Sunday, November 16, 2008

Casino Royale (2006)

James Bond as a movie series has received numerous updates and revisions. Beginning with Goldfinger, the series began to follow a newfound formula, which proved to be winningly popular but left some Bond films particularly more redundant than others. After Sean Connery left the series, George Lazenby was given only one shot as agent 007 in a dramatically different kind of Bond—On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which ironically demanded more from a Bond actor than perhaps any other picture of the series. Once Connery resumed 007 duties with Diamonds are Forever, the films began to take on many of the tropes of 1970s movies, with wacky car chases, greater quantities of humor and a more generally staid personality with the dapper but quite unthreatening Roger Moore taking up the role. (Read Daniel Getahun's piece on one strong Moore entry here.) Once the Moore era finally concluded in the mid-1980s, Timothy Dalton was ultimately consigned movie 007 status, pushing the series, very briefly, in a more a human, disquieted and agitated direction—and most happily, one that Bond novelist Ian Fleming could have more easily recognized as belonging to his literary spirit. (Read Christian Divine's piece on the first Dalton interpretation here.) After Dalton's short-lived run as Bond concluded, the series lay dormant for six long years until GoldenEye proved that Bond could be hip and popular and even relevant in a post-Cold War, 1990s world. Whatever goodwill that 1995 picture captured was quickly dashed, however, when the Brosnan era proved to be defined by a greater reliance on formula than at any time in the series's history. The resultant three completely unmemorable-to-awful Bond entries under Brosnan's watch led to a need to self-cleanse, especially after the 2002 disaster of invisible cars, ice palaces and Halle Berry's “Jinx” in Die Another Day. (The lasting image of that movie will forever remain Brosnan's Bond shot against a CGI backdrop of cascading ice, atop which he wind-surfed.) Four years transpired until Bond, James Bond, was reborn—in a more emphatic way than ever before—with Casino Royale.

Casino Royale, not to be confused with the bloated but mutedly endearing 1967 psychedelic spoof on all things Bond (read Christian's thoughts on which here), marked the greatest departure from the same old, same old in the entire history of the franchise. Not content to simply make Bond darker and grittier, the producers opted to take him back to his roots, effectively relaunching the franchise not unlike the strategy employed by Warner Brothers to make all things old new again after the years of dormant inaction following the self-parody and self-destruction of Batman and Robin in Batman Begins, followed by the second major chapter of their saga, The Dark Knight. At the beginning of Casino Royale, Bond is just securing his double-0 status with two kills. He's constantly bordering impetuousness, in a distinctly “blunt” manner (being referred to as a “blunt instrument” by M). Played by Bond newcomer Daniel Craig as the bluntest of all Bonds, more callous than his predecessors with a greater physicality, this Bond is something of a recreation of the most famous man “on her majesty's secret service,” while, through the narrative, possessing some of the original novel's emotional highs and lows.

Incongruously written by the same screenwriting team that would later be partly responsible for the unfortunate Quantum of Solace—Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade—the film takes several cues from the the first Bond novel of them all, Casino Royale, published in 1953. Martin Campbell, who brought Bond back once with Brosnan's virginal outing, GoldenEye, was charged with making Bond relevant to the '00s after having done so for the '90s. With a bulking physique than even dwarfs Sean Connery, and with more indomitable deadliness to his actions, and blonde hair (Bond of the novel was blue-eyed, though grayly tinted), Craig most unquestionably represented a massive departure from the sleepier movies of Brosnan's. (It has been long speculated and reported that Brosnan was continually wishing the producers allowed him to take the character in a much darker area, but such dreams were not to be the case.)

Unlike the spatially incoherent mess of action in Quantum of Solace, Campbell covers his action scenes with daring aplomb and gracefulness. An early sequence with Bond chasing a hired bomb-maker in Madagascar represents some of the best action-shooting of the Bond movies, with Campbell making every jump employed by the two adversaries entirely visible and, consequently, impactful and occasionally quite thrilling. Campbell's direction is largely tight, and though the film does wander some with a 144-minute running time, most of the meandering is in a good cause, providing a depth to the British agent usually not committed to his psyche and true being.

The film's villain, “bent” banker La Chiffre, is played to complicated and rather realistic fruition by Mads Mikkelsen. A mathematical savant genius, he likes showing off his mental attributes by playing poker, knowing to the precise decimal point the odds. Bond eventually must play against him in a game of poker—a blatant and admittedly off-putting divergence from the novel's more exotic baccarat. (Naturally, with the current poker craze, this only helped to guarantee the film's popularity.) Judi Dench is solid as M, whose interactions with Bond here are of a greater vitality than in many years. Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter gives his deux ex machina role something of a heartbeat, promising a deepening of the relationship between he and Bond in the following film that, like almost all other promises, was broken with Quantum of Solace. Playing Vesper Lynd, drawn with empathy and love from the novel, is Eva Green, who surpasses the moniker of “Bond girl” with a mixture of subtlety and acuteness that makes her characterization just about entirely believable. It is certainly the second most important performance of the film: Vesper and James Bond being slowly overtaken by mutual love and affection demands a greater impression than just another conquest in the tradition of Bond movies.

