8/21/07

R030 Casino Royale

(2006, Action-Spies, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

Nothing Bond touches can cost less than eleven thousand dollars.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

James Bond becomes a high-stakes gambler to foil a terrorist financier.

Summary:

With his tie rakishly undone, Bond is ready for some lovin' and killin'.In the recent past (as indicated by the grainy black and white film stock) up-and-coming secret service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns his “double-oh” status by killing a foreign spy, and then assassinating the British government official that was selling secrets to him. The final gunshot segues us into a computer-generated opening credit sequence filled with computer-animated playing cards and silhouettes—none of the which, curiously enough, belong to scantily clad women.

Cut to a jungle-based terrorist camp in a fictional African country. A sinister middle-aged man introduces the terrorist commander to an even more sinister scar-faced man named Le Chiffre (pronounced “La Sheaf”) who occasionally, and for no apparent reason, weeps blood instead of saline. Le Chiffre is an investment broker who specializes in terrorist money. He promises that he will invest the commander’s ill-gotten loot in no-risk stocks, and then immediately bets it all against the widely-predicted success of a company that manufactures giant airplanes.

Cut to Madagascar, where a cheering crowd watches a cobra fight a mongoose while James Bond and his inept cohort watch a suspected terrorist bomber. The inept cohort gives them away, resulting in a lengthy chase up, down, and through a construction site that ends in the embassy of another fictional, terrorist-run African nation.

Bond understands the rules against violence in foreign embassies, but follows the bomber in anyway. He shoots up the building, executes the bomber, and escapes with the bomber’s backpack and cell phone. His superior, M (Judi Dench), gives him a half-hearted lecture and sends him to hide out somewhere until the heat on her agency blows over. Bond uses the bomber’s cell phone to track his employer to the Bahamas. Further security camera machinations and questioning of ritzy club staff lead him to a gambler/terrorist handler living nearby.

Bond wins the handler’s car at the gaming table and celebrates by seducing the handler’s wife. The information he gleans from her causes him to break off their pairing to follow her husband to a macabre gambling museum, where he is discovered and forced to kill the object of his pursuit. By this time, however, an airport locker key has already been handed off to a replacement terrorist bomber. Using the handler’s cell phone, Bond tracks the new bomber into the airport and, after a lengthy fuel-truck chase, prevents him from blowing up the latest giant airplane prototype.

M’s team of spy support staff figure out the rest. Le Chiffre used the money acquired from terrorists to invest heavily in the giant airplane manufacturer’s failure, and then hired the handler to arrange said failure. With their prototype intact, however, the manufacturer has succeeded, meaning that Le Chiffre now owes an astronomical amount of money to a lot of violent, murderous men with no collective sense of humor. In a desperate, last-ditch effort to save himself, Le Chiffre has enrolled in a terrorist gambling party at Casino Royale, where he will hopefully win enough to pay them back. M’s plan is simple: she will send her agency’s best gambler to the party and leave Le Chiffre destitute, hoping he will give them information on his organization in exchange for protection from his creditors. And her agency’s best gambler just happens to be...

Bond is met by a representative of the Treasury Department on the train to Casino Royale. Her name is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and she decides how much money Bond gets to gamble with, and when. The verbal sparring and innuendo eventually subside, and we get into the game.

Grubbiest. Bond. Ever.Fortunately, the card game only happens in spurts. A brief bit of dealing and betting, and then Bond and Le Chiffre both have to deal with the arrival of Le Chiffre’s terrorist African creditors from the beginning. A bit more gambling, and then Le Chiffre cleans Bond out on an extraordinarily lucky draw.

Vesper refuses to finance him further, so Bond strides across the room to finish off his opponent with a steak knife. Fellow gambler Felix stops him with a confession and an offer. The confession: he is not actually a terrorist, but a CIA agent sent for the same purpose as Bond. The offer: he knows he is not good enough to out-gamble Le Chiffre, but he also knows that Bond might be. He will give Bond the money to buy back into the game if he promises to give Le Chiffre to the CIA when he wins. Bond agrees.

