"I understand Double-0s have a very short life expectancy."
This certainly isn't the first time the series has course-corrected itself, either. The wretched excess of Moonraker (widely recognized as the very worst James Bond film, yet ironically also the most financially successful of its day) was followed immediately by the streamlined For Your Eyes Only, one of Roger Moore's better pictures. After the idiotic A View to a Kill, Moore retired and Timothy Dalton made the first attempt at a darker, edgier Bond in his two movies. By the '90s, Bond had been upstaged at his own game by imitators such as James Cameron's True Lies that managed to do everything a James Bond movie was supposed to do but bigger and better. In the wake of True Lies, EON Productions, the official gatekeepers of the Bond legacy, set forth to reinvent the series as mega-budget rollercoaster thrill ride with Goldeneye. It was a big hit and ushered forth three more films in a similar vein, each attempting to outdo the last with bigger stakes, bigger set pieces, and more expensive visual effects, until finally climaxing with the ridiculous spectacle of Die Another Day, the worst Bond movie since Moonraker. In recent years, Bond has once more found himself upstaged by an imitator, this time the Jason Bourne pictures starring Matt Damon as a smart, capable, and dangerous secret agent with a no-nonsense attitude. Learning their lesson, EON decided to reset the cycle again by recasting Bond in a similar light, giving us Daniel Craig as a particularly ruthless "blunt instrument", more assassin than spy, and lacking much of the debonair sophistication we associate with the character. When asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, this new Bond responds, "Do I look like a man who gives a damn?"
For a movie series so far 21 entries strong, James Bond has always had a shaky sense of continuity. Only on rare occasions would a new movie reference prior events, supporting actors are routinely reused in different roles, and of course Bond himself remains ever changing and ever young. But even so there was always the assumption, with a wink and a nudge perhaps, that each of these movies was in fact a direct sequel to the last and that we were watching the same James Bond in Die Another Day that had lived through the adventures of Dr. No, as screwy as that timeline may seem. Casino Royale is the first Bond picture to officially break that continuity, set in the present day yet offering us a young James Bond on his first mission as a licensed Double-0 agent. The excuse for this is that Casino Royale was actually the first of Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels, but the one whose rights had resided outside of EON's grasp until recently. Previously adapted to film in 1967 as a psychedelic comedy spoof starring David Niven (as Bond) and Woody Allen (as his nephew Jimmy Bond), the title was always the black sheep of the Bond legacy but, with its rights finally falling to EON's control, now came the opportunity to adapt it properly. Much to-do was raised in the publicity surrounding the picture of its supposedly "faithfulness" to the Fleming source, but to be honest it's no more faithful to Fleming than any of the previous Bond movies have been, which is to say hardly at all. The Bond of Fleming's Casino Royale was a gentleman spy, not the bruiser that Craig portrays him as, and certainly not a man who would ever deign to play Texas Hold 'Em poker. The novel was set almost entirely in its title location, and served practically as an instruction manual for how to play baccarat, with just a smidge of espionage thrown in for color. To my recollection, the novel had no car crashes, explosions, chase scenes, or imploding buildings. But you can't really make a $150 million James Bond movie today without those things, so thus we have a hybrid that follows the sketch of Fleming's plot with the details filled in by the trappings a modern audience expects from a Bond film.
But it works. Brash, impulsive, and hot-headed, Bond hasn't yet become the spy we expect him to be. He makes rookie mistakes and even lets a woman break into his hardened shell. In other words, he's a human being, not just a superhero, and though supremely skilled is a man with failings that he must learn from. It's a look at the character with more complexity and depth than we've ever seen before, and Craig is the right actor to pull it off. Ruggedly but unconventionally handsome, he's no pretty boy but certainly has the necessary charisma and sex appeal (just ask my wife, who spent the movie drooling over his rock hard abs). He looks great in a tux and can truly act. That we can buy into this new personification of James Bond is entirely Craig's doing. He's matched by Mads Mikkelsen as the most low-key of all Bond villains. No evil genius with a plan to destroy the world, instead his Le Chiffre is merely an amoral banker who finances terrorists. When Bond foils his plot to destroy a prototype jetliner and bankrupt the company that built it (from which he can profit through stock manipulation), Le Chiffre must try to make back his losses by high stakes gambling at an exclusive European casino. Thus Bond's mission becomes to out-gamble the bad guy, hardly the type of explosive showdown we're used to.
