DVD Review: Casino Royale

MGM/Sony
Movie •••• Picture •••• Sound ••••½ Extras •••½
Die Another Day (2002) took James Bond places he should never have gone, just for the sake of doing something different. Its implausible premise, gadgets, and special effects - plus Bond's Grizzly Adams makeover - would have been laughable if they weren't so sad. Casino Royale is therefore a truly unexpected and admirable delight, because it restores credibility to a character I've admired and enjoyed all my life and given me back an experience I used to be enormously grateful for - looking forward to the next Bond movie or video release.

The way the film achieves this - by depicting the gradual birth of Bond over the course of its 144 minutes - is sheer brilliance. From its stylish opening credits to an ending that ranks up there with the most satisfying ever filmed, Casino Royale is a movie that makes me hopeful and enthusiastic about the future of Bondom in a way I haven't been since Sean Connery hung up his Walther PPK and handed over the duty of prowling villains' hidden lairs to lesser men.

The most striking thing about the DVD of this most striking film is its sound mix, which keeps all channels nearly continuously active. David Arnold's lush, intriguing, spy-movie score, with echoes of previous 007 music skillfully stolen and woven into its fabric, comes at you from the front and rear, with different instruments playing from each of the surrounds and sometimes dancing back and forth between them. The soundtrack is also used to create convincing atmospheric environments, like a casino filled with voices conducting actual conversations all around - as opposed to the usual hubbub - with all dialogue clear and well placed. Effects are accurately panned in all directions, the scene at the airfield in Chapter 10 being a good example: Cars skid by or are picked up and flung past by the bassily roaring engine of an aircraft attempting to land. Silences are used just as effectively, so that when Bond's new Aston Martin DBS tumbles and bounces in Chapter 21, the shuddering impacts alternate with eerie, pin-drop audio emptiness as the vehicle floats between crunches. And hearing Monty Norman's great "James Bond Theme" in Dolby Digital 5.1 made me want to stand up and cheer.

The bright picture is almost as impressive, with very good contrast. A tailored dinner jacket, which helps the relatively inexperienced 007 take on the manner of a true man of the world, is of the deepest black, but still reveals all its details, while his gorgeous female companion (Eva Green) sidles around in an equally dark outfit that sets off her rich, red lips and the intensely bright whites of her eyes. The pre-credit flashback seems to be in fairly high-contrast black-and white, until flashbacks appear within the flashback with such a narrow range of tones - presumably achieved with pushed, grainy, 16mm film - that the images they're intercut with suddenly appear to have an enormous array of grays. The transfer handles all these looks with excellent fidelity. The best DVDs I've seen have greater depth and clarity, but the images here are still very pleasing.

On to the extras: Maryam d'Abo, who played the beautiful blonde concert cellist in The Living Daylights, wondered how other actresses felt about being one of that rare breed called the Bond Girl, so she decided to track down and interview as many of them as she could find scattered around the world. The result is an intriguing 50-minute documentary that traces and analyzes the changing role of these women through 45 years of shifting social roles - the athletic, innocent Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress); the capable Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman); the independent wiseass Tiffany Case (Jill St. John); the foxy female spies Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) and Jinx (Halle Berry), who are Bond's equals - illustrated with plentiful clips from the films.

Many of the 14 actresses, particularly d'Abo, are still awfully good to look at while you absorb the interesting and amusing things they have to say. There's also a decent 26-minute featurette on the casting of Daniel Craig and the rough ride he had both on and off the screen as the sixth Bond (if you don't count Barry Nelson in the 1954 Casino Royale TV version or the four Bonds in the 1967 Casino Royale spoof). Apart from that, you only get a music video of Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name," a song which works a lot better combined with the razor-sharp animated graphics of the opening credits than standing on its own merits. It'll still take a couple of commentaries and a few more featurettes to bring the Royale extras up to the level of those in the other Bond DVDs, so expect a top-up release sometime in the rosy Bond future. [PG-13] English and Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1; French, Dolby Surround; letterboxed (2.35:1) and anamorphic widescreen; two dual-layer discs.

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