Friday, November 17, 2006

Adam Goes All-In at Casino Royale

I grew up watching James Bond films. In fact, my first coherent memory is watching a double feature of You Only Live Twice and Live and Let Die at the drive-in.
To say I have a deep, abiding love for Bond would be an understatement. Strangely, I've never picked up the books, even though the reissues are absolutely gorgeous. I've never opened a Bond novel. I'd like to. I just never get around to it.
I can't judge any of the Bond movies based on the novels. However, I'd have to agree with many of the criticisms leveled at the series in its lifetime.
Roger Moore, though suave, was too old by far in his first movie, and was positively ancient by the time he did his last. Therefore, his Bond was hardly palatable to action movie junkies. He got by an smarm and cheeky humor.
Yes, Connery was the best Bond. Why? Because you believed he could be a badass. You believed that he's shoot a guy in the face if he looked at him wrong. You believed that Connery's Bond was dangerous.
George Lazenby? Well, he could have been groomed for the role. But his head got too big too fast, and he was gone faster than he was on the scene.
Timothy Dalton never got a fair shake. He was the heir apparent before Moore...but the producers decided not to cast him because of his youth (bad move, since it doomed us to over a decade of Roger Moore smirking and ever-goofier movies). His two outings as Bond threatened to turn the franchise on its ear and bring us a gritty, realistic Bond.
Something went wrong and the series went right back to utter wackiness when Pierce Brosnan took over the tux. His movies (up until the utterly dreadful Die Another Day weren't BAD. But they just weren't right for the times, and they were getting way too ludicrous for theatrical audiences to believe. Never mind that JJ Abrams and crew were out-Bonding Bond's ancient ass twenty-four times a year on Alias... Or that Kiefer Sutherland reinvented the secret agent hero on 24...
Something needed to be done.

And they've finally gone and done it.
Casino Royale not only redefines the character of James Bond and reintroduces him to the viewing public, but it does it so damn well you'll wonder why they didn't do movies like this to begin with.
Gone are all the gadgets. The wristwatches with ray guns... The jet packs... The magical devices that were the only reason that Bond made it through the mission.
Now, Bond has to rely on his wits. Finally, we get a Bond who can accomplish a mission on his own. A smart Bond.
He's not always smart, though. From the very beginning (a stylish black and white intro that sees James earning his 00 status), we see that Bond has a problem with taking things too personally. Letting his ego get in the way of the job. He's ruthless, yes. But he miscalculates occasionally because he overestimates himself.

M (Judi Dench, the only returning actor from the previous outing) hates his guts. With good reason. He causes an international embarrassment of her department while on assignment. He breaks into her home and announces he's discovered her real name (then almost calls her it out of spite). He hacks into her computer and uses her access to get the information he needs.
When she finally catches up with him (after ANOTHER international incident, this time in America), she's so fed up with him that she implants a tracking chip in him so that she can keep track of his comings and goings.
The two of them have a lot of baggage between them already, and this is his FIRST ASSIGNMENT! Sure, M realizes Bond's intelligence and his willingness to get the job done, but she abhors his methods. Especially when they involve invading her personal space and computer accounts.

There's no threat to destroy the world this time out. There's no ridiculous spy organization. No grand supervillain who will reveal his plot to Bond by telling him all about it.
It was always convenient in the previous Bond formula to have other characters reveal all of the details of what was happening. No more.
Bond actually has to find things out for himself. He's a spy, after all. He investigates things. He tracks people. He uncovers information. And he kicks ass. When push comes to shove, this is a Bond who'll be shoving back. Hard.
The level of violence in this film is kicked up several notches from anything you've seen in the franchise before. The fights are fast, brutal and real. Bond gets just as good as he gives. At several points in this movie, Bond is either beaten down or near death. And he just keeps going. Because it's his job.

