The last few years -- no, make that the last few decades -- have been trying times for even the most dedicated James Bond fans. Ever since the vintage days of Sean Connery, the laments have been the same. Why can't they make a great Bond film like they used to? Why do they keep hiring bland, forgettable actors to play 007? What happened to all the danger, excitement and seriousness of the early years? And why can't they at least get someone to compose a decent Bond theme song?
'Casino Royale' is the first sincere effort on behalf of the series' filmmakers to address those grievances. It is as if after decades of fan griping, bad reviews and pop culture tongue-lashings, the Bond producers finally realized that, despite continued blockbuster grosses, their beloved franchise has long since become a punch line. As much as I've enjoyed various post-Connery entries, from the silly if spirited Roger Moore years to the better of the far-too-outlandish Pierce Brosnan era, let's face it -- when was the last time 007 seemed like anything but a dated anachronism?
By going back to basics -- and back to the beginning -- the Bond producers have finally given the character the reboot he so desperately deserved. Dusting off 'Casino Royale,' the first Ian Fleming Bond novel, it's year zero for 007. He's lean, mean, hungry, fresh with his license to kill and, at times, even inept. He is, as "M" (Judi Dench) describes him, a "blunt instrument." But it is the best thing to happen to the character since he first turned to the camera and uttered those immortal words, "Bond... James Bond." At last, the character is relevant again, and put in a story that places him in genuine jeopardy, hits strong emotional notes, and sets the stage for a grand new era for the franchise.
The story is complex, but vintage Bond. Newly granted 007 status, James' first assignment is to spy on a terrorist and bomb maker, Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan). After the mission goes bad, he's led to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), banker to the world's top terrorist organizations. Secret Service intelligence reveals that Le Chiffre is planning to raise money in a high-stakes poker game at the "Le Casino Royale." Bond must go undercover and sabotage the stakes, knowing that if Le Chiffre loses, it will destroy his organization. But Bond will get caught up in his own game, when he meets the seductive Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Stealing his smarts as well as his heart, she will become the only woman ever to make him distrust his alliances with his government and his job. The game soon plays itself out in unexpected ways, and Bond learns that in the spy business -- as in poker -- you never know who you can trust.
Why 'Casino Royale' works where so many of the previous Bond films failed is because it at last restores a sense of urgency and consequence to the proceedings. Hardly the cool and unflappable comedian of the Moore years, or even the ruggedly calm, charming hedonist perfected by Connery, this Bond is fallible, clumsy and even blockheaded. He has no gadgets to rely on, no over-the-top villain to foil, and he yet has found a Bond girl he loves enough that he's willing to jeopardize his entire life. Bond hasn't been this vulnerable since the last great film in the franchise, 1969's vastly underrated 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service.' If we know from frame one of the film that Bond and Vesper are never going to be together, we still are at last given a fresh understanding of how such a rogue character could have been led to marry, albeit with such tragic results, as he did in 'Service.' Creating this kind of throughline for the character is one of the many brave, bravura strokes in 'Casino Royale,' and the move to humanize and add complexity to Bond is a much-needed relief.
'Casino Royale,' of course, doesn't skimp on the action. Dropping the ridiculous, CGI-laden extravagances of the Brosnan entries (which reached their nadir when Bond went para-surfing off of a digital cliff in 2002's 'Die Another Day'), 'Royale' is rugged and rough. The action sequences here are simply incredible. The early Madagascar foot-race sequence is a tour de force of choreography, movement, camera placement and pacing -- it's simply fantastic. The sequence where Bond attempts to sabotage a airport bomber is also a stand-out. Even the casino sequences are oddly exciting, because we know the stakes, and they're high -- I never would have thought two people playing poker could be so riveting.
You may have noticed that I've gotten to the end of this review without speaking those two words: Daniel Craig. It's a testament to 'Casino Royale' that it probably would have been the finest Bond film in eons, on every level -- writing, direction, action, sexiness -- regardless of the Bond actor who played him. But Craig defied all the skeptics and proved a surprisingly vociferous group of online detractors absolutely wrong. He is, for my money, the only actor since Connery to completely own the role. He mixes sexiness, swagger, irony and even a sprinkling of brute vulgarity to create an interpretation that transcends the cliches. Though perhaps Green (as Bong girl Lynd) is a bit too young for Craig, we never once doubt that Bond is in love with her. It's the heart of the story, and at last, Craig allows us to see the heart of Bond. Together with the talent and dedication put into 'Royale,' it finally restores the lost luster to a once mighty, grand franchise. They've been saying it at the end of every 007 outing for years now... "James Bond Will Return." In 'Casino Royale,' he finally has.
'Casino Royale' first hit Blu-ray in early 2007, as one of the more anticipated titles in the format's early life. At the time of my original review, I gave it quite good marks, but not superlative ones -- and received tons of flack from fans who seemed unable to accept anything less than a five-star rating. Now, over a year later, Sony is re-issuing 'Casino Royale' in this new two-disc Blu-ray edition, and has again repurposed the same 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. My feelings remain the same -- it's a very good if not reference-quality presentation. (Sorry!)
After the opening teaser, which is black & white and purposely grainy, the credits take off with the typically bombastic Bond theme song, and it looks fantastic. Colors are rich, vivid and stable. Detail is great. And the sense of depth and three-dimensionality -- even though we're talking animation here -- is wonderful. Unfortunately, after that, I couldn't help but feel a sense of deflation. My overall opinion of the bulk of the transfer is that it still looks somewhat digital and artificial. The level of detail only sometimes reaches the heights of the best Blu-ray titles I've enjoyed over the past couple of years. Certainly, the image has pop but I wasn't consistently blown away.
The source is indeed as pristine as a new penny, and often sparkles. Blacks are excellent, and colors vibrant. Contrast, however, consistently runs hot, enough so that the image looks routinely blown-out and unrealistic. Colors sometimes veer towards oversaturation. Fleshtones just don't look natural, and aside from extreme close-ups, I often could not detect realistic skin textures -- everyone looks painted orange. Dark scenes are actually better as contrast isn't so distracting, and the film's use of cooler blues pays off with a more film-like, pleasing appearance. The actual card-playing centerpiece of the middle of the film is also quite nice, and a respite from the earlier, more sun-drenched exteriors, such as the Madagascar chase sequence that, again. looked too hot. Detail can be fairly strong, though the flushed hues and bright whites flatten out the image and it doesn't have absolute top-notch depth.
Without a doubt, 'Casino Royale' is always watchable and has moments of true grandeur. But is it a five-star transfer? A year on, I still have to say no.
While I may have qualms about this disc's video transfer, it is far harder to find fault with the audio. Sony has ditched the uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround track of the original "Casino Royale' Blu-ray and replaced it with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround option (48kHz/24-bit). The switcheroo doesn't result in any appreciable drop-off in quality, though after a series of very anal comparisons, I can say I would probably give the slightest of edges to the PCM -- but only the slightest.
First, the good stuff. This is a James Bond film, so we expect nothing less than gangbusters sound design, and sure enough we get it. The filmmaking team behind the franchise know that their bread and butter is the kind of action that sets trends, and there are some back-to-basics, non-CGI sequences here that are truly death-defying. The sonic highlights in 'Casino Royale' are by far the early Madagascar foot chase, the airport interception, and the climactic collapse of the building in Venice. Each provides first-rate demo material. Dynamic range is wide and powerful. Deep bass rumbles (just listen to that airplane take off -- it's a stunner). And the attention to fine detail to discrete effects is flawless. Imaging between channels excels and is near-transparent, with a very effective wall of sound created during the most intense action moments. When the bullets fly, 'Casino Royale' doesn't disappoint.
The film's less bombastic moments also hold up. 'Casino Royale' is a long film, and quite heavy on the dialogue. I like the use of subtle ambiance at times -- listen for the soft lull of crickets in the rears as Bond seduces Solange early on -- and the typically lush Bond score can also nicely swell up when needed. Dialogue is nicely balanced, with only Daniel Craig's most mumbled lines needing any assist in volume matching. I suppose my only nitpick is a desire for a little more creativity in the sound design (I had hoped for something cooler in terms of sound effects on the opening, famous "gun barrel" shot), but this is a minor quibble.
As far as comparing the PCM and TrueHD tracks, I whipped out my old 'Casino Royale' Blu-ray, and picked three scenes (the opening credit sequence with the Chris Cornell title tune, the foot chase and the airport interception), and did some back-to-back comparisons. After flipping between the two Blu-rays about ten times, I would give a very slight thumbs up to the PCM in terms of low bass. The airport sequence in particular felt ever-so-slightly more robust in the bottom on the PCM than the TrueHD. I also thought the title song sounded somewhat wider in the mid-range on the PCM, at least when I had the sound blasting at a very high volume. In all honestly, however, these results reveal such a negligible difference it could just as easily be subjective hearing. If nothing else, the two Blu-ray versions of 'Casino Royale' will provide nothing but more fodder for the ongoing PCM vs. TrueHD debate.
The Bond films have been re-tooled, re-issued, re-packaged, re-mastered and re-everything'd on video so many times now that it's been a punchline almost as long as the line, "shaken, not stirred." So it went with 'Casino Royale' on Blu-ray, which Sony released in early 2007 in a decent but far from comprehensive package. So here we are, about a year-and-a-half later, and the studio has finally delivered a two-disc set worthy of the best Bond film in ages. This is one fine Collector's Edition, and the one they should have done the first time around. (Video is a mix 'n' match of 1080 and 480 sources, with subtitle options in English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Chinese, and Portuguese. All materials are on Disc Two, except where noted.))
James Bond is back. Daniel Craig has truly defied the punters and emerged as -- yes, wait for it -- the best Bond since Sean Connery. 'Casino Royale' is a wonderful reboot for the venerable franchise, and only makes me hold my breath for the next adventure with Craig, November's 'Quantum of Solace.' This Blu-ray double-dip is the disc we should have got the first time around -- the video and audio are the same (which ain't a bad thing), and the two discs of extras and exclusives are very strong. However, if you don't care about supplements you can probably pass on this re-issue as it doesn't really improve the tech specs, but certainly, if you don't already own 'Casino Royale' on Blu-ray, now is the time to pick it up.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.