Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: Casino Royale (2006)

Wow. Okay. I guess there's no point in pussy-footing (or Pussy-galoring...) around my point here. So I'm just going to say it.

Daniel Craig is the best James Bond 007 yet. And Casino Royale is in the top tier of Bond movies. Perhaps the very best film since From Russia with Love in the early 1960s. It might be the best Bond film yet.

There, I said it. Fire away!

Now, if you read this blog regularly, you've seen me fight the good fight against re-imaginations, pre-quels and re-boots. You've read as I've railed against MI:3, Battlestar Galactica and other new productions that I feel have betrayed the heritage of their respective franchises.

That's why I hope you'll trust me (and go see the movie...) when I write these words: Daniel Craig is the best James Bond yet. His portrayal doesn't betray the James Bond legacy. It restores it.

This praise is coming from a guy who saw his first Bond film in the theater thirty years ago, in 1976 (Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me). This is from a guy who holds all the Bond films close to his heart, and has watched them and analyzed them countless times over the years. In the past, my favorite Bond was - surprise, surprise - Sean Connery, with Timothy Dalton second, Roger Moore third, and Pierce Brosnan last.

Well, move over Sean. Meet Daniel. Or should I say Bond, James Bond...

I guess it was some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s when ABC began running all the Sean Connery movies on Friday nights. I was in my early teens, and while I was already familiar with Roger Moore, this was my first chance to meet the other Bonds (including George Lazenby). It was also at this time that seeing the films (like Dr. No and Goldfinger) inspired me to read all the original novels by Ian Fleming. I was hooked.

Suddenly, I had a context for Bond. I now understood why longtime Bond fans had a tough time with the inanities of - say - Moonraker (1979). Then, in 1987, Roger Moore left the film franchise and the far more lean-and-mean Timothy Dalton replaced him in The Living Daylights. He was closer to the Bond of the books than any actor yet, but the producers made a terrible mistake. They didn't change the formula. Meaning that the serious, wolf-like Dalton had to grit his teeth and deliver stupid one liners, or ride a cello down a hill during a chase scene, or suffer some other indignity.

The formula was altered to a degree for Dalton in Licence to Kill (a film I admire...), but the producers insisted on keeping everything else "the same," intact, even if the mission (one of vengeance) was different. This meant that Q, the Armorer was still around for easy laughs. This meant that Ms. Moneypenny had her designated five-minute cameo. This meant that Felix Leiter - nearly eaten by a shark - was recovering nicely by the end of the film. This meant that Bond was instantly forgiven for going rogue. This meant that as much as producers might have wanted to change the formula of the Bond pictures after twenty-five yers, they were - for some reason - unable to do it.

Well, now they have taken the plunge. And not a movie too soon either. Die Another Day, though undeniably profitable, must be the worst piece of trash in the Bond canon. It's the only Bond film I don't own. It is absolute garbage, filled with implausible CGI effects and saddled with the worst theme song in Bond history. James Bond, as played by Pierce Brosnan, is a big, blow-dried black hole sucking air out of the film. Even at his worst, Roger Moore at least evidenced a charm and grace; a sense that he was winking at the audience. For Your Eyes Only proved he could play the grittier side of Bond too. All Brosnan ever seemed capable of mustering was a furrowed brow and a seething kind of whisper. Worse, despite all the hotties thrown at him, I never felt that Brosnan's Bond was genuinely interested in sex (like Connery or Moore). For that matter, he didn't seem that interested in violence either (like Dalton or Lazenby...). He was just...dull. A walking model in a black tuxedo.

But Brosnan's Bond is dead and gone -- so no more criticism of the actor. Long live the new king, Daniel Craig. He boasts piercing eyes, an incredible physique, a beguiling vulnerability, and charisma to spare. He takes Casino Royale by the throat and makes the Bond franchise his own...to a degree that is startling. This is roughly like Christopher Reeve playing Superman for the first time back in 1978. We're witnessing history here folks; the beginning of a great ride. To their credit, the producers and writers have substantially changed the Bond formula too. At long last.

How have things changed? Well, with a kind of merciless glee the producers have burned out all the fat, all the kitsch, all the camp...all the insulting stupidity that dogged the franchise. They've brought Bond right back to his literary roots and this time, without fear or hedging their bets. This is back-to-basics Bond, meaning that it is the man - Bond himself - who is important, not which gadgets he happens to be carrying at a given moment. Ultimately, that's the reason why this is a re-imagination I can get behind without qualification. This is a Bond that Ian Fleming could have imagined...And I believe, would have appreciated. He's a hard-drinking, lonely guy. Someone who borders on being a thug. Someone who makes mistakes, miscalculates, but endures...And triumphs. James Bond is not a superman, and Casino Royale remembers that. The best moments in the film occur when Bond goofs up and must fix his errors. Arrogance is his big flaw, as Bond Girl Eva Green (as Vesper Lynd) points out to him. His desperation to be successful, to win - to beat Le Chiffre - actually makes him human, vulnerable. I don't know that any other Bond film boasts as powerful a narrative through-line as this.

