‘Casino Royale’ – James Bond Reborn and Reinvigorated

I came into “Casino Royale” with guarded expectations. When it came to the James Bond films which starred Pierce Brosnan, I found they were best enjoyed with lowered expectations as they veered to the more openly ridiculous films of the Roger Moore era. But once this particular Bond film started with something other than the standard gun barrel sequence, I quickly realized how serious the filmmakers were about reinventing and reinvigorating this long running franchise.

To put it mildly, “Casino Royale” proved to be the best Bond filmI have seen in years, and it was far and away one of the best movies of 2006. For once, we had a 007 movie which actually bothered to take itself seriously, provide us with a villain who was not going after world domination, and a Bond woman who is not just here for display. After seeing the franchise descend into self-parody for far too long, I was stunned at how much effort the filmmakers and producers put into this installment

This film also marked Daniel Craig’s debut as 007. These days, it is hard to believe many were quick to write him off and say how wrong he was for the role of Ian Fleming’s iconic character. What a joy it was to see him have the last laugh on everyone. Right from the start, Craig makes this character is own and gives Bond an edge I felt this British spy had been lacking after Timothy Dalton departed the franchise. But moreover, Craig gives Bond a shocking vulnerability to where it seemed criminal he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Seriously, he was that good.

“Casino Royale” also marks the return of director Martin Campbell to the Bond franchise as he previously directed Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as 007 in “Goldeneye,” a film I did not give enough credit upon its release. Rather than simply repeat what he did before, Campbell paints a whole new canvas for Craig to work with, and he gives us a number of thrilling actions set pieces throughout which quickly prove to be the most thrilling this franchise has seen in some time, and they get extra support from the enthralling music score composed by David Arnold.

As I said earlier, this Bond film does not contain a villain bent on world domination, and I was thankful for this as those villains had long since become overused in this or any other franchise. Instead, we get Le Chiffre who is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who has since become famous for his own interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Le Chiffre may have an Achilles heel or two with his asthma and an eye duct which lets out tears of blood, but he is a formidable foe with his mathematical genius and brilliance at playing chess. Mikkelsen also dares to make Le Chiffre an especially vulnerable Bond villain as his immense ego gets pierced as easily as Bond’s does, and this leads to a scene of painful torture which we have not seen since “Licence to Kill.”

I also have to say how “Casino Royale” does a great job or making Poker such an exciting game to watch. Playing cards in a movie does not sound like something which would lend itself much to cinema, but Campbell milks Poker for all it is worth here to where seeing Bond stare Le Chiffre down is such an immensely satisfying delight.

Now let us go to the Bond woman of this piece as calling her a Bond girl would be an unforgivable insult. She is Vesper Lynd, and she is played by an actress as wonderful as she is beautiful, Eva Green. So memorable in “The Dreamers,” she quickly makes her strong presence known upon her first meeting with Craig on a train speeding to Montenegro. Seeing them stare one another down is a terrific sequence as this Bond film presents us with the first real love story it has had since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this is saying a lot.

If there is a holdover from the Brosnan era, it is Dame Judi Dench who gives audiences the most intimidating version of M yet. She never took it easy on Brosnan, but she goes ballistic when it comes to Craig as his Bond just reached 007 status. Dench makes M a tough nut to crack and a superior who truly means business. If there are any vulnerabilities to this character, we do not see them here as she makes clear to Bond she is not one to be trifled with. Dench is a thrilling presence in “Casino Royale” as a result, and it made me glad she would continue to inhabit this role for a few more films.

In a sense, this franchise has come around full circle with “Casino Royale” as the producers finally got the rights to Fleming’s book after so many years. But more importantly, they came to realize that this franchise needed a serious reboot even though “Die Another Day” was an enormous hit at the box office. While I am not always a big fan of origin stories, movies like “Casino Royale” and “Batman Begins” remind me of how necessary they are and of just how good they can be.

We don’t hear Craig utter the words “the name’s Bond, James Bond” until the very end, but this is perfect as it shows how we have many great adventures to look forward to from here, and we certainly did.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I went into “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” with the hope it would be a true spinoff and not just a “Star Wars” sequel in disguise. This is the first in a series of “Star Wars” anthology movies which are meant to exist outside the main saga we have all grown up on. While “The Force Awakens” was heavy with nostalgia, this can’t be the case with “Rogue One.” Otherwise, what would be the point of making this one other than to make a gazillion dollars and sell a lot of toys?

