I finally saw Casino Royale last night with the lovely Anna. I could probably be categorized as a little more than a casual 007 fan, although certainly no where near “Trekkie” level (sorry… TrekkER). Still I am a fan of the movie series and was greatly looking forward to seeing the new film.
The problem with seeing a movie like this one so late after it’s opening is that the hype and word of mouth can be hard to live up to. I had heard nothing but good things about this film… “Best Bond in decades, maybe ever!”, “Daniel Craig is the best Bond since Sean Connery!”, etc. etc. Those are some bold statements. I was afraid there was no way this film could live up to it.
It did… in spades (pun intended).
From the opening scene it was clear that director Martin Campbell and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis understood Bond as no creative team has in some time. I had heard some disturbing things about how this Bond was a “blunt instrument” and much more the killer than the smart spy, and I was afraid many of the things that have become Bond trademarks would be not just ignored but eschewed entirely in favor of a violent and pissed off killing machine devoid of the charm that Connery infused into the character in Dr. No, and regrettably became a series of punch lines and comic relief in later films. Oh, ye of little faith. Not only do they manage to keep Bond’s charisma and charm intact, but they remove it from the realm of the ridiculous and place it into the land of the believable. At the same time they indeed turn him into the first Bond since Connery who is truly a man to be physically feared, one you actually think is a hair trigger away from killing somebody. They even play tribute to the traditional Bond trademarks, both the cool and ridiculous ones, with some clever references and scenes.
This film is an adaptation of the first of Ian Fleming‘s Bond novels, essentially the origin story. MI6 agent James Bond earns his 00 status in the first scene of the film, which encompasses a quiet confrontation with a corrupt MI6 official interspersed with a flashback to the ultra-violent killing of the official’s accomplice in a transit station bathroom. The fight scene represents Bond’s first official licensed kill, and the corrupt official is to be the second required to achieve 00 status. The stark difference between the physical Bond who violently kills the accomplice and the smoldering Bond who calmly confronts the corrupt official sets the stage for the films’ depiction of Bond himself… the brutal assassin who lurks under a thin veneer of civility and sophistication. The audience spends the rest of the film understanding that veneer is paper thin, and can tear away at any time. What has been missing from Bond for all these years since Connery’s earlier films is the feeling that the real Bond is the violent one and the civility the mask, rather than the other way around as actors like Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan played the character. Here Bond is the killer first, and the charm and polish the act.
Craig as Bond is the lynchpin that makes this all work. By the end of that first scene I forgot entirely that Craig is short, blond and far from the traditional Bond type. I would venture to say that he is even better than Connery was, investing the kind of physical power to the role that even Sean couldn’t match. In all fairness, some of that has to be credited to 21st century filmmaking techniques compared to those of 44 years ago, but let’s face it… if I had to take on Craig’s Bond or a young Connery’s Bond, I’d take my chances with Connery. Craig invests Bond not only with a dynamic physical presence, but with a sense of gritty vulnerability that only adds to his toughness. This Bond sweats, bleeds and bruises. This Bond gets poisoned. This Bond gets duped. The old Bond never sips that poisoned martini, but rather sniffs it and instantly detects the trap. This one is perhaps a little inexperienced as a new 00, but I hope that this more believable vulnerability is more the rule in the next few films. I think having Bond not being one step ahead at all times makes him all the tougher and adds tension to the story. You know he’s going to win, but the bad guys seem badder for it, and Bond seems the more believable (insofar as he can be believable, at any rate). Craig also seethes on a slow burn all thorough the film, carrying on the thinly veiled killer idea we were assaulted with at the beginning of the film. Connery’s Bond had some of that hidden menace early, but later he turned the role into a series of one-liners… clearly no longer having his heart in the part. George Lazenby was seriously underrated in his one film as Bond. He also has a little menace to him, albeit the undercover role he had to portray in the film was a difficult thing to overcome. Moore was never much more than a clown (literally, in Octopussy) and never had an ounce of threat about him. Timothy Dalton tried to be tough, but was saddled with awful scripts and boring plots, and his Bond had no depth. Brosnan was the best since Connery with his cool demeanor and not-quite-too-much suave sophistication, but he also never really exuded any serious menace or imposing physicality. Craig is the complete package. He’s a perfect Bond, and that’s saying a lot.
