If you view the James Bond franchise as a train derailed, Casino Royale not only gets back on track, it then jumps over a canyon. Granted, it’s not all an impressive journey—the first hour stutters around before finding its course—but in allowing Bond a natural depth, the action takes on a needed urgency.
Pierce Brosnan played agent 007 with a protective coating from real peril. He was the flawless, soulless, charming, hedonistic brand of hero Robert Redford’s been making insufferable for more than a decade. The Brosnan Bond films that worked, Goldeneye and Die Another Day, succeeded by amping the over-the-top silliness.
In Casino Royale, director Martin Campbell and star Daniel Craig find a sleek alternative. Gutting James Bond to a cold shell, their deconstruction of an icon conversely humanizes him. The violence that’s part of his job takes a serious toll on him. This vulnerability, reflected in Craig’s worn features, keeps the stakes higher. Chronicling the origins of Bond, Casino Royale is the first in the series that doesn’t look up to 007 from afar—it puts viewers in his shoes.
Bond is pitted against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an investment banker for terrorists. The film’s central piece is a $150 million poker game in Montenegro. Campbell stages the long sequence as an intense variation on action-movie showdowns. It’s here that we’re assured 007 hasn’t quite stepped out of movie-land: Bond and Le Chiffre are the only gamblers who ever win; both are consistently dealt amazing hands. But it’s the balance of fantasy with realism that gives Casino Royale its exciting kick. The photography by Phil Meheux captures the nighttime shots with the elegant rainswept intrigue of Spielberg’s Munich. It practically glows. Daniel Craig’s triumph, selling a Bond who’s cognizant of his need for moral detachment, gives Casino Royale its emotional conflict. The series just got thrilling again.
Earlier this year, there were periods where nothing playing in theatres was worthwhile. With the fall season in full swing, there’s presently too much selection. Even Darren Aronofsky’s uneven The Fountain is of serious interest.
With co-writer Ari Handel, Aronofsky gets deliberately vague, reaching for an abstract moviegoing trip to stand beside Fantasia and 2001. However, The Fountain’s scope, while often stunning, doesn’t cut loose its ropes to get truly epic. The basic struggle is at a personal level. Izzi (Rachel Weisz), the wife of scientist Thomas (Hugh Jackman), is dying of a brain tumour. Thomas, meanwhile, has been doing regenerative tests on a monkey. He’s also around in the 16th century as a conquistador seeking the fountain of youth. And sometime in the future, he’s travelling in space with the tree of life.
It’s easier to make sense of The Fountain on a thematic level than to identify where this character connects with these timelines, though the detail that Izzi is working on a mysterious book adds an extra interpretive level. Thomas’s time-spanning efforts to halt his wife’s death are always met with the reassurance that the adventure continues once life ends. Yet this optimism is misdirected. The beauty of death may wear the aroma of spiritual uplift, but by glorifying the spiritual unknown against Earth-bound torment, Aronofsky has made a movie that’s pro-suicide. Ambitious and unsatisfactory, The Fountain exists at an intriguing place between being nothing and something else.
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