Monday, November 28, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Casino Royale (2006)

(Directed by Martin Campbell)

007’s (Daniel Craig) first true mission began in Madagascar, when he and a contact were in pursuit of a bomb maker who presumably had considerable connections to a terrorist group. While this excursion did not conclude as planned, our newly promoted agent followed his nose (and the clues) to the Bahamas, where more seeds of a greater nefarious enterprise began to reveal themselves to Bond. Help from the wife (Caterina Murino) of one of the unnamed organization’s operators, Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) permitted 007 to prevent a significant attack on Miami International Airtport, an operation funded by another one of the terrorists associates, the mysterious Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who then needed to earn back his losses. He chose so by travelling to the Casino Royale in Montenegro and do one of the things he did so well, play cards, more specifically, Poker. It turned 007 himself was quite the card player as well, and one way to further investigate this strange new terrorist cell was by defeating Le Chiffre at the table and forcing him to turn. In addition to René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) from the Deuxième Bureau helping Bond on this delicate mission, there was a treasury representative, the beautiful but cold and strong minded Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). She was none too impressed with Bond at first, which certainly did not allow their partnership to start in very promising manner...

After the controversial 2002 Die Another Day, and as was the case in the early 80s after the 1979 over-the-top Moonraker, it was decided that James Bond would have a much more reality-based take for the foreseeable future.  Unlike in the early eighties when the same actor, Roger Moore, was part of the transition, this time things would be different, as DAD proved to be Pierce Brosnan’s curtain call. A rather disappointing way to go out, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. When EON finally acquired the rights to Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, it seemed like a no brainer as to what they should tackle next. Finally a proper, official cinematic rendition of that book when come to movie screens. This rebooting of the franchise was completed by hiring a new actor to fill the role of the world’s most famous secret agent, Englishmen Daniel Craig, who had made a name for himself mostly in the UK, although did come to the attention to some worldwide audiences in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It was time for Bond to actually enter the 21st century, complete with post 9-11 socio-political realities.

I remember seeing Casino Royale on opening weekend back in November of 2006. I don’t think me, my friends or many people in the room knew exactly what we were in for. 2 hours and 20 or so minutes later, we still not sure how exactly to praise the movie, but at the very least we knew the movie did deserve heaps of praise. It was like none of the other movies in the series and yet retained virtually all of the ingredients. Bond was still Bond, but he was different. The Bond girl was still a Bond girl, but she was different. Bond was captured yet again, but it was so much more intense. The Bond villain was there, but he felt more slimy and parasitic than ever before. It was an incredible experience to see this movie unfold for the first time. I have seen this movie a countless number of times and can readily admit to never growing tired of it.

It feels simple to argue that everything begins with the performance of Daniel Craig as James Bond, and for the most part it does. Without a good Bond, it’s hard to have a good movie, but there is so much more that happened behind the scenes for CR that saying Craig makes the movie would, I believe, be giving so many other talented people short change. For the purpose of the review, let us begin with the obvious and talk about Daniel Craig as 007 first. What is there left to be said that was not written in newspaper and online reviews back in 2006 and since? There are people who were not won over by his interpretation of the character, yes they exist, but seriously, I think I can count them on my ten fingers. Why is the performance so good? I think it has to do with two things, the more obvious one being that Craig, as an actor, has a very interesting screen presence. Blond, blue-eyed, healthy, he is what many consider to be a heartthrob. That being said, he rarely, rarely, plays anything resembling a goodie two shoes character. His characters are frequently complex, driven by both a light side and some darker inhibitions. Those hunky blue eyes? Their piercing gaze can look pretty darn scary at times. He has a serious, stone faced glare that looks especially tough. It is the mixture of good looks, some charm, but also borderline animalistic roaring underneath that make him so oddly compelling as an actor. One need only look at him for a minute or so and notice that he has the qualities of both a great stereotypical hero and brutish villain. Bringing that sort of quality to the role of Bond is unexpected and pays off ultimately.

The second thing that elevates Craig’s material is his handling of the material given to him, which is my way of saying that the screenwriters (Niel Purvis, Robert Wade and the oft-maligned Paul Hagis) deserve plenty of credit as well. The script has Bond behave as he did in the Fleming novels, something audiences had not witnessed since the early 60s, and even then it could be argued that Connery was only really Fleming’s Bond in the first two films before GF changed the game dramatically. Bond is not always a nice guy. He is the hero, that is true, and there are plenty of qualities about him which result in him deserving the title of ‘hero’, but he is an assassin. He infiltrates organizations, kills when it means survival, puts people around him in danger, strives on when associates and lovers die by the way side, etc. A hard drinker too, lest we forget. His ego is humungous as well, something Craig plays with brilliantly at times, especially in the scene when he tries to convince Vesper to fund him a second time following his early defeat to Le Chiffre at the Poker table. Not agreeing with him, which basically means she lacks confidence in his abilities, is like an attack. ‘You’re a bloody idiot!’ is his reply. Real smooth, James. Well, news flash for those who aren’t in the know, the original James Bond sometimes lacked class in substantial manner. He is a walking contradiction at times, a struggle between what we want Bond to be, what he is and his less then exemplary qualities. The CR 007 is, as a fan, utterly fascinating to watch. He is fully human. He is not perfect, even though he is damn, damn good.

