Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale - The Verdict

In a feat of geekness unseen outside of fans of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I wore a tuxedo yesterday. All day. And damn good I looked in it, too.

That was because Tina bought tickets for Casino Royale at the Screen in Winchester and we got to see the long anticipated film with the Carruthers (who hadn't been to the cinema for 12 years.)

So what did I make of it?

Well, I come from a slightly Bond obsessed corner. Not only was Casino Royale far and way my favourite Bond book, it was also one of my favourite books, period. So the bar was set high.

And it started great.

In black and white, the opening showed a craggy James Bond (looking remarkably like the Bond who appeared on the old Pan book covers in the fifties) bumping off two men to earn his double-oh status. Then, with an explosive burst of music, the credits started.

And what credits! None of your slyphe-like girlies dancing in the firelight. Casino Royal opened with a casino-themed cartoon that I really loved. It was bright and colourful and reminded me of a slightly gorier version of the original 1967 Casino Royale credits - and the opening to Frank Sinatra's Ocean's Eleven.

So far, things were going great.

Then the film proper started.

It started off completely differently to the book. James Bond was tracking down a terrorist, which led him to the Bahamas and eventually to Florida, where he foiled an attempt to blow up a prototype jet. It was thirty minutes of pumping, frenetic action with very little let up. The down side was that by shedding the Bond cliches (the gadgets and witticisms) the whole thing seemed to be far too similar to Die Hard. You've seen this sort of thing in a dozen films and while it was good, it has been done better elsewhere.

But then the pace of the film mercifully slowed down. Bond identified the bad guy, a sinister Le Chiffre, who wept blood from one scarred eye. Le Chiffre had apparently gambled with the money he'd banked for international terrorists and when he'd lost the lot, he planned to gamble it back in a high stakes poker game.

From this point on, only a few things are changed between the book and the film. Casino Royale is located in Monte Negro, rather than Normandy, which means some of the old world, continental charm that oozed through Ian Fleming's novel is preserved. Instead of baccarat, the game Le Chiffre chooses is poker - which is instantly familiar to most people, whereas baccarat isn't. They're both sensible changes. Less sensible is the assassination attempt on Bond. Instead of a Corsican with a hollowed out walking stick (that fires .38 slugs) we have a skanky stereotype (why is it that Eastern European women are always portrayed as hollow eyed concubines in the movies?) who slips digitalis into Bond's martini. The scene in which he restarts his heart with the handy defribulator in his Aston Martin's glove compartment is ridiculous.

But the good stuff remains, taken directly from the novel. First off it the ridiculously powerful cocktail Bond invests and names after the Bond girl, Vesper:

3 ounces gin
1 ounce vodka
1/2 ounce Lillet blonde
Stir with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a orange peel.

Since he drinks these constantly through the movie, it's not surprising that he's the victim of a brutal car crash (exactly as it occurred in the book.) He'd probably have been paralytic by the time he got behind the wheel of his Aston!

Also remaining is the brutal torture scene, in which Le Chiffre cuts out the base of a chair and tortures Bond's testicles. Daniel Craig plays this scene brilliantly, roaring a defiant: "I'll tell them you died scratching my balls" to a frustrated Le Chiffre.

In fact, every ingredient that made the book so compelling was kept in with the script. And much like the original 1967 movie version of Casino Royale, this film seemed to be of two halves. The second half much better than the first.

The finale, when Vesper's loyalties are questioned and the bullets start flying again, finished in classic Bond style, in a villa in Venice that crumbled during the conflict (as a history buff, I was a bit upset at this.) The fact that some of Bond's final words mirrored the finale of the book: "The bitch is dead now" cemented the fact that the people who'd reinvented the Bond mythos had really done their homework and went into the project with as much passion for the source material as sad old gits like me.

So as the screen faded out, with Daniel Craig's craggy features beaming at us, I had to admit that the film I'm been so skeptical about had delivered on just about every level. It took the old world, cold war magic of Casino Royale and managed to deliver it in today's techomaniacal world. And the character of Bond, once so suave and sophisticated, was reinvented as the 'blunt instrument' that Ian Fleming had originally envisaged.

Casino Royale was occasionally ugly and violent, yet simultaneously beautiful and poignant. And even if people don't class it as a Bond film because it breaks all the 'Bondage' rules, it has beaten back the competition to become one of the most cerebral action movies ever filmed.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Great review, Roland. I think I agree that most of the film holds up on a scene-by-scene basis, and some of the lines were fantastic. I'll be queueing up for the next one, though probably not in a dinner jacket... :-)

Rolski said...

Yes, I was a bit of a nerd with that one!