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WGUC Reviews

Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13
Review by: Larry Thomas

Movie audiences have a strong affinity for their on-screen heroes, and are rarely happy to put up with tampering to either the character or what they expect from the films. However, over the past forty-four years, they have put up with much tampering to both James Bond and the style and tone of his cinematic adventures.

Based on a series of pulp novels by Ian Fleming, the first Bond film in 1962 was Dr. No, a comparatively low-budget affair, which starred a comparatively unknown Sean Connery. It was tight, believable and action-packed, and audiences were interested enough to warrant a second film, From Russia With Love. By the time the filmmakers hit the screen with GOLDFINGER in 1964, lightning had struck and a film franchise was born.

As the Sean Connery era progressed, the films started slipping a little. Thunderball was a little too gimmicky, and also suffered from the interference of another producer, Kevin McClory, who held the rights to this particular novel. You Only Live Twice, while bigger and more noisy than the first three in the series, was still a good film, with good action and spectacular Asian locations. Diamonds Are Forever was a bit too jokey to really be a great Bond, so Connery decided to hang up his Aston-Martin and pursue other film roles. Not to mention his salary demands were growing with each successive 007 film.

The next Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is known as the "George Lazenby" film. An Australian model, Lazenby was chosen for his looks rather than acting ability, in hopes of molding a new Bond that would cost the producers a lot less than Connery. As an actor, Lazenby was nowhere near Oscar-range, but he's not as bad as the nit-pickers would have you believe. In some scenes, he's actually very good. And other elements in the film, such as cast-members Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas; one of John Barry's richest and most evocative scores, featuring a vocal by Louis Armstrong; more character-driven plot than usual; and some eye-popping stunts and action, make this arguably the best Bond film ever.

Unfortunately, box office returns were not enough for the producers to invite Lazenby back for for more "bond-ing" with the audience, and instead Roger Moore was recruited for a gaggle of Bondian adventures. These should be know as the "disco-era" Bonds, and for the most part, were very forgettable with lame scripts and limp production.

When Moore aged to the point of not being believable in the role, Timothy Dalton stepped in for a pair of films. These were better than the Moore's, but were not hits either, so the producers went in search of another, younger, fresher Bond.

In between all this Bond switching, Connery returned to producer Kevin McClory for Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball. It was not a good idea.

The last set of recent films to feature 007 starred Irish actor Pierce Brosnan. His first time at bat, Goldeneye, was the best of the bunch, thanks mainly to director Martin Campbell, who knows his way around behind a camera, and how to do action. After this one, the films continued a decline to more gimmicks, more jokes, more... more... more. Which eventually translated to less... less... less.

But as the sign says... "Simplify, simplify," and it became apparent that James Bond the character, and James Bond the movies, needed a serious revamping. This has been accomplished in grand style with Casino Royale, the first novel in the Fleming series, written in 1953. It was not included in the original package deal with Harry Salzman and Cubby Broccoli's production company. Casino Royale was originally done on live television in the mid-1950s with Barry Nelson, an American actor, who was generally seen in light comedy. Then, there was the all-star, five-director spoof in 1967, which was goofy and energetic, with a great Burt Bacharach score, but was in no sense of the word a "Bond" film. Almost everyone in the film played a character named James Bond... Peter Sellers, David Niven,, Terrence Cooper, and yes... Woody Allen, who co-wrote the script. It was a mess, but a fun mess... as long as you don't think of it as a desecration of a legend.

Now comes the real version of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig, a British actor with many fine roles to his credit. Craig is almost the anti-Bond: he's blond, has big ears, and is not suavely handsome as Connery and Brosnan were. However, he tackles the role with a vengeance and infuses James Bond with more heart, insight, and personality than we've yet seen in 007. Craig's bond is edgy, calculating, and at times, rather brutal. He has no qualms about doing his job. Bond sweats. Bond bleeds. Bond suffers pain.

The action scenes, particularly a lengthy foot chase in the beginning is totally breathtaking. The score by David Arnold has moments that echo the best of John Barry's work in the earlier films, and makes fine use of Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" over the closing credits. The supporting cast includes French actress Eva Greene as Vesper Lind, the requisite femme fatale; Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre, a classic Bond villain, but not just a buffoon: he's both evil, and tormented; and American stage and film performer Jeffrey Wright as Bond's CIA counterpart Felix Leiter. Of course, the dependable Judi Dench is on board once again as "M." And in a nod to the leaner, meaner Bond, there is no character called "Q" with his gadgetry which grew more outlandish with each outing. The most high-tech device used by Bond in Casino Royale is a hot-shot Sony cell phone.

We all know the clichés: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and "why reinvent the wheel." The Bond franchise was broken and needed fixing. And if this is reinventing, then we got a better wheel in the bargain.

While On Her Majesty's Secret Service still has all the ingredients to be accorded the title of "best Bond film ever," Casino Royale is darn close. And if future outings with the charismatic Daniel Craig turn out to be even better, then this re-birth of James Bond may turn out to be one of the best things to happen to movies in a long, long time.


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