The most obvious villain this time out is Le Chiffre [literally French for "The Quantifyer" or "The Calculator"] (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who you might remember from King Arthur...or not). He's a banker for terrorists, dictators and insurgencies. He invests their ill-gotten gains and makes their funds available to them worldwide.
Bond screws things up for Le Chiffre, via is actions in Africa, the Bahamas and the US. So, when Le Chiffre invites a group of high rollers to the Casino Royale in Montenegro for a high stakes hold 'em game (Yeah, I know it's supposed to be Baccarat. But poker's hot now. And you five card draw lovers can suck it, too.), Bond gets sent. He's not only the best poker player in Her Majesty's secret service, he's already got a score to settle with the host.

Did I say "most obvious villain"? Hmm. Yes, I did. Because Le Chiffre really isn't the villain. Nor are the African terrorists whose $100 million he's just lost. Hell, I don't know if the final villain in the movie is the real villain. Because this movie's just not so black and white as everything you've seen before. There are layers to criminal enterprises, and there's always someone willing to fill the vacuum when one layer gets peeled away (something they actually illustrate in the film).

Vesper Lynd, an MI-6 accountant, is sent along to oversee Her Majesty's money. She's played by the uber-gorgeous Eva Green (The Dreamers, Kingdom of Heaven), which means that you don't need whiz bang gadgets and special effects any more. You can just stare at her. Vesper is every bit a match for Bond intellectually, summed up in their first meeting on the train to Montenegro. And she's just as emotionally guarded as him.
She's not prepared for the stakes they're playing for, though. And when confronted with the violence that follows James around, she breaks. Bond sees her fragility and doesn't see it as a weakness. And he drops his guard.
Bond's always been portrayed as rather cavalier with his affections. He'll bed pretty much any woman to get the information he needs. And then he'll just move on. They tried to change this in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but the experiment failed thanks to Lazenby.
Through the beginning of Casino Royale, Bond is even more rakish. He has a predilection for married women because of the danger involved. And he has zero guilt putting the fairer sex into harm's way if it means getting the job done.
That all changes with Vesper. Bond becomes emotional and vulnerable for the first time. And where it puts him at the end of the film is a great new beginning for this classic character.

Lots of fanboy whining was concentrated around the casting of Daniel Craig as Bond. Oddly enough, most of it was because he's blond. Why that matters, I have no idea. If it was THAT important, they could have just dyed his hair.
Simply put, Craig was the best actor for the part. If you haven't seen Road to Perdition, Layer Cake or Munich yet, get your ass to the video store. Not only does Craig have all the chops to act circles around his competition, he can channel pure machismo in a way unseen since Connery in his heyday. I actually came away from watching Layer Cake telling people, "If they don't cast this guy as the next Bond, they're fucking stupid."
Let me type this big enough for everyone in the cheap seats. DANIEL CRAIG MIGHT WELL BE THE BEST JAMES BOND YET.
Yeah. I went there. I don't believe that this is the best of the Bond films. But Craig certainly brings all manner of new (and welcome) depth to the role.

I haven't mentioned the writing yet. Nor have I mentioned how thoroughly I despise and detest the work of Paul Haggis. He's ruined the last part of Clint Eastwood's directing career (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers) and fooled the Oscars into thinking he was relevant (Crash). I didn't hate The Last Kiss earlier this year, though (I think mainly because of the actors involved) and now I out and out loved a movie he'd written the final pass on (the script is also credited to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who previously wrote The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day). Frankly, based on the writing staff alone, I should have avoided this movie like the plague.
Consider me pleasantly surprised by their efforts.
The humor in the film is largely referential of other Bond films and the tired conventions of the series. These guys seem to get it that certain things weren't working and needed to be changed. And it appears that they've changed it all for the better.

Martin Campbell's a competent workman director, and he manages to keep things not only moving at a breakneck pace, but coherent. He's no artist, but this isn't art. This is pulp entertainment at its best.

Casino Royale is not only a dramatic and welcome re-invention of my favorite super spy, it's a kick-ass film that stands on its own merits. It may not be the Bond I grew up with. It may not be exactly like the book. But I'm more than happy to announce to the world that Bond is back. The way he should be
Human. Flawed. Vulnerable. Ruthless. Efficient. Bond. James Bond.

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