Saturday, November 15, 2008

James Bond review: Casino Royale (2006)

(I'm not going to be posting my Bond reviews in any kind of order.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Daniel Craig is not James Bond. Yet.

BOND, JAMES BOND: After four straight installments in which Bond was, as in the 1960s, the Aston-Martin of action films, the martini of spy flicks, we’re back to the 1970s, when 007 was imitating rather than imitated. This is a nod to Batman Begins, “rebooting” the franchise by telling the character’s origin story, with a younger actor who will hopefully bring in the kids. It’s a nice idea in theory, but it means that Daniel Craig spends most of the film actively not being Bondian—it’s only in the last scene, when he shoots Mr. White in the leg and the Monty Norman theme finally kicks in, that we’re meant to think, that guy’s James Bond!

So we have the odd experience of having to wait through two hours of a Bond film for Bond to finally make his appearance. As I say, it’s not a bad idea in theory—by all means, give us his back story, give us personal details, give us a human Bond—but give us Bond. This movie works (mostly) as a movie, but fails (mostly) as an iteration of the Myth of James Bond. And that’s what you go to see a Bond movie for, isn’t it?

No doubt it’s unfair to complain that Daniel Craig isn’t a very good Bond—he’s not supposed to be. This film is full of nods to the classic Bond persona—the way he discovers how he likes his martinis, for example, or how to dress for dinner—so it’s a cinch that the next film will try to give us more Bond as we know and love him. And that’ll be the appropriate time to judge whether or not Craig stands up. But hell, I’ll complain anyway: he’s not Bond. More to the point, I didn’t see much in this film to convince me that Craig can be Bond. I’ll admit, I was one of those who thought he was miscast from the start. I was rooting for Clive Owen, if they absolutely weren’t going to keep Brosnan. Nevertheless, I tried to go into this with an open mind, and I still came out of it feeling he was miscast. Craig is a fine actor, maybe the best to play Bond, but he’s simply wrong for the part. He’s gritty where Bond should be clean, awkward where Bond should be suave, blonde where Bond should be black-haired. He’s musclebound. As Bond he spends too much time in this film in chinos, not enough in tuxedos. And he plays poker. And he leaves the girl before he’s had her (see below).

He’s just what the producers were looking for, evidently; evidently they don’t understand Bond anymore.

VILLAIN AND VILLAINY: Le Chiffre is the main opponent, but we don’t really find this out until halfway through, and even then, we’re constantly being reminded that he’s just a middleman. It’s only at the end that we start to come into contact with some of the shadowy people who are the real bad guys. This is a big departure for the series, showing Bond engaging in some more or less plausible espionage - garden-variety terrorists, not Napoleonic madmen. This is what I always thought I wanted in a Bond—but now that we have it I’m not so sure that I like it. It’s probably a nod to the Bourne movies, but those work because their spies are supposed to be faceless characters in a faceless world. Real-life espionage is the work of bureaucrats, even the shooting. That aesthetic doesn’t transplant well into the Bond universe. This film doesn't work nearly as hard as the Bournes do to make the spywork believable—we’re still clearly in the realm of spy fantasy—and so maybe we need larger-than-life villains, after all.

All of which is by way of saying that le Chiffre is fun, but he doesn’t cast a particularly long shadow. No memorable evil henchmen, either. As unBondian as Bond is here, he’s still more colorful than le Chiffre, and that throws the myth out of whack. Bond needs a worthy opponent.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Only two Bond girls here, Caterina Murino as Solange and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. Both are extremely forgettable. This has got to be the worst lot of Bond girls yet. Murino spends most of her scenes wrapped in this ludicrous dress, and then Bond leaves her arms to chase a bad guy—before they have sex. Green, meanwhile, has a silly overbite and a strange accent—she’s French but her speech ranges wildly between Irish and Cockney and…is that Russian? Who knows. She’s supposed to be a serious romantic involvement for Bond—if we’re meant to think of any earlier film here it’s OHMSS—but Eva Green looks like a scrawny schoolgirl next to Diana Rigg.

But let’s get back to that bit about Bond interrupting coitus to do his job. What, we are forced to ask, is with that? He does eventually get some, with Vesper—but that’s only after he’s fallen in love with her. Which means that there is no gratuitous sex in this film.

Need I say more?

AND VIOLENCE: Now, the action sequences, on the other hand, really work. Instead of finding new vehicles for Bond to trash, they have him on foot for most of the movie (well, they compromise and put him in a bulldozer for a few seconds). Lots of brilliantly choreographed running and jumping, fantastic stunts on an unfinished skyscraper in Madagascar. A fight on a staircase that’s probably the best fisticuffs the series has seen since the elevator fight in Diamonds Are Forever.


But, worst of both worlds, that doesn’t mean they lose the silly gadgets. Just that they try to be utterly serious about them. They give him a portable defibrillator that—surprise, surprise—turns out to be just what Bond needs. If we’re going to have cheese like that, why can’t we have John Cleese to give it to us?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Decent selection of locations. Madagascar is a first; the Bahamas isn’t. Montenegro is a first; Venice isn’t. The emphasis isn’t really on the scenery, though. Meaning none of the locales, with the exception of Montenegro for the casino sequence, are really used for much effect.

ETC.: Chris Cornell’s title song is pleasant but not very memorable. Not as stylish as it needs to be. And the choice of him as a singer is kind of out-of-touch (“Hey, let’s get somebody really young and cutting-edge for the theme song—I know, how about a grunge singer!”). The title sequence is fantastic, though—one of the best in the series, a very modish animation… I try not to compare the films to the books, but I have to note that they changed the baccarat to poker, which kind of sums up what’s wrong with this version of Bond… Not only did they lose Q, they lost Moneypenny, not to mention a few minor characters that had made recurring appearances in the Brosnan Bonds. On the other hand, they brought back Felix Leiter. On the third hand, that just makes me miss Jack Lord. …While I’m still open to the possibility that the next Bond will redeem this one, on its own terms Casino Royale is hardly a Bond at all. But it was still better than License to Kill.


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