Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 9/12/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

Casino Royale

As I noted today, I’m looking forward to this fall’s upcoming Bond sequel Quantum of Solace with a fair degree of excitement. That’s due largely in part to the masterpiece that was Casino Royale. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been a Bond fan ever since I devoted the summer of 1996 to renting every last 007 movie from the local video store. They’re quite fun. However, after Die Another Day hit theaters in 2002 as the franchise’s 20th installment (ignoring the unofficial and deplorable-in-every-way Never Say Never Again), the series was starting to feel a little stale. Die Another Day realized this, and tried to compensate by bringing Bond into the 21st century with CG effects (the series has long been renown for its dependence on actual stuntwork) and a techno theme song by Madonna. The results, though fun in a corny sort of way, were not exactly thrilling. So, as Pierce Brosnan retired from the role, the producers decided that in order to take Bond to the next level they needed to take him back to basics. The result of that endeavor was Casino Royale, a fantastic, gritty, character driven film that amps up the reality of the action and of Bond as a man while still keeping the distinctive flair and excitement that is 007.

Daniel Craig, much maligned by fanboys after his initial casting as the first “blonde Bond,” steps into the shoes of 007 in a story based on author Ian Fleming’s first bond novel. Appropriately, the movie throws out the 40+ years of Bond lore and starts over, picking up with Bond as a brash rookie agent on an assignment to earn his license to kill. This leads to his ascension to Double-O status and his first major mission in service of M (Judi Dench, the lone holdover from the previous series). Bond is sent after a mysterious man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who acts as a security banker for less-than-upright individuals around the world. Events have forced Le Chiffre into desperation, attempting to recoup his recent losses by setting up a high-stakes poker game at the titular casino in Montenegro. As MI6’s best player, Bond is entered in the game, bankrolled by Her Majesty’s government and looked after by Treasury Department representative Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). As Bond seeks to corral Le Chiffre, he gets a brutal introduction to the dark world he’s entering and the havoc it will wreak on his own soul.

Though the set-up doesn’t sound out-of-the-ordinary for Bond, the way it’s handled brings a breath of fresh air to this storied franchise. Craig shuts the mouths of the doubters, and he shuts it hard with not just a fantastic Bond performance but a fantastic performance period. This is a Bond who is closer to Fleming’s character than any other to grace the screen. Craig is charming, yes – but his is a gritty Bond, a Bond who is just as at home (if not more so) in an all-out brawl as he is sipping a martini. As the story progresses, we see a James Bond who for the first time in recent memory is an actual character – and it’s his personal journey that gives the film its dramatic arc. I don’t remember ever seeing Brosnan or Roger Moore’s Bond come out of a film a different man than he began it, but Craig’s most certainly does. Green’s Lynd throws out any expectations of what it is to be a “Bond girl” by delivering a character that is every bit as multi-dimensional as Bond himself and a foundational part of who he is. Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre isn’t a maniac with a secret lair inside a volcano dreaming of world domination, he’s a villain as frail as he is frightening. Add in great supporting roles by Jeffrey Wright as Bond’s CIA ally Felix Leiter and Giancarlo Giannini as his contact in Montenegro and you’ve got a quietly fantastic cast. The action, while fast and furious, is grounded in reality – with equal parts thanks to co-screenwriter Paul Haggis (director of the Oscar-winner Crash) and director Martin Campbell (who previously helmed GoldenEye – one of the best of the previous series). This is the first Bond who feels like he could actually exist in today’s world. Yet don’t think for a second that they’ve taken the fun out of Bond. From a parkour chase through a construction site to a vehicle chase at Miami International Airport to a thrilling setpiece in Venice, the action is furiously paced – its intensity only amplified by the fact that there are actual characters we care about on the line, not mere cardboard cutouts. By the time the credits roll, we’re hungry to see where the future will take this new Bond – a wish that will be directly granted, as Quantum of Solace will be a direct sequel to Casino Royale, picking up just minutes after it leaves off (the series has never before attempted a continuing plot from film-to-film). I’m counting down to November 14th, and I guarantee that after watching Casino Royale, you will be too.

Casino Royale is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity.

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