Wednesday, October 10, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Casino Royale

Looking back over Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the tux, it’s clear that the franchise was on shaky ground in just his second outing, while ‘The World is Not Enough’ and ‘Die Another Day’ rammed the saga thoroughly into the doldrums. Something drastic was needed to get this back on course.

And here I needs must use a word I freakin’ hate: reboot.

‘Casino Royale’ takes the most drastic of all approaches in reinvigorating Bond. Not only does it give us a new actor in the role, not only does it have a pre-credits sequence that’s less than four minutes long and shot in black-and-motherhumping-white, not only do the opening credits feature not a single gyrating naked woman in silhouette … but ‘Casino Royale’ completely ignores the twenty films that proceed it, establishes a new timeline and gives us Bond at the start of his career. Just as ‘Casino Royale’ was Bond #1 in the order of the books, ‘Casino Royale’ wipes the slate clean and introduces itself as Bond #1 Version 2.0. If that makes any sense.

But director Martin Campbell (scoring two for two in the director’s chair – he was the driving force behind everything that worked about ‘GoldenEye’) and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis are smart enough not to try to reinvent the wheel. Thus, the film retains the fast cars, high stakes gambling, prickling Bond/M relationship and sumptuous lifestyle porn that are the hallmarks of any halfway decent 007 outing. And it jettisons the dead weight that had dragged the series down: there’s no Q (sound the Hallelujah Chorus – John Cleese was a fucking insult to the memory of Desmond Llewellyn), no Moneypenny (Samantha Bond had started to make the role her own, but the scripts were fast becoming an insult to the character), no ludicrous gadgets, no monologue-loving uber-villians with a world domination agenda, and best of all no stupid one-liners. The film is, to use a fairly obvious one-liner myself, a Royale without cheese.

With only one minor character, a Swiss banker, edging towards caricature, ‘Casino Royale’ is played dead straight. In the prologue, we see Bond (Daniel Craig) earning his Double-O status by undertaking two kills. The first is messy bit of business. The second sees him well on his way to becoming the mono-emotional assassin of Fleming’s novels: a “blunt instrument” as M (Judi Dench) puts it. We also see him, as his attempt to bankrupt accountant-to-terrorism Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) over the card table looks set to end in disaster, lose his cool. He makes rash decisions; becomes a victim of his own ego; almost fucks up the mission. Bond is challenged from all sides: by his unexpected romantic reawakening as spiky banter with treasury official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) thaws into genuine affection; by Vesper’s refusal to be impressed with his outwardly brash demeanour; by M’s outrage at his heavy-handed tactics (a brilliantly executed action scene ending with an embassy stand-off sees Bond provoke a diplomatic incident); and, finally, by his own emotions. For arguably the only time since ‘From Russia With Love’, what we have here is a thinking man’s Bond movie. And by God it’s all the better for treating its audience as adults.

Going into ‘Casino Royale’ knowing that it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book (or rather the middle third is: the first hour is entirely invented, ditto a Venice-set finale), it would have been understandable for aficionados to lay a small bet that the filmmaker’s wouldn’t go there with either the torture scene or the brutal final line (“the bitch is dead”). They’d have lost. Torture’s a big thing in Fleming’s novels: Bond takes a lot of pain, and usually in gratuitously extended sequences, in just about every book. The tendency is less evident in the films: there’s the “soften him up” moment from ‘Dr No’ and the keel-hauling scene in ‘For Your Eyes Only’, while Leiter gets ill-used in spectacularly gory fashion in ‘License to Kill’. ‘Casino Royale’ goes all the way with the patented Fleming nastiness, however, as a vengeful Le Chiffre, Bond at his mercy, goes to work in a manner guaranteed to induce wincing in anyone who owns a pair of testicles.

