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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Recommended!: Casino Royale (2006)

I mean for goodness' sake, just look at this title sequence. Casino Royale means business.



The James Bond series was always marked by a number of recurring tropes, including its lush title sequences (usually by Maurice Binder), so that Casino Royale spared no expense in the intricate clip above is no surprise. Many called it a reboot of the series, but the horrible trendiness of the term undercuts the significant accomplishment of the movie. The weirdly upbeat energy of the title sequence confirms it: This isn't a reboot, it's a rebirth.

As committed as the movie is to crafting a James Bond for the 21st century, it places him in the pre-established lineage set by the series. It often seems to be summing up the character's history from the begging, adapting (maybe the MOST faithfully, in the film series) the Ian Fleming novel that introduced the character. This back-to-the-beginning thrust of the movie is sealed with its prologue, shot in black-and-white. The first Bond movie wasn't Dr. No, but a curious one-off made for American television, starring Barry Nelson as an Americanized Bond (and Peter Lorre, beautifully cast as Le Chiffre), a B&W oddity perhaps being honored here. The presence of Dame Judi Dench as Bond's supervisor M (her fifth appearance in the role) suggests that this movie continues the long lineage, notions of a reboot be damned.

So what do we make of the Daniel Craig Bond, the character? As we're introduced to him, he's something of a blunt instrument, a brawler. Not the suave Connery Bond, certainly not the occasionally effete Moore Bond. He pointedly doesn't give a damn how his martini's prepared, and even drives up to the title Casino in a Ford. A Ford. No, what we see in Casino Royale isn't the character we've come to know, but a lone man becoming that character. The notion that "James Bond 007" isn't a man but a designation becomes weirdly confirmed in this movie, and that with Craig, for the first time, we're watching a character become that designation. Fleming's protagonist, in the books, is repeatedly subject to brutality and dehumanization, carrying the accumulated scars into palpable exhaustion in the later books; we see that process beginning here, with Craig quietly accepting that betrayal, torture, and a steady loss of humanity are all part of the job. David Arnold's opening theme song morphs quietly, insistently, into the familiar James Bond theme by Monty Norman, its opening horn blasts heralding the arrival, the birth, of the new Bond.

That the movies in this franchise have all been released in the darkening autumn months, rather than the sunlit blockbuster days of summer, doesn't feel like a coincidence. That the movie balances the demands and delivers on the expectations of a big-screen thriller with a knowing eye on Bond's world (and ours; not for nothing is he taking on cyber-threats and terrorists instead of a now-quaint Cold War menace) underscores what an incredible achievement Casino Royale is. It is very much its own beast even as it lands on the tropes that recognizably make it an honest-to-goodness James Bond movie. Even the last of those tropes, the end credits promise that "James Bond Will Return", brings a gasp of delight. For the first time in a long long time, those words bring excitement. As does the movie that precedes them.

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