I remember reading a very early review of CR, a few weeks before the film opened wide. It might have been at Ain’t It Cool, I don’t exactly recall unfortunately. The majority of the article has escaped me long ago, but one phrase stayed with me: Bond the destroyer. He is the weapon MI6 uses to screw up the enemies plans. We have seen Bond create havoc before, but rarely have we seen Bond behave so recklessly as he does in CR. That bulldozer moment during the free running chase is a perfect example. Is Bond paying attention to the construction workers on the site? Maybe, maybe not. I think the great quality of that moment is that there are clear enough shots indicating that Bond must surely know he is being wild to an almost insane degree but he is doing it anyway because, well, he has to catch the bad guy. That’s what matters, period.

That was a lot of time spent reviewing just one facet of this movie and I wouldn’t want to have people lose interest due to the sheer length of the current article, so let’s move on. Another essential ingredient, especially in the case of CR, is the leading lady Eva Green, who plays Vesper Lynd. I don’t think there has even been a Bond girl who could not only be the woman the protagonist eventually beds but also his foil in a sense. In fact, she really does become his foil in the end, ironically enough, so it all fits into place nicely. She reads through him straight from the get-go when they meet on the train ride to Montenegro, perfectly summarizing the man’s deficiencies, his weaknesses. This is much to the annoyance of Bond, but what, honestly, what can he say in return? She has completely dissected the chap’s ego problem. The exchange is one of the best written scenes in the entire franchise, dare I say the very best one. The acting involved is spot on as well. Green does indeed play the part with some sneer, but she never overdoes it. She keeps it real enough for the viewer not to be turned off by her or her character. Granted, it helps that Bond has behaved like an ego-maniac through much of the picture up until now, but the scene is still a testament to superb writing, acting and character development. I don’t think there is another scene in the film that gives Eva Green that same type of amazing shine, but she is nonetheless superb the rest of the way. One can easily see how these two can fall in love despite their differences. They are probably more similar than they are different when you think about it. She has a bit of an ego issue too and does not take ‘no’ for an answer very readily. Their blossoming bond is slow, deliberate, with some delightfully witty banter between the two courtesy of the script, and it all pays off handsomely in the end. Along with Diana Rigg, Green gives one of the best performances ever in the franchise.

So many of the other actors involved also give fantastic performances which feel right at home in world of James Bond. Mads Mikkelsen tops the list as the eerie Le Chiffre. I recall Fleming’s description of the character in the novel and it seemed as though he had what amounted to an unhealthy look, something the filmmakers pull off brilliantly. Mikkelsen slithers into the shoes of Le Chiffre like he was born to play the role. The actor excels in demonstrating a ruthless sort of intelligence. The man is intimidating, not for any physical prowess, but for the strength of his presence. Giancarlo Giannini brings wonderful flare and joie de vivre to Mathis. In the mould of Kerim Bey and Draco, he is a fun character to have around. Jeffrey Wright brings sense of cool to Felix Leiter that hasn’t been seen since Jack Lord played the role back in Dr. No.  Even tiny parts are given care and attention, like Jesper Christensen as the mysterious and sinister Mr. White who appears to be an important figure in this shrouded villainous organization, and Caterina Murino as Solange, the sexy, ill-fated wife of the man Bond is after in the Bahamas.

Martin Campbell returns after an 11 absence from the series to direct CR. This is the first time since the late 80s that the producers opt to have an alumni helm a Bond film and, as was the case back then and in the 60s, the results are great. Campbell’s familiarity with the territory and confident direction pays off handsomely. Quite frankly, Campbell is aces, no pun intended. Some complain about the picture’s pacing, a problem that has never bothered me at all. On the contrary, I absolutely love the pacing to Casino Royale. To tell the story of Bond’s first mission, a mission that should, in essence, reveal to the audience who Bond is and how he becomes the agent he is, it is perfectly fin to take some time. Let the story grow organically, let the characters breath. But Campbell direction does so much more than just that. The cinematography, the richness of the picture, the editing, the time spent on certain scenes, they all contribute to a movie experience which moves along at a leisurely pace. The viewer is given ample opportunity to appreciate everything in the movie, from the performances, to the set design, to the fabulous locations. There is no point in rushing things and hence Campbell does not. The little moments are given their setups and payoff but he never loses focus of the greater story at hand. In my opinion, CR is in the same category as OHMSS and TSWLM as one of the best looking and directed Bond films. It seems obvious to me that one director should helm 2 or 3 films in a row. It is understandable if a director does not want to be attached to a single franchise for an extended period of time, but some do, which brings to question as to why Broccoli and Wilson cannot find one. Do they not want one? I don’t know...

To cap things off, final congratulations should go to the three aforementioned screenwriters. To go back and totally reboot the franchise to show audiences how Bond becomes the double-0 we know and love, and pull off that coup with such brilliance in the midst of the prequel bonanza where many of the efforts feel hollow, is incredible. How does Bond become 007, in the literal and figurative sense: why is he the way he is with women, what has toughened him up, and, the most important question of all, how did he get the tuxedo?!?

CR completes the holy trinity of Bond films along with FRWL and OHMSS.

A, and nothing less.

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