Misogyny is also a big thing in the Fleming bibliography, and indeed the film gives us a harsh delivery of a harsh line; it also throws in, as the inestimable Tim of Antagony & Ecstasy would describe in his own Bond marathon, the secondary Bond girl who ends up end – here the gorgeous but luckless Solange (Caterina Murino), dispatched offscreen by the bad mo’fo’s Le Chiffre is finagling funds for after Bond casually dallies with her then disappears in pursuit of bigger fish. However, the world of 2006 into which the film erupted was a different place, with different attitudes, to the world of 1953 into which the novel crept out (the Bond novels, it should be noted, were by no means an immediate success), and Campbell’s redresses the balance in a manner that ‘GoldenEye’ tried to but never quite succeeded in.

This is a good place to give Dame Judi Dench some serious kudos. She’d already made the role her own (no disrespect to Bernard Lee, but I rather think her M will be remembered as the definitive), but here the character’s importance is expanded and deepened. M’s relationship with Bond – a springboard for terse, almost argumentative scenes in the Brosnan films – actually gets explored here. There’s even room for some wintry humour. After causing chaos at the embassy, Bond visits M’s apartment. Without, one hastens to add, an invitation.

M: How the hell did you find out where I live?
Bond: The same way I found out your name. I always thought M was a randomly assigned initial. I had no idea it stood for –
M: Utter one more syllable and I’ll have you killed.

Speaking of humour, ‘Casino Royale’ acknowledges its imperative as an origin story by establishing how Bond took ownership of his Aston Martin (a card game, would you believe it?) and having him give a waiter specific instructions as to how he likes his vodka martinis, not in an attempt at sophistication, but as a stalling tactic at the card table when things are starting to not go his way. Later, ordering another after it looks like he’s ballsed things up good and proper, he responds to the barman’s “Shaken or stirred?” with a waspish “Does it look like I give a damn?”

Kudos, also, to Eva Green, a glamorous and talented actress playing a Bond girl who’s essential to the narrative and with whom Bond has a genuine and plausible chemistry. She’s not a sex object, not a damsel in distress, and quite definitely not a bimbo. Her scenes have depth and her performance is nicely pitched. Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wright easily slips on the laconic persona of Felix Leiter; Mikkelsen is gimlet-like and sinister as Le Chiffre without ever becoming a cipher; Ivana Milicevic ramps up the glamour quotient as Le Chiffre’s much put-upon girlfriend Valenka; and Giancarlo Giannini (best known for playing beleaguered cops in ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ and ‘Hannibal’) is wry and likeable as Bond’s ally (or is he?) Rene Mathis.

And then we have Daniel Craig. When his casting was first announced, the internet was awash with outcry. “The death of 007”, one dissenter posted. “The name’s Bland – James Bland”, whimpered the Daily Mail. A website called was launched – inexplicably it’s still online, though I guess it’s not getting many hits these days. In short, Craig was not a popular choice.

Then the film came out. And a fuckload of people tucked in their napkins, broke out the condiments and ate their words.

If the blunt, hard-hitting pre-credits business didn’t establish him as the new Bond effectively enough, the film then delivers a full-throttle and often vertiginous free-running scene culminating in the aforementioned embassy impasse. It’s nine minutes of jolting, exhilarating action, showcasing Craig as a resourceful, athletic and frankly downright ruthless incarnation of Bond. If the first 15 minutes of ‘Casino Royale’ don’t make you nod, raise a vodka martini to the screen and happily admit “yup, Daniel Craig is James Bond”, then there’s probably no hope for you.

This brings me to another canny thing about ‘Casino Royale’. It delivers several barnstorming action/chase scenes in its first hour, establishing a contemporary narrative around terrorism and corrupt financial shenanigans in order to bring Fleming’s original story into the modern world, then has the unruffled self-confidence to stage a huge chunk of its running time around a bunch of people sitting around a card table and a man and a woman gradually falling for each other. Campbell proves himself a smart enough director to know that the pounding intensity of Act One is enough to present Craig as Bond fully formed – and the amazing thing about his performance is how economically and immediately he settles upon a characterization of 007 – after which the audience’s investment in the character is a guarantee of their continued interest through a long running time (two hours twenty minutes), entire swathes of which are devoid of conventional action movie tropes.

As I said before, a 007 movie for adults. And, in my personal pantheon of all things Bondian, second only to ‘From Russia With Love’ as the outright best of ’em.

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