For years now, maybe decades even, Bond movie plots have been the thinnest of skeins, a series of robust and spectacular action set-pieces between dialogue interludes. In the age of Octopussy (1983), it felt like the stunt double should have shared equal billing with Roger Moore. No more. Casino Royale depends not merely on action (though there is plenty), but character interaction and intrigue. It's a game of chess, or more accurately, Texas Hold 'Em Poker. Every character in the film is holding some card close to the vest...And, in some sense, bluffing about their hearts. How Bond navigates this game - and gets played himself - makes the film compelling and human in a way that feels practically revolutionary in a Bond film. Who knew a 007 movie, shorn of gadgets, the stock characters (Moneypenny, Q), and ludicrous stunts, could feel so vibrant, so real? And, back in the day (the 1960s), the Bond films also boasted a sort of sadism about them: rock 'em sock 'em fight scenes that were...personal. (Anyone remember the incredible fight in the tight train car in From Russia with Love? In the elevator in Diamonds are Forever?) It was fisticuffs over stunts, and Casino Royale remembers that tradition. So no, Bond doesn't hang onto a flying blimp in this film, or surf over a tidal wave, or drive an invisible car. But he gets into a really nasty battle with a machete-wielding psycho. And by god, is that blood I see on Bond's tuxedo?

Okay, okay. The movie is not perfect. I grant you that. Tell me which Bond film is? For instance, in Casino Royale isn't it handy that Bond's car comes equipped with a portable de-fibrillator, and Bond just happens to need that particular gadget on this mssion? And near the end of the film, it slows down dramatically and as viewers, we get ahead of the writers. The film includes one ending too many, which undercuts the power of the movie's last line. But as far as Bond films go, this is still in the top two or three. Out of twenty-something. In fact, there's no significant reason not to declare it the best Bond film ever, but heck, I've only seen it once and don't want to give over to irrational exuberance. And as far as heroic re-imaginations go, this beats Batman Begins and Superman Returns by a mile.

I'm sure there are fannish reasons to dislike Daniel Craig. Blond hair and blue eyes and all. But they are, indeed, fannish reasons. I'm sure there are also loyalty issues to dislike Daniel Craig. We gravitate to what we know; what makes us comfortable. We've all lived with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, even George Lazenby for a long time, and it's always tempting to say that what's new also sucks. Daniel Craig is not traditionally good-looking...but watch this guy in action and decide for yourself if he isn't EXACTLY what James Bond should be.

Maybe Sean Connery could have been the best Bond ever, had he once been granted the chance to play a character as human as Craig's Bond in a story as compelling as Casino Royale. But we'll never know...he skipped out for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That's the one script and one story that could have proven Connery's chops on the same level. My point: the new Bond is exactly what Bond should have always been, and wasn't. Ian Fleming's James Bond.

So now we have Daniel Craig as 007. He not only delivers a brilliant, smoldering performance in this film, he does the seemingly-impossible: He makes it difficult to imagine anyone ever following in his footsteps. That's the first time this has happened since...Sean Connery.

5 comments:

  1. It was a good movie - certainly alot better than the last 007 film wich was awful!

    Daniel craig did well in his first film as 007!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous12:24 PM

    I have not had the chance to see the movie yet. But thank you for giving a truly intelligent explanation on likes and dislikes. I'm so tired of talking to people who have seen the movie and getting the response of "it sucked" and when I ask why I get the answer of "Because (insert name of previous Bond actor) will all ways be the best/real Bond".

    Also I want to thank you as for me James Bond has always just been there I have really never given it much thought on how I was introduced to him then you mentioned the airings on ABC and a whole flood of memories came back out of some recess of my mind. So thank you for inadvertently giving me back a small piece of my childhood.

    ReplyDelete
  3. joey_bishop_jr2:56 PM

    Just as an aside...did you ever see Eddie Izzard's bit about Bond in Definite Article? It addresses the gadget issue very nicely...

    ReplyDelete
  4. RIck C.9:23 AM

    John,

    You hit this one right on the bull’s-eye. It is definitely the portrayal of Bond as “human” that makes this a very good film. Not only does Craig pull this human quality off, he also gives us an interesting peek into the inherent contradictions of masculinity itself. The way his ape-like presence in one scene is contrasted with fumbling vulnerability in the next, all while maintaining a sense of intelligent hyper-awareness, allows the viewers to get a clearer idea of what kind of person would be in this line of work. I agree, this Bond will be around for a while

    ReplyDelete
  5. John, you mean to tell me that Die Another Day was a worse movie than The World is Not Enough? For shame! However, I do agree that neither were any good. This was certainly the only good Bond film since GoldenEye and I think only Daniel Craig could have pulled it off. I liked Brosnan as Bond, but his last three films suffered from bad plots and bad writing. (As an aside, there were literally only two lines of dialogue in Casino Royale I cringed at - both being table-side explanations of the poker game). Brosnan's Bond was forced to spend too much time saving the entire world -- it's arguable that the best Bond films were only about saving a little piece of it. Le Chiffre isn't a criminal mastermind bent on global domination; he's just a financier for the wrong kind of people. He's just one example of how all the characters in the film were "human" as you described it, each with their own vulnerabilities. Along with the observations made about Bond himself, we see the all-powerful M asleep at home with her husband and the witty and intelligent Vesper Lynd curled up in the shower. We witness the most gritty primal form of torture rather than a grandiose display. The writers purposely removed the Bond caricature from the film and ultimately that's its greatest asset.

    ReplyDelete