colossal weight of audience anticipation upon his shoulders. England expects, James.
“There are dinner jackets and dinner jackets. This is the latter.”
But don't go looking for smug chauvinism, PG-rated fisticuffs or any raised-eyebrows here. Connery's arrogance is out of the window. Moore's safari-suits and lounge-lizard antics have gone the way of the Dodo. Dalton's seriousness has been channelled into new-age confidence and a street-fighter's zest for knuckle-mashing. And Brosnan's immaculately groomed and flippant Saville Row devotee has been transformed into rock-hewn battler who looks like could go a few rounds with Mike Tyson. Still got that twinkle in his eye, though. But this time it is a reflection of the coolest anti-hero of all, for Daniel Craig carries more than just an uncanny facial resemblance to Steve McQueen - he fits the bill of a maverick, self-opinionated outsider to a tee. Flouting authority and every rule of political discretion with a belligerence that is truly inspiring, he runs across the globe like a muscle-enhanced Frank Bullitt. You get the sense that, for him, the job is one thing, but it is how you go about getting it done that is the real deal. This Bond cares even less about red tape than his predecessors and is even happier to stray outside the comfort zone than even his own towering ego will admit. Check out his easy disregard for the safety of innocents when he commandeers that JCB, or for the private property of his fellow guests in the car park of his Nassau hotel. The Treasury agent entrusted with administering the required funds to stake Bond in the crucial game, Eva Green's Vesper Lynd (“Vesper? I do hope you gave your parents hell for that.”), hits the nail on the head when she prods his enigmatic past. A chip on the shoulder about the favours done for his lost little orphan rumble the ruse about his unprivileged background, providing this Bond with a more earthy and practical foundation.
And Daniel Craig can act, as well ... something of an attribute that his forerunners never really required. Looking back at his excellent portrayal of the likeable drug-dealer from Layer Cake, and especially the bit where he prances around the place posing with a newfound gun, a la Bond, it is immensely satisfying to see him in full blown sanctioned-killer mode. Essentially, he makes you believe that he can do the things you see 007 do. The build, the attitude, the sheer un-sophistication that he brings to the part ensure that this is a working-class, gets-his-hands-dirty Bond who can take the baddies down, can take a battering himself, and - when a future script calls for it - even save the world in a more franchise-familiar manner. The look of sadistic delight on his cut face when a bamboozled baddie has been blown to bits, the full-name introduction over a pivotal criminal crippled by a high-velocity round and the smug grin that acts as his ultimate defence from Vesper's cutting character-assassination establish this Bond as an altogether different beast. Allusions to an SAS background add further realism to the role, grounding his raw physicality with an endurance-honed stamina that makes his endless sprinting and ability to fight afterwards all the more credible. So let's just take a few indulgent moments to savour the pugilistic pleasure that MI6's newest and baddest has to offer. An opening black and white introduction sees his savage fist and foot salvo in pure, hard as nails thuggery - a hands-on assassination that really takes the breath away and pushes the boundaries of the film's certificate. The eagle-eyed amongst you may like to spot the plaster adorning his knuckles - evidence of the go-for-broke determination to make it real in take after take of rehearsal and shooting. The bull-headed and totally un-suave embassy snatch 'n' grab of the fleet-footed bomb-maker, Mollaka, allows for some bone-crunching, and hight-altitude slaps, kicks and backhand flurries, and check out the great way in which he keeps his prey's head down from the guards' errant bullets - by slamming his elbow into the back of it. You never saw Roger or Sean try this sort of relentless aggression, did you? The skirmish in the cab of the petrol-truck creates a cocktail of chaos that recalls the similarly bruising punishment that poor Indiana Jones suffered at the knuckles of a nasty Nazi in Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the machete-mayhem on the stairs of a hotel takes Bondian-brawling into a new sphere of unpredictable savagery. It is also cool the way in which his numerous cuts and bruises don't just vanish in the next scene, they actually linger and then either gradually fade away throughout the movie or just get replaced by new damage. Hell, even the great title sequence sees an animated Bond slugging it out with various ne'er do-wells. Well, I thought it was great even if it seems the majority of other people didn't. And the same goes for Chris Cornell's introductory theme-song, “You Know My Name”, which also received so much flack from the critics. What's wrong with it? The lyrics are cleverly-woven snipes at the double-dealing nature of Bond's world and the total ambiguity of who you can trust. This Bond wouldn't have suited a Diva's wailing power-ballad.
“Wow ... you've taken good care of your body. Such a waste.”
The set-pieces are simply awesome. The famous Parkour (free-running) pursuit that gets the film up and running (literally) with Bond shinning up and down cranes set against the backdrop of Madagascar's azure sea and then hot-footing through a warren of industrial lathes, drills and buzzsaws to ultimately lay a one-man siege to the Nambutu Embassy is every bit as good as you remember it from the flicks. You can almost imagine Bond thinking to himself as he contemplates leaping between cranes, “Of all the terrorists in the world, I have to pick the one who's an Olympic champion!” No clumsy stunt-doubles, no embarrassingly obvious inserts and absolutely no naff CGI required. Sebastien Foucan as the flame-scarred bomb-maker makes a great quarry, bringing a frightening finesse to his absurd exploits, whilst Craig transforms Bond into a blazing juggernaut of brute speed and power, crashing through walls and driving a JCB after his target - definitely a T-800 to Foucan's T-1000. But my favourite just has to be the Miami Airport sequence which just builds and builds, topping each successive mini-climax with such energy that the entire 15-minute segment plays like its own miniature movie. Watch for Richard Branson's cameo, gasp at a vicious neck-snapping and hold on tight as Bond runs, and runs and runs some more in a desperate effort to catch a mad bomber intent on ploughing a gas truck into the belly of a prototype plane. In the cinema this sequence had me literally out of my seat, so thrilling was Bond's race up the ramp of steps and daring leap onto the top of the truck - David Arnold's music kicking into frenzied overdrive. The startling overhead view of one incredible near-miss, the almost Naked Gun-style catalogue of impacts and the terrifically inspired shot of a police car whipped through the air by a jet-engine - it's a blast that I could never tire of watching.
“Doesn't it bother you ... killing those people?”
“Well, I wouldn't be very good at my job if it did.”
The comedy that so often derailed former Bond films is blissfully absent here. About the only time this Bond uses humour is in the face of some extreme adversity and, even then, his witticism here is actually used to lure his cruel antagonist into a neat verbal trap - his killer line both exquisite and excruciating. The “box of chocolates” gag later on and subsequent “little finger” quip are totally in-character and not at all groan-inducing. Likewise the way in which Craig is able to flip a conversation with Vesper around from what could have turned into the well-worn Roger Moore cliché when his reply as to why she isn't his type ends up with his cold put-down that she is simply “single,” nothing more. Then again, I find it quite amusing that whenever Bond attempts to covertly pursue someone in the film, no matter how careful he is, he always gets sussed-out by them. Check it out, it happens three times.
“I've got a little itch ... down there ...”
As the enigmatic and somewhat forlorn Vesper Lynd, Eva Green is deliriously sultry and a radical departure from the normal Bond girl. Her relationship with 007 is hugely important to the progression of the revamped character but, although there are some moments of real class and poignancy, they are dampened considerably by our hero's bludgeoning attitude towards getting the job done, and his sheer taste for brawling. Their “somewhat prickly” first encounter, where Vesper gets the measure of her man (quite literally as it turns out), and their subsequent banter in the car about their assumed identities score highly with well-defined and potently loaded lines in a game of verbal cat and mouse. “And you are,” reads a playful Bond from his mission dossier, “Miss Stephanie Broadchest,” excellently tipping the wink to all the innuendo-monikered ladies that have gone before. Vesper's façade is realistic, if a little too clever amid her vaguely bohemian allure, though her falling for Bond is far more convincing than his falling for her. The best and, indeed, the only truly authentic bond (ahem) that 007 has ever attained has been with Diana Rigg's elegant Tracy in OHMSS. Sadly, the romance in Casino Royale is no substitute, although the tender moment of mutual - and fully-clothed - comforting in the shower after a particularly gruelling double-kill is very affecting. Green has to allow some darkness into her role and a sense of fate that, after seeing how powerfully poignant she could be in Kingdom Of Heaven, is a refreshing new tone in a Bond movie. Despite not being as drop-dead gorgeous as Caterina Murino's horse-riding beach babe Solange - who is, I have to say, staggeringly beautiful - she is inarguably irresistible when she makes that head-turning walk into the casino.
“How was your lamb?”
“Skewered. One sympathises.”
Mads Mikkelssen may not be the accepted face of Bond villainy - save for his scar and glassy-eyed twitch, of course - but his portrayal of Le Chiffre is coldly excellent. One of the best elements of Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, Mikkelssen exudes as much fear and desperation as he does evil, clutching for his inhaler whenever the cards go against him and bleeding tears of blood. The thing is, and it is quite a departure for a Bondian bad guy, Le Chiffre is not out to rule the world, or to hold it to ransom. He's not creating outrageous bases from which to launch sci-fi weapons of mass destruction. And he is certainly not eccentric enough to forget what type of pussy he ought to be stroking. He's a businessman whose trade just happens to be terrorism. But he's not even particularly good at that, losing enough of his eminently nasty employer's money to sink a small nation and then having to put his life on the line in order to regain the status quo. The script's clever notion all along is that Le Chiffre is not the main man - he's just a stepping stone on the way to finding out who the new enemy really is. Bet you it's a new-fangled interpretation of Spectre. Mikkelsen's chiselled-in cheeks and crimson tears have the effect of making him look both ill and vaguely vampiric, his accent ensuring that the usual villainous quips are rendered off-kilter and ensnared with a lace of his own fear. Even during the notorious manhood-mangling sequence, his furious sadism is tempered by a pathetic futility to get what he wants. Cleverly, he is reduced to impotence whilst trying to do exactly that so someone else. The impression is always of a man who would really rather not be doing such things, but has been driven to it by his own drastic mistakes. Thus, Le Chiffre is not the type of nemesis who is easy to despise. Though nor is he as memorable as someone like Goldfinger, or Savalas's Blofeld. He's a middle-man and this, at least, marks a new trajectory for the franchise in regaining the epic quality of the earlier instalments. He is only a part of something much, much bigger and more dangerous. In Casino Royale we see only the tip of the iceberg but Le Chiffre is crucial to setting the scene for the conflicts to come.
“I would ask that you remain emotionally detached ... but that's not your problem is it, Bond?”
M is once again portrayed with icy aplomb by Dame Judi Dench and it is, indeed, hard to think of anyone else in the role now. With a nice aside about the relative ease of espionage during the Cold War and a justifiably aggrieved reaction to Bond's rather tactless invasion of her home, Judi hits all the right notes. Her interplay with Daniel Craig is reminiscent of her first exchanges with Brosnan - aroused consternation mixed with a grudging admiration. And for his part, Craig doesn't make the same condescension that his predecessor frequently made. His arrogance is borne of complete self-belief and an insane drive to get the job done. He will overstep the mark and he will go it alone and act upon his instincts. If that means he has to access his own boss's private files and break time-honoured Ministry rules, then he will do so. M's effrontery is hard-bitten and she does appear quite stung by his rude probing into her own secretive background, but she is reflective and adaptive enough to realise that this is exactly the sort of man she needs to get the job done. The life expectancy for a double-O may be very short, but she's quick to catch on that she can't afford to waste time chastising a man for using his own initiative. It is still somewhat strange to see the illustrious and noble M being roused from cosy slumber beside someone we can only presume is her husband (should be Geoffrey Palmer, shouldn't it?). But there a rekindling of that touching frisson that existed between her and Brosnan when she tells Bond “Well, I knew you were you ...” and then again with the her especially purring sentiments of “We need you.” Incidentally, having MI6's head-honcho played by a woman is one of the series' greatest assets. It somehow brings the whole British Empire thing back into play in a way that stuffy old Bernard Lee couldn't do. For Queen And Country, Ma'am.
David Arnold finally brings something exciting and dynamic to his Bond scores. Although he always utilised the big brass exuberance and swagger that epitomised John Barry to exaggerate Brosnan's spin, his previous three scores were never memorable, nor especially complimentary to Bond's bravado. But here he has dug deep to accomplish a musical accompaniment to Daniel's derring-do, serving the on-screen action with pitch-perfect precision and a dead-on ability to ramp-up the excitement. The Miami Airport set-piece is a glorious tour-de-force of musical storytelling on its own, bolt it onto the chaotic chase 'n' duel and you've got the ultimate marriage of audio-visual adrenaline. The opening crane-chase is superbly counter-pointed with Arnold's blistering barrage of timpani and percussion, edging the action up another couple of notches by sheer power and invigoration. In the quieter moments he reaches into the soul of Bond's pierced machismo and in one glorious throwback to the awesome OHMSS, even manages to evoke a little musical memory of Louis Armstrong's seminal We Have All The Time In The World. You just listen to the opening notes of the sequence when Bond and Vesper arrive in Venice (the cue City Of Lovers on the soundtrack CD) to hear exactly what I mean. This is Arnold unashamedly paying homage to Barry's lush orchestrations. And, of course, the way that he gently layers in the traditional theme, gradually peppering the soundtrack with the ballsy brass serenade that we all know and love, is wonderfully smirk-inducing, dragging out our anticipation of its full rendition like the results in a Pop Idol finale. I hope next time out, Arnold tries to incorporate a version of Bond's secondary (and actually my favourite) theme - the pounding, Morse-code-inspired action cue simply entitled 007, that hasn't actually been heard since Moonraker.
“Even accountants have imagination.”
There is an inevitable downside to all this glory, denying Casino Royale the full 10 out of 10 that I so wanted to grant it. The product placement is absolutely outrageous, even by Bond standards. Although, then again, if you had an Omega watch worth a couple of grand, you'd be apt to brag about it, too. The pacing is a little uneven, with most of the wild stuff taking place during the first half of the film, even before we meet our leading lady. The big chase with Mollaka near the start sees the agile baddie use his gun on the two building site security guards, yet keep on climbing when he could quite easily stand still and plant one between Craig's baby-blues. Campbell also has a few too many shots of Craig running to camera, stopping and then looking left and right - it looks amateurish and neither Craig, nor Campbell is that. The editing, which is crackerjack for most of the time, makes a glaring corner-cut when the fuel truck swerves round a bend, making it look as though the vehicle is far more responsive that it actually is. If you think about it too much - as I may be prone to do so - the romance is off as well. There's no way that this tough-nut would allow himself to fall so quickly and so deeply in love as to seriously contemplate resigning for even a second. It may be faithful to the book but the element seems too straining here ... especially given the coldness that inevitably results. Then again, this is Bond dipping his toes in the foreign waters of emotion and not enjoying the sensation he discovers.
Bond Re-dux, or should that be Re-tux, takes the icon right into the heart of the realm that the character, himself, actually spawned. With the likes of the awesome Jason Bourne movies, 24 and even M:I-3 setting new benchmarks for powerhouse espionage capers, Bond has had a lot of ground to make up. Thank God then that Daniel Craig has seen to it that the hero can still keep the British end up. Daniel, I salute you, sir. For you, alone, have taken one of my favourite heroes and made him better than ever. Now, for the first time since I was a kid, I really wanna be James Bond again!
For the next instalment let's have a proper car chase and some action in the snow, eh?
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