Indeed, the movie is more drama than action this time out. There are several big action set-pieces, each inventively staged but fortunately none involving death ray laser cannons from outer space or para-surfing off tidal waves. The final action sequence inside a collapsing building treads too far into familiar over-the-top Bond territory, but we forgive it because so much else of the movie works so well. Most surprising are the long stretches of actual plot and character development, with the big suspense-filled climax set at a card game. Yet somehow the movie remains compelling, even though it's too long by about half an hour and that poker match would have benefited from some trimming. The film's biggest failings are its lousy theme song by Chris Cornell (who?), its cheesy Flash-animated opening title montage, and the truly obnoxious amount of Sony product placement littering almost every scene -- Bond watches Sony DVD-Roms on his Sony Blu-ray player while using his Sony Vaio laptop, making a call on his Sony cell phone, and taking photos with a Sony digital camera. I only wish I were kidding. The product placement in this movie is out of control. Every single consumer product is a Sony with its logo prominently positioned to face camera, every single car is a Ford, and there's an extended visit to the creepy Body Worlds touring museum exhibit that serves little purpose to the story.
Nonetheless, Casino Royale still manages to brush away most of the cobwebs of stale formula that had bogged down the franchise in recent years. It's not a perfect movie, but it's a damn good one, and proof that James Bond remains a vital cinematic icon in continual reinvention. Let's hope that the series can keep up the momentum for at least a couple more good movies before tripping over itself again with another Moonraker or Die Another Day, requiring the next reboot.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The Blu-ray contains only the American theatrical cut of the film. A slightly longer cut (22 seconds longer) with brief extensions to a couple of the fight scenes was released on Blu-ray in Australia.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
This is obviously a very important title for Sony, one with the potential to generate a lot of interest (and sales) for the Blu-ray format. It's clear that they've made a concerted effort to not screw it up, which is a lot more than can be said about some of their earlier Blu-rays (that's right, Fifth Element, I'm looking at you). They've finally eschewed their usual MPEG2 compression in favor of the more advanced MPEG4 AVC codec, and have generally done their best to make the film into the most sparkly video eye candy that it can be. The results are sure to impress even the pickiest of critics, myself included.
The movie opens with a deliberately grainy black & white teaser sequence, then segues immediately to the poppingly vibrant and colorful opening titles. The rest of the film is as slick and glossy as you'd expect from a production of this budget. The picture is satisfyingly sharp and detailed, with inky black levels and plenty of shadow detail, all of which lends the image a nice sense of depth. Colors run a little hot and oversaturated (including orange flesh tones) during scenes in the Bahamas, but the movie looked that way in theaters as well so this was surely intentional. Colors in the rest of the picture look more natural. Unlike most Sony discs, the transfer has no distracting edge enhancement artifacts of consequence.
My only concern is that I fear the studio has applied too much digital noise reduction to tame film grain. The theatrical print I saw was quite grainy throughout the movie, but the Blu-ray is virtually spotless from start to finish, aside from the teaser scene. It looks at times a little too squeaky clean and digital. Within certain scenes, shots will alternate back and forth from extremely sharp and three-dimensional to softer and flat. Fortunately, at no time does the picture become smeary, as would be a worst case scenario with excessive DNR. The Venice sequence at the end has a harder-edged, digital-looking appearance than the rest of the movie that I personally didn't care for, but it's hard to say if this is the result of the digital compression or some other factor. Most of this is a matter of personal taste. I'm sure most viewers will be very pleased with the Casino Royale High-Def transfer.
The Casino Royale Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate Blu-ray picture quality.
Subs & Dubs:
The supplemental content on the disc offers only optional subtitling in Korean.