More gambling, and Le Chiffre’s girlfriend poisons Bond’s drink. Bond excuses himself so that he can stumble to his car, where the spy support staff back home talks him through the antidote process. He almost makes it, but fails to attach all the electrodes on his defibrillator before he passes out. Vesper arrives just in time to put everything back together and restart his heart.

More gambling, and Bond finally bankrupts his last four opponents. The CIA contacts Le Chiffre about asylum in exchange for information, and he presumably agrees. Bond and Vesper’s mutual loathing gives way to flirtatious banter. Vesper is called away by their local contact. Bond realizes something about their local contact and rushes out just in time to see her being pulled into a fleeing car. Bond leaps into his own car to give chase, but is forced to swerve and roll his vehicle when he speeds round a corner to find Vesper bound and lying in the middle of the road. Le Chiffre’s men pull his unconscious body from the wreck.

Bond wakes up in his underwear, tied to a seatless chair in a sewer. Le Chiffre beats his groin with a knotted rope while demanding the password to the account with the winnings. Bond refuses and taunts him with the knowledge that, no matter what Le Chiffre does, his creditors will kill him for losing their money. This goes on for a while, and then the sinister middle-aged man from the beginning breaks in to shoot Le Chiffre in the head. Bond passes out again.

He wakes up in the hospital with Vesper. Their flirtatious banter gives way to soul-baring honesty, and they make love in an unused hospital room. He resigns from the secret service to travel the world with Vesper, and they’ve gotten as far as Venice before M calls him to ask where the Treasury’s seed money has gotten to. Bond declares that he will wire it over today, and then starts investigating. Apparently, the money was transferred to the wrong account, and is even now being withdrawn at a bank in Venice.

Bond follows and catches Vesper handing the money over to Le Chiffre’s former associates. The subsequent shootout sinks an old building into the canals of Venice. Bond tries to save Vesper, but she deliberately drowns herself rather than face him again. Later, M reveals that Le Chiffre’s employer had kidnapped her former lover, blackmailing her into helping them, but she abandoned him to run away with Bond. The only reason Bond is still alive now is because she traded the money for his life. M then concludes that they will never know who that employer is.

Bond hangs up, and then finds a message on his phone from Vesper, sent before she died. It says “Mr. White,” and lists a phone number. The name belongs to the sinister middle-aged man who killed Le Chiffre. Bond and his gun pay him a visit.

Thoughts:

Yum, delicious metaphorical blood.For a movie named after a gambling establishment, Casino Royale features surprisingly little in the way of card play. No one even mentions the terrorist gambling tournament until minute fifty-six, and Bond doesn’t arrive at the eponymous casino until minute sixty-nine. Take out everything before, after, and in between, and you’re left with maybe ten minutes of poker footage. This is a good thing; poker is a bit like golf in that it is probably exciting to play, but is excruciatingly boring for a layman to watch for any length of time.

In fact, almost all of the things in this movie are good things. The franchise got more than a little silly after George Lazenby’s one-shot turn as the iconic spy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and never really recovered as each successive film more or less parodied its predecessors. This film deliberately goes against the grain by including no puns, very few gadgets, a lot of gritty violence, and only one implied sexual encounter. Basically, the filmmakers took out almost every element we’ve learned to associate with Bond and made it work anyway, turning the once-glitzy science fiction series into a highly entertaining crime thriller.

Of course Mike Nelson and co-riffer Kevin Murphy make fun of it anyway. It’s still a spy movie after all, and, as Mike has proved with his commentary tracks for movies like Halloween, X-Men, and The Fellowship of the Ring, a good movie from a ridiculous genre is still fair game. When Bond pursues an acrobatic suspect through a Madagascar construction site, Kevin says, “I think it’s turning into a spontaneous Cirque du Soleil.” When it’s almost an hour in, and there still hasn’t been any mention of Casino Royale, Mike cries, “I’m going to make a movie called Horses, Horses, Horses, and there’s not going to be a single horse in it!” Later, as yet another close-up of a cell phone helps Bond find his suspect, Mike supplies the product placement tag line, “Sony Ericsson: Our Phones Can’t Actually Do This.” It’s an exciting enough movie without the commentary, but it’s still got just enough silliness in it to make watching it with the commentary worthwhile.