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  1. James Bond Has Returned

    Warning: This review contains spoilers.

    Is there any more deceptively powerful cinematic phrase than ‘James Bond will return’? Blair PettisWhile it’s unlikely that they are repeated much outside of fan message boards, I have the sense that these words hold a great, and possibly unperceived power. People want it affirmed that the filmmakers are indeed going to keep making these films. Heroes are valued, and it’s comforting to know they’ll be back to fight another day. Belated thanks, then, to Cubby Broccoli or Harry Saltzman or David Picker or whoever it was that came up with the conceit that the end credit roll of each Bond film would culminate by reminding us that ‘James Bond will return in Goldenpussy’, or what have you.

    So. We dearly like our Bond, and we’ve become accustomed to having him drop by to honour us with some dazzling derring-do every few years. It’s a phenomenon somewhere between Christmas and the Olympics on the regular-dose-of-traditional-goodness-to-warm-our-hearts-and-fortify-our-souls scale of things. Which makes for a win-win, right? They get our money, and we get our heroic (Homeric?) tales. Everyone’s happy. But sometimes, especially when there’s been a wee extra bit of a break between films, and particularly when a new actor is taking on the role of agent 007, there is a widespread, largely unspoken apprehension. Two large questions loom: 1) will James Bond remain suitably cool and…er…Bondian?; and 2) will the film have the requisite trademarks—the sparkle, the panache, the loin-stirring affaires de sexe, the adrenaline-charged action, and that hint of the bizarre? We look pleadingly to the production team to provide the latter, and to the lead actor to possess the former. Fingers are crossed even as brave statements are made. We wait – an international vigil.

    In Casino Royale, the filmmakers have provided. And star Daniel Craig possesses. The film is a triumph.

    Graphic: CardsIn assessing Casino Royale, the only place to begin is with Daniel Craig. He is the gravitational force around which all the other components revolve. Craig’s Bond is strong. Blunt. He has what we like to call ‘presence’. You cannot, in fact, take your eyes off him. You don’t want to. And you don’t feel the slightest bit self-conscious for not wanting to. He is intriguing. Surpassingly charismatic. Magnetic. He is, by God (and thank God!), perfect for the role. I had been prepared to be somewhat offput by the brutishness of Craig’s Bond. I was not. After all the brouhaha the past year about blond hair and whatnot, it is now very much confirmed that all the nay-saying and hand wringing was misguided and unnecessary. James Bond has returned. There is a verisimilitude to the character that reigns from the opening frames of Casino Royale to its denouement. Craig has found the essential Bondian chords within himself and played them to near perfection. The man is James Bond.

    We sense this as soon as we witness Bond’s prickly irritation with the incompetence of his co-agent in a Madagascan snake pit. And it is confirmed during the subsequent pursuit of an enemy agent through a suitably pitfall-ish construction site nearby. This sequence brilliantly establishes Craig’s Bond as both a quintessential action hero and a believable human being. There is a level of suspense in these scenes that the Bond series has never before effected. Much of the credit for that goes to Craig. But full marks are due also to director Martin Campbell, who has masterfully managed the Herculean task of blocking, staging and managing the many action set-pieces in Casino Royale. The Madagascar chase, as well as a later chase extravaganza at the Miami airport, show Campbell, DP Phil Meheux and Editor Stuart Baird in perfect symbiosis. This is some of the very best action the genre has ever seen. There are many smaller confrontational set-to’s throughout the film which are handled with similar brilliance.

    Here’s the thing. Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have made a departure. They have decided, with Casino Royale, to take an entirely new approach to the making of a James Bond film. In effect, they (along with Campbell) have established a new tone. In relation to what we’ve seen previously, the new film is a few shades darker, edgier, with a complete absence of camp. All of which serves to infuse a bold new energy into every scene. The result is that the film feels fresh and powerful in a way that a Bond film has not felt since the 1960s. The irony of most of the previous twenty Bond films is that, for all their breakneck action sequences, they are really quite leisurely affairs. Casino Royale is different. It moves.

    One measure of a great movie is how lost one becomes in the proceedings—the more fun you’re having, the less conscious you are of the fact that you are actually watching a movie. For the first 7/8 of Casino Royale I experienced total immersion. Unfortunately, the Venice finale jarred me out of my fantasy. I experienced the familiar trappings of ‘the Hollywood action movie’. Events seemed staged, tacked-on and rather superfluous. In attempting to be faithful to Ian Fleming’s rather downbeat original story, and provide a slam-bang bravura climax, the filmmakers lost their way a bit. I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is, but something in the last Act’s execution has rendered it far less potent than the rest of the film. More on this in a minute.

    Eva Green co-stars as leading lady, Vesper Lynd, overseer of great gobs of British Government funds. Green’s portrayal is really quite marvelous. Not since Diana Rigg have we been treated to a Bond Girl with such developed acting chops. From the moment we meet her, Vesper radiates a palpably dangerous energy. We are intrigued, beguiled, curious. All the scenes in which she and Bond are even the slightest bit adversarial with one another are some of the best in the film. It is only when this friction has apparently dissipated that things begin to fall a little flat. I found myself unconvinced of the love affair between Vesper and Bond. Which brings us back to the film’s last act. It’s difficult to buy into Bond’s feelings of love for Vesper, because she doesn’t ever appear loveable. Intriguing, yes. Beautiful and sexy, for sure. We see Bond courting her, and she resisting. We see Bond felled, and she there to pick him up and nurse him back to health. We see them shagging gratuitously in enviably romantic settings. But Bond’s proclamation that he is stripped bare in her presence, due to her presence, seems to come from another film entirely. Where and how did the adrenalised blunt instrument of the first four Acts melt into a smitten loverboy? In Fleming’s novel, the reader understands, if warily, Bond’s slow descent into loving the bird with the wing down. