The Man With the Golden Franchise

"Yes. Considerably." = BAD ASSWhen I heard they were doing a reboot of the James Bond franchise, I thought it was a terrible idea. The series has degraded so far down to parody at this point, the only way to do it correctly would be to start releasing them as period pieces.

Not Austin Powers parody, but just turn back the clock to make it all work again. Jump back to the early 60s, where you’ve still got the Cold War and cool cars and you can film everything in technicolor and your hero will seem like less of an anachronism.

I’m really glad to admit that I was wrong. I finally got the chance to get out and see a movie last night, and it was Casino Royale, and it rocks in all kinds of ways.

I was hooked from the opening title sequence. Granted, they didn’t have the cool silhouettes of dancing naked women with guns, but they made up for it with the new theme song, which kicks boatloads of ass and is probably the best in the series. (It’s a drag, though, that the real version of the theme is only available on Chris Cornell’s myspace page, so you have to wade through loads of myspace effluvia to hear it). Best is that they didn’t bother trying to shoehorn the title into the lyrics — none of that “like Heaven above me, the spy who loved me” nonsense that Carly Simon didn’t have the stones to reject.

I’ve seen almost all the Bond movies, but have never really been a fan. I let myself get excited about the one with Michelle Yeoh, but of course they wasted her and ended up with just another all-hype, no-substance action movie. And seeing as how in retrospect, that was one of the better Bond movies of the past 20 years, I’m surprised they didn’t just give up the entire franchise the moment Denise Richards came on screen.

Casino Royale is impressive because they made all the right choices every step of the way. For starters, they cast the right guy. I don’t have any problem saying Daniel Craig’s the best James Bond; Sean Connery’s a movie star, but this guy is an actor. An actor who does a kick-ass job with the action sequences, too. He’s as cool playing poker as he is stopping jets from exploding.

There was a ton of negative hype around the casting before the movie was released, and you can see why — in still pictures, he doesn’t really look the part. But as soon as the movie takes off, he owns it. He plays Bond not as a superhero, but as a real person who is really good at just about everything. It was the first Bond movie I’ve seen in years that lived up to the ideal of the character — you can’t be a guy watching the movie and not think, “I wish I were that much of a bad-ass.”

And everything else shows that they just get the true appeal of the character, and not what it had turned into. They remembered that he’s a spy, and should therefore be doing the kinds of thing that spies do — more of the investigating leads and gathering information, less of the riding space shuttles and jumping on alligators and putting on the worst “Japanese” disguise in the history of cinema. By scaling back the action sequences, they made them a lot more impressive. The opening chase through a construction site is just amazing, even without the invisible car or snowmobile chase or secret backpack parasailing chute.

There’s a long sequence where Bond is trying to stop a bomb at the Miami airport. It’s inserted into the plot seamlessly, the pacing is dead-on perfect, and the editing is not only genuinely surprising, but manages to make one of the most tired cliches of action movies (“We’ve got to stop that truck!”) exciting again. It ends up being the best car action sequence since the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the best part of all — it culminates in an explosion, but the explosion happens off-screen. And still you’re left saying, “oh hell yeah!”

The dialogue is excellent, conveying an assload of character with only a couple of words. (“You noticed.”) The references to the franchise are clever and subtle, when they could easily have been over-done. M comments, “God I miss the Cold War,” and that’s the last you hear of it. All the technology has been updated without stealing focus from the plot; it’s almost as if the filmmakers decided that story and characters were important again.

Even the product placement, inevitable in one of these things, was in the end inoffensive. The only way they could’ve worked the Sony brand in there one more time would be to have Bond fire up a PS3 and challenge the villain to a game of Ratchet & Clank. But the story’s got so much momentum behind it, and everything is so well-done, that you barely notice.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Thunderball and From Russia With Love, but I don’t remember enjoying them as much as the new Casino Royale. This is the first Bond movie I’ve seen where I didn’t feel like I was watching some historical artifact, or seeing something that’s cool only because it’s supposed to be cool. It’s the first Bond movie where I feel I can finally understand what the appeal of the franchise is, and I can’t wait for the next one.