The film basks in a fairly diamantine symbolism used as connective tissue. In the film's black-and-white teaser, Bond wrestles with his “first kill” in a men's restroom, struggling to drown the man in a sink full of water. The soundtrack, bustling with the tumultuously scary score, is briefly overwhelmed by the sound of a heartbeat. This kill is personal. One man's life is ending so another man can become what he is destined to be; later, that heartbeat sound will thunder and pulsate through the soundtrack as Bond staggers out to his Aston Martin, his life quickly draining from him after consuming poison. Bond finally dies, for all of half a dozen seconds or so, as Vesper restarts the agent's heart—and of course does so on two different planes of meaning. In its own way, this strangely melodic but ominous device helps to underscore the creation of a distinct personage, and a continuation of the Bond legacy's beating heart.

Campbell's movie is, whatever one thinks of its content or even the romantic and fated vibe with which it is permeated, a complete work. A departure and a return, a reinvention and a nostalgic reach for at least some of Fleming's intention. Bond is too cold and hard, though, lacking in the self-knowledge attained firstly by being human. Fleming's Bond hated the dirtiness of his vocation, forced to snuff out lives for the betterment of England and her interests. Casino Royale is a flawed picture, as well, with an overlong opening act and overlong final act, with too great an emphasis on action—often against people who resemble cardboard cutouts—but the problems actually become faded by time and revisiting the movie, as this blogger did the day before Quantum of Solace was released, helps to make the troubling or superfluous segments evaporate from memory. It is telling that one of the more unpleasant and grisly passages from the novel, that of a fiendish torture session, is left to remain in the movie in more graphic-than-usual for this series detail. Craig's Bond here is supposed to be on his maiden voyage of intrigue and derring-do, and behaves in a manner less preordained by the chords of cinematic tradition than any other. When asked whether he wants his Vodka martini shaken or stirred, a perturbed Bond impatiently asks, “Do I look like I give a damn?” Bond is unrefined, in a way not even Bond, until the final scene in which he introduces himself in a moment of cathartic delight. “The name is Bond, James Bond,” he informs a wounded foe. Another promise: Craig's reinvention has become, to one degree or another, the agent Fleming created, the man followed in books and films. It is unfortunate that Casino Royale's follow-up seems intent on shifting Bond entirely into a different person, and one far less interesting.


K. Bowen said...

You know what I really like about this film? It feels like a pulp novel. I can't quite explain that. But there it is.

Plus, they should just hire Eva Green to play Vesper's twin sister in the next Bond movie and make her the only Bond girl ever. Or her French-Canadian cousin Marie-Josee Croze. :)

A scene I love ... when Bond and Vesper have dinner after he wins. We don't often see Bond having dinner, and certianly not in Quantum. I remember in the book Live and Let Die that there's a dinner scene after one of his adventures, and Bond goes on about having to sit next to the kitchen and how the kitchen staff is mad at him for showing up so close to closing. Anyway, it's the sort of scene that gives Craig room to act, sorely missing from Quantum.

Alexander Coleman said...

KB, all I can say to your opening comment of this thread is, amen.

It really does feel like a pop novel. The way Mathis sits, letting Bond and Vesper watch as the police prove a point; Bond and M looking at the woman killed at that beachfront estate; the relationship melodrama between Bond and Vesper, which is frequently nothing short of being sublime.

And like you, I love the dinner scene, after Bond says he's starving. The way he eats, partly as a celebration, just gives Craig such a terrific platform on which to act, like you say.

Those are the kinds of scenes desperately, "sorely missing," like you say, from Quantum of Solace.

We should start a petition for Marie-Josee Croze to be in the next one. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

And I remember that part from the book Live and Let Die as well! Love that part, actually.

Ah... I think I'll have to go through the books again. I started the book Casino Royale yesterday and am about halfway through now. It's still Fleming's very best.

Rick Olson said...

Love this piece, Alexander. You make a good case for this film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Rick.

When I viewed this again back on Thursday, I wasn't sure at all what my reaction would be. I remembered being fairly cool towards it when it came out, not understanding, entirely, what all the fuss was about--all the while realizing it was an undeniable "step up" from the crashing bore that was almost the entire run of Brosnan's.

Seeing it again, however, served to make me excited for the prospects of Quantum of Solace. As you can tell by my review of that, however, it was setting me up for a rather big fall.

Daniel Getahun said...

"Campbell's movie is, whatever one thinks of its content or even the romantic and fated vibe with which it is permeated, a complete work."

And that, my friend, is one of the key pieces here. Thanks for writing this. Your review, along with the disaster of QoS, has "upped" CR in my mind significantly.

Sam Juliano said...

There is no question that this is a superlative and exhaustive review that makes a difficult-to-contest case for the this next-to-last Bond enterprise. Yes, it has a pulp-novel feel, and its technical craftsmanship is evident. Alexander definitely examines all its disperate components. Yet again, much like the current film I can't find any kind of emotional connection to it, which for me means a failed effort. I grew tired again of the labored pyrotehnics, which neither challenged the intellect, nor gave one some kind of a connection to the action and the characters. It was for me 'the same old, same old.'
I did see it in the theatre of course and came away forgetting it when I gotr into my car to depart.

Still, there's no question, in view of Alexander's take and the take of so many others, that it's 'different strokes for different folks.'

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Daniel, and I agree, that--along with other items--makes all the difference.

I understand your position here, Sam. The truth is, I was never particularly impressed by Casino Royale until I watched it again the day before Quantum of Solace's release. Again, however, Casino Royale certainly has flaws, but time has reduced them in magnitude for me, at least.

Laura said...

Great review. I agree that this movie has actually aged well. But of course it looks even better after the disaster of Quantum of Solace.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Laura. Ironic that I never cared that much for this film until I saw it again--not that I think it's a great picture, but I more fundamentally understood the hubbub around it after seeing it again--only to be letdown by the 2008 Bond movie. Oh well.

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