'Casino Royale: Special Edition'
(Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Dame Judi Dench, et al / 2-Disc DVD / PG-13 / 2007 / Columbia Pictures)
Overview: 'Casino Royale' introduces James Bond before he holds his license to kill. But Bond is no less dangerous, and with two professional assassinations in quick succession, he is elevated to '00' status. Bond's first 007 mission takes him to Uganda where he is to spy on a terrorist, Mollaka. Not everything goes to plan and Bond decides to investigate, independently of MI6, in order to track down the rest of the terrorist cell.
DVD Verdict: When last we left him in 2002's 'Die Another Day,' James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), armed with an invisible Aston Martin, a gun-toting Halle Berry at his side, had just defeated a face-changing Korean colonel and his giant space laser. If that description elicits more of a groan than a gasp, you're not alone. After forty-plus years of cinematic spectacle, it's easy to understand why Agent 007's recent adventures haven't done very much to leave expectant audiences shaken or stirred.
It wasn't always like this, of course. There was a time when a James Bond movie represented the pinnacle of filmmaking - both unceasingly innovative and wildly subversive at the same time. With their unparalleled technical prowess coupled with heaping helpings of violence, action, and innuendo, the early Bond films forged the path that nearly all commercial blockbusters follow to this very day. But then, that was a long time ago.
By the time I watched my first Bond, 1979's 'Moonraker,' the series was firmly ensconced in the (quite-successful, mind you) Roger Moore-era, and had long since traded in narrative trailblazing for a kind of baseline consistency and an insistent clinging to formulaic repetitiveness. And yet, there was something oddly reassuring about it. It was just one of those things. Every couple of years, you'd go to the theater, that strobe light/gun barrel opening would come up, and you'd watch 007 save the world yet again. It didn't have to be a good movie; it just had to be a Bond movie.
Well, it's taken awhile - several decades, in fact - but with the release of 'Casino Royale,' the 22nd film in the invincible series, we can finally, definitively say that the two are no longer mutually exclusive. James Bond is back, and as it turns out, he's been gone a lot longer than anyone even realized. Even before you're quite ready, well before the opening credits even start, we know right away that something is different. What is it? That famous opening shot. The gun barrel motif that has signaled the beginning of every official Bond movie from 1962's Dr. No until now -- it's not there. And just like that, all our preconceptions of what to expect are kicked to the curb.
When you think about it, the Bond producers have done something that's really unprecedented for a series as successful as this has been (each of the four Brosnan entries made more money than the last) - they've dared to buck tradition and go in a new direction, winding the clock back for a Batman Begins-style reboot, giving us a ground-up look at James Bond's first mission.
Taking its title and basic plotline from Ian Fleming's 1952 debut 007 novel, the film revolves around a high-stakes poker game that the wet-behind-the-ears Bond (Daniel Craig) is recruited to participate in against terrorist broker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). It's a straightforward affair, with none of the standbys we've come to know and expect from these things - no banter with Q, no fancy gadgets (nary an invisible car to be seen), no innuendo-laced banter with Miss Moneypenny, and an honest-to-gosh love story with new Bond girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) dropped down right smack in the middle.
This is the Bond formula stripped bare, and every frame bespeaks the joy of rediscovery, with the gleeful abandon that comes with freedom from the stultifying sameness that has crippled this franchise for the past twenty-some years. As embodied by Daniel Craig, far-and-away the best actor to don the trademark tux since it was doffed by Sean Connery in 1971; the character is more meat-and-potatoes than caviar and escargot, and for the first time in seemingly ever we get a sense of the raw brutality and casual cruelty that drives him.
Paradoxically, Craig also makes him far more real than he's ever been by also showing us a vulnerable side to this heretofore unshakable assassin. This is no easy task, as both Timothy Dalton and Brosnan before him tried and failed to lend some much needed gravitas to the usual 007 derring-do.
At just under two-and-half hours in length, 'Casino Royale' is longer, even, than the George Lazenby-starring 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (one of the best in the series), and yet, from a breathless opening footchase in Madagascar to a cat-and-mouse game in Miami to a showdown in the canals of Venice, it remains utterly involving for its entirety. Much of the credit for this can go to star Craig, who electrifies from his first scene, as well as director Martin Campbell. Campbell, who also helmed Pierce Brosnan's 1995 007 debut, 'GoldenEye,' also seems to have benefited greatly from the franchise's reinvention, employing a style here very clearly beholden to such recent spy outings as the Jason Bourne movies (as evidenced by a visceral bathroom brawl before the opening credits, depicting Bond's first kill).
Ultimately, it's a bit of a wait before we finally hear Craig utter that most famous of lines - "Bond. James Bond." - the whole movie, in fact. But by the time he gets there, and by the time we first hear Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme," we realize that the usual promise at the closing credits that "James Bond Will Return," has finally transcended the constraints of the familiar and become something it hasn't been in quite awhile: something worth getting excited about. Good show, 007.
The extras for this Casino Royale two-disc release are a little on the skimpy side. I was surprised to see no commentary track on the movie itself. On disc two, there are a couple of interesting featurettes. Becoming Bond is a 25 minute look at the process of picking Craig as the new Bond, with some behind-the-scenes looks at the film's actual production. Some of Barbara Brocolli's statements might crack you up, particularly when you think about what's been left out of the documentary. James Bond: For Real is a fun 23 minute featurette on the stunts that were designed for the movie. Bond Girls are Forever is a 50 minute featurette that they used to show on AMC all the time, taking a look at all the Bond women, and their subsequent careers. It's a real hoot, especially when you hear the actresses trying desperately to denigrate the series, without getting themselves into hot water and kicked off the documentary. There's a music video for Chris Cornell's theme, You Know My Name, but the song works better with the animated credit sequence. And finally, there are some trailers for other films from Sony. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:
Becoming Bond: An intimate look at how Daniel Craig stepped into the role of the 6th James Bond
James Bond: For Real: Inside look at action and stunts of film
Bond Girls Are Forever: Closer Look at Bond's Leading Ladies
Chris Cornell’s Music Video, “You Know My Name”