Portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'Casino Royale' (Collector's Edition)
Portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'Casino Royale' (Collector's Edition)
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 lament has 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' hits Blu-ray at a crucial time for the format. Recently overtaking HD DVD in terms of total unit sales for the first time since launch, Blu-ray is enjoying the sales edge, and a big title like 'Casino Royale' should only help solidify that lead. If Sony doesn't deliver with this one, it would not be fatal to the format, but it certainly would rank as a major disappointment.
To be honest, I like this transfer, but I don't love it. 'Casino Royale' is actually the first film I've seen more than once in theater since, I believe, 'Jurassic Park' (in 1993!), and this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation does a pretty good job of approximating my experiences at that theater. But it also looks a bit digital and artificial. I'm certainly all for the filmmaker's intent, but even if that is the case here, I can't deny that the sheer level of detail rarely reaches the heights of the best Blu-ray titles I've enjoyed, and though the image does have pop, I wasn't consistently blown away.
After the opening teaser, which is black & white and purposely grainy, the transfer really begins. 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 hlep but feel a bit deflated. 'Casino Royale' is a new release, and as such the source is pristine. The film has been shined up like a new penny, and truly sparkles. Blacks are excellent, and colors are vibrant. But contrast consistently runs hot, enough so that the image looks routinely blown-out and unrealistic.
Colors often feel oversaturated. 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 -- 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, but again, 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 the five-star transfer we've all been hoping for? Alas, for me, it was not.
While I may have qualms about this disc's video transfer, it is far harder to find fault with the audio. Sony serves up another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track, and it's a winner.
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 having said that, I really can't imagine anyone being disappointed with this soundtrack.
The Bond films have been re-tooled, re-issued, re-packaged, re-mastered and re-everything'd on video so many times now that's been a punchline almost as long as the line, "shaken, not stirred." For 'Casino Royale's Blu-ray debut, Sony actually isn't pulling out all the stops. Let's face it, we all know this is only the first version of many more to come, as Bond equals library gold for the movie studio.
What we do get here is a collection of featurettes that basically serve as an introduction to the Bond universe, and will probably play best for casual fans. Daniel Craig is also front and center here, as the extras largely trumpet his controversial debut as the character. (Note that all of the video-based extras are presented in full 1080p/MPEG-2 video, except for "Bond Girls Are Forever," which was a 4:3 full-screen TV special. The quality of the HD material is great, aside from some rough footage here or there, which looks like an 480i upconvert. But kudos for Sony for continuing to push full HD on their Blu-ray extras.)
"Becoming Bond" runs 27 minutes and is a cut above your average making-of. Though the narration has that cheesy, breathless EPK tone to it, the wealth of video diary footage, and a new interview with a very scruffy Craig, elevates it high above the mundane. Among the highlights are surprisingly frank interviews with Bond overseers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, director Martin Campbell, screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and co-star Eva Green (complete with distracting bulging neckline). No one denies that casting Craig was a gamble, as was going back to basics and abandoning the much-criticized but highly-profitable Pierce Brosnan era. I also liked the footage of Craig's nervous first day on the set, and the host of still photographs of the late Ian Fleming which I've never seen before. No, this is not a huge, sprawling documentary, but it is far better than you might expect.
Next is "James Bond: For Real." This 24-minute extravaganza is an ode to the film's considerable stunt work. The same participants again show up, and all the material is culled from the same footage used for "Becoming Bond." I find myself simultaneously enthralled and bored with these kind of features. The stunts in 'Casino Royale' are fantastic -- this is all on-set, real-time craziness that blew me out of my theater seat -- but this doc is a bit too technical for my taste. Regardless, action fans will love this one.
The last featurette is actually a TV special. "Bond Girls Are Forever" runs 49 minutes and is divided into three parts: "A New Kind of Woman," "Children of Our Generations" and "Bond Meets His Match." It's really a very solid program, featuring interviews with many of my favorite Bond girls, from the vintage femme fatale Ursula Andress (Honey Rider, 'Dr. No') and a very classy Honor Blackman, who is hysterical talking about her "lesbian" Pussy Galore from 'Goldfinger,' to Roger Moore foils Jane Seymour (Solitaire, 'Live and Let Die') and Lois Chiles (Holly Goodhead, 'Moonraker'), to Academy Award-winner Halle Berry (Jinx, 'Die Another Day'). Maryam D'Abo of 'The Living Daylights' hosts and, while yeah, this is just a regurgitated TV special, I was highly entertained throughout.
Rounding out the extras is a music video for Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name." I like the tune, and the video is fun. Is it a Bond theme classic? Maybe not. But at least it's better than a-Ha's "The Living Daylights." (Unfortunately, the video is presented in windowboxed 480i video only -- which makes the clip's 2.35:1 aspect ratio quite small, even on my 70" Sony monitor).
Sadly, there is no theatrical trailer or teaser for 'Casino Royale' included, only spots for Sony Blu-ray releases 'The Pursuit of Happyness,' 'Rocky Balboa' and 'Stranger Than Fiction.'
James Bond is back. Daniel Craig truly has 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 long for future installments with Craig.
This Blu-ray release is a bit more problematic. I liked the solid enough transfer, but I didn't love it. I also enjoyed the extras, though it seems pretty clear Sony will double-dip this one someday. The disc does sound fantastic, however, and overall it's a very fine disc. Will that be enough to meet fans highly inflated expectations? Maybe. But if you're a Bond fan at all, or even have been turned off by the recent, highly ridiculous entries in the series, this is still a must-watch -- especially in high-def.
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.