Casino Royale (Two-Disc Special Edition)

I have to admit right off the top that, before seeing Casino Royale in the theater, I hadn't watched an entire James Bond film in about 15 years. I just did not find them particularly interesting. After seeing a few trailers for the new Bond film, reading some reviews, and then actually going to see it, I have to say that I'm looking forward to the next installment with excitement. Franchise restarts (or “reboots” as they are now being called) are becoming all the rage. Taking a long dormant or aging movie series and pumping in fresh life with new directors, actors, and a retelling of the origin story can bring in new fans and recharge (but hopefully not alienate) the old ones. This strategy worked pretty well for Chris Nolan and Christian Bale in Batman Begins and failed miserably by having Ben Affleck replace Harrison Ford in the Jack Ryan series. Although a new James Bond appears every 10 or so years, Casino Royale is the first attempt to go back to square one with the series and show Bond just starting out as a licensed to kill 00 agent. It mostly works.

After four pretty well received Bond films with Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig was hired amid much fanfare and trepidation (“He’s blonde!” “He can’t drive a stick!”), Craig is asked to play Bond as a “blunt instrument” (as MI6 head M (Judy Dench) derisively refers to him). Reliant more on brute strength, iron nerves, and boundless energy than gadgets and sophistication, this Bond doesn’t always make the right decision. Introduced beating the crap out of some guy in a starkly lit bathroom, Craig turns out to be a great choice for the new version of Bond. He may not be what many people think of after years of Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan, but doing this story, in this way, with any of those guys would have been ludicrous.

The story itself is based on Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, adapted by Crash writer/director Paul Haggis along with veteran Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. The recently promoted Bond stumbles onto a plot by a terrorist moneyman, Le Chiffe (Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen), that involves blowing up a plane at the Miami airport. He ultimately ends up using Treasury funds to join a high stakes poker game at the titular casino in order to win money Le Chiffre plans on passing onto his terrorist clients. Bond is monitored by Treasury employee (and latest Bond-girl) Vesper Lynd (Eva Green.) The two, naturally, have an attraction but she has problems with his ego and recklessness.

The poker game itself, which forms the centerpiece of the movie, is a bit dull which makes the middle drag somewhat. Fortunately, it is surrounded by thrilling action sequences of Bond taking on all manner of bad guys, primarily with his hands, feet, knife, and sometimes the odd gun. No rockets appearing out of his car and exploding gas in a briefcase. Also, no hidden bases in volcanoes or trips to the moon. Director Martin Campbell keeps the whole production based, if not in reality, at least in a Bourne Identity type reality. No one can really do what these guys do, but it looks realistic when they do it. It’s also pretty straightforward until the last 30 minutes, when it becomes a bit too cute and confusing for its own good.

Since the movie is a restarting of the timeline, Bond fans get to see the first meeting between Bond and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright.) Hopefully Wright, a great actor, will get used a bit more in future installments; he’s wasted a bit here. Also, here’s hoping that a more charismatic (or at least scary) villain will pop up. Le Chiffre never worries the viewer and his key trait seems to being able to bluff at poker. The creation of the famous Bond martini and his acquisition of his first Aston-Martin are also covered.

A viewer’s appreciation for this movie may be in line with their overall feelings about the Bond series. Purists may find the shift in look and tone to be a bit too jarring. James Bond has been turned into a mid-2000’s action hero, which is significantly different than how he has been seen for many years. But anyone going in with a basically open mind or little emotional investment in the Bond of the past will enjoy it immensely. This two-disc special edition boasts 90 minutes of extras on the back cover. Before I tell you what it does have, I’ll be a glass is half empty type of guy and focus on what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have a commentary. Since this was a pretty controversial Bond hiring, hearing from Craig would have been great, but even the producers or special effects group would have been fun. There are also no deleted scenes. I’m not a huge fan of those, but it seems surprising they weren’t added. There are no goofs or gag reels or short featurettes on specific areas of filming (besides special effects). In short, although the “90 minutes” sounds like a bunch, there isn’t much variety.

So, what is included? A 30 minute documentary called “Becoming Bond.” It seems, at first, like a focus on Daniel Craig and his trek to get the role but it turns more into a pretty interesting overall “making-of” feature. There is a lot of discussion on obtaining the rights to the book and previous versions of this story. Also, while not referring to the actual complaints directly, the negative reaction to the hiring of Craig is discussed somewhat. A pretty entertaining piece.

The second 30 minute extra is “James Bond: For Real.” The focus is on the many stunt and action sequences in the film. Rather than use computer FX, most of the shots were done with old fashioned stunt work. This has a very behind the scenes feel to it and watching how they accomplished some pretty tricky tasks (and even set a world’s record) is a nice diversion.

The last extra (except for the theatrical trailers and a music video of the title song by rocker Chris Cornell) is called “Bond Girls are Forever.” It’s a 45 minute documentary that was originally produced and shown on TV in 2002. Former Living Daylights co-star Maryam d'Abo is the host and co-writer. She definitely gets points for thoroughness, as she catches up with all the main Bond girls and covers the standard questions about what their experience was like. Unfortunately, her attitude puts a little more meaning on her own quest to talk to all these women than is probably justified by the subject matter. There are tons of clips, which was my favorite part since I could see the difference between the young natural women in the movie and the older plastic surgery version. Ursula Andress was the winner, hands down, for the biggest “holy crap” moment when her much worked on face was shown.

If you’ve seen the Bond girls extra on television during one of those TNT or AMC marathons, then the overall extras are probably not even worth the cost of the second disc. But for the uninitiated, the other features are a nice summation of the making the movie. The transfer itself is great and while I think the movie comes across a little better in the theater, this is a nice disc to have.