The action scenes in the film, are fast and furious. The foot chase thorough the construction site to the embassy is taunt and full of white-knuckle moments. It could have easily descended into the kind of over-the-top silliness of many Bond chases (I momentarily saw Moore/Brosnan adjusting his bow tie behind the wheel of the huge front-loader.. I almost spit out my popcorn) have suffered from the last 30 years. It was plenty over the top, but never relies on Flying Tiger Hidden Dragon wire work, instead tapping into the current craze of Parkour (all that jumping around up buildings and around obstacles). Hence even though the stunts are unbelievable to see, they are still believable to the laws to physics. That makes all the difference. Other chases and fight scenes are similarly grounded in the kind of sweaty, grunting, elbows, knees and forearm’s realism that today’s better action films have embraced over the slick kung fu kicks of yesteryear. Again, Bond shows some vulnerability even though he is thoroughly kicking ass, which only adds meat to his ass kicking. The torture scene was also an example of defining his take on Bond. Unlike the torture scenes with Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, this one makes you cringe (guys especially) and once again Bond reacts not with superhuman invulnerability but with very human toughness even in the face of what we know will be eventual failure if allowed to continue.
As for the romance, this is supposed to be the story where we learn why Bond has such contempt for women. He fell in love and was betrayed by Vesper Lynd (hauntingly played by Eva Green). Craig’s acting chops are on show here… even if the chemistry between the two never really seems to catch on. It’s a time honored tradition in Bond films for Bond to end up caring for the girl and ending up with her by the end of the film, but with the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service he never falls in love with her. It’s implied, but Bond is always a little too glib at it and, of course, she’s gone by the next film. They have always walked the fence between his falling in love and being a womanizer. In the books, Bond has an obvious disdain of women that never translated to the screen. The romance in Casino Royale is genuine and ill-fated in the end, and it is part of the drive of the film’s success. I wonder if future Bond films will return to the “almost falls for her but not all the way” formula, or if they will make Bond a true bastard toward women and have him use them and discard them. I kind of hope for a little of both. Bond has always had a chivalrous streak and can find a way to care for the girl, but another love ’em and lose ’em romantic angle would be too predictable.
As a long time Bond fan, I have to give some credit to Campbell and Co. for the nods and sly references to the traditions of the film character. Whether they are just tributes to the old films (who didn’t love to see the 2006 Bond behind the wheel of a classic 1964 Aston Martin DB5, in honor of the first Bond super car from Goldfinger/Thunderball), twists on Bond-isms (bartender: “Shaken or stirred?”, Bond: “Do I look like I give a damn?”), or inside jokes about the absurdities of some Bond staples (in the car in Montenegro, Bond informs Vesper her cover name for the job is something “Broadchester”… a sly dig at the many stupid names of the femme fatales of Bond history like Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead and Xenia Onnatop), the references are pure fun for Bond fans and show a respect for the past by the filmmakers. The inclusion of the famous gun barrel opening and traditional Bond opening graphics/music is another good update of a welcome tradition. Overall Campbell chooses well as to what Bond staples belong, which needed just a nod and which needed acknowledgment but axing in a clever way. No easy task.
The icing on the cake is the final scene, when Campbell introduces the finished product. “Bond… James Bond” says a cool Craig after blowing the kneecap off the man who set him up using Vesper as his pawn and discarding her. Even here we see Bond as we know him but with an edge… shooting a man from cover in a very painful way, with the obvious final resolution unshown when the credits roll. Here again is the menacing Bond… the killer with a now hardened heart. Cue the John Barry music… the first we’ve heard it in the film. I don’t think I even noticed it’s absence. The film was 144 minutes long and I was sorry to see it end.
Bond is back, and better than ever.
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