Well, “Rogue One” proves to be an excellent “Star Wars” movie as it breaks new ground in the infinitely popular franchise. Set before the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” it follows a band of rebels as they attempt to steal the design plans for the just-completed Death Star, something which might be mistaken for a moon but is actually a space station capable of destroying planets. While we go into this movie knowing they will succeed in getting these plans to the Rebel Alliance, we have yet to see how they will pull this off and how bad the odds are, something our heroes never want to be told about.

The main character of “Rogue One” is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we meet her as a child when she is separated from her mother and father. Her father, research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the main designers of the Death Star, and as we catch up with Jyn years later when this deadly space station has finally reached its final stage of completion. Along with a ragged platoon which includes intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior and die hard believer in the Force Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), warrior and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose sarcasm knows no bounds.

One thing which really struck me about this “Star Wars” spin-off is how many Jedis it has in its character roster, which is just one. Darth Vader shows up for a spell, but he is too enamored with the dark side to help our heroes in any way, shape or form. Essentially, this group of rebels are on their own. The force is strong with them, but they are not as desirable to the Rebel Alliance as Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. For the Rebels, they are basically a means to an end.

I liked how “Rogue One” focused on the power struggles which take place within the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Both factions deal with inner turmoil as they do what is necessary to gain the upper hand in a galactic war bound to have many casualties. Even the Rebels come across as dubious as they are willing to sacrifice their own to achieve victory. With the Empire, the power struggle is all the more intense as Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) looks to claim all the credit for the Death Star even as Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, brought back to life through some incredible CGI) is not about to let that happen.

The movie also deals strongly with the themes of sacrifice and courage as our main characters fight for a cause so much bigger than themselves. Seeing them do what is necessary to achieve peace in the galaxy actually hit me harder on an emotional level than I expected, and it made “Rogue One” all the more exciting and invigorating to sit through. Granted, seeing what happens to these characters might make it seem like an emotional endurance test for the youngest audience members, but many “Star Wars” fans will be quick to appreciate what Jyn Erso and company are willing to do for the sake of so many others.

Directing “Rogue One” is Gareth Edwards who previously gave us “Godzilla,” the good one, a few years back. His direction of this spin-off feels very confident as he gives fans a good dose of what they expect from a “Star Wars” movie, but he also gives it a gritty feel none of the other episodes had. There are many sweeping shots of grandeur throughout “Rogue One,” thanks to Director of Photography Greig Fraser, as we go from one planet to the next, but this feels a lot more down and dirty as these characters do not live in a world of glamour and never will.

It’s also refreshing to see a “Star Wars” movie with a female lead as comic book movies have yet to offer the same thing. Felicity Jones, so good in “The Theory of Everything,” turns in a strong performance as Jyn Erso, and she makes the character a formidable warrior even as she sneaks around dozens of stormtroopers who would be quick to take her down if they ever discover her true identity. There are also some nice supporting turns by Diego Luna whose Cassian Andor finds his conscience getting in the way of his orders, Mads Mikkelsen who plays a scientist caught between duty and family, Ben Mendelsohn whose villainous character is ever so ruthless and eager to climb up the Empire food chain of power, and Donnie Yen is especially good as a blind warrior whose faith in the force is never misplaced.

It’s also great to see Forest Whitaker on board here as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran who raised Jyn from a girl into a fighter. I do have to say, however, that watching him breathe through his oxygen mask quickly reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s character from “Blue Velvet.” I don’t know if it was the intention of the director or screenwriters to draw inspiration from Frank Booth, but it definitely crossed my mind every time I saw Whitaker onscreen.

“Rogue One” also contains some eerily effective CGI which allowed the filmmakers to bring actors like Peter Cushing back to life in a way which feels all too real. Cushing has been dead for two decades, but here he looks like he just rose from the grave. On top of Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” which also contained a number of photorealistic characters, it makes me worry how soon actors could be replaced with CGI creations. Here’s hoping it’s not for a very, very, very long time.

“Rogue One” is by no means perfect as the movie rushes us from one planet to the next to where we have a hard time keeping up with all the places we have been to, but I admired what the filmmakers were able to accomplish. They have succeeded in giving us a fresh take on a franchise which has lived on from one decade to the next, and it bodes well for future installments like “Episode VIII” and the Han Solo movie as well. I very much enjoyed it, and I have no doubt the fans will as well as there are many easter eggs to discover. Plus, with us all living in such a volatile political climate which begs for a rebellion of some sort, this movie could not have come out at a better time. Timing is everything, and the time to rebel against our oppressors is at hand.

“Rogue One” definitely ensures that the “Star Wars” franchise will live long and prosper. Yes, that’s a saying from “Star Trek,” but it feels very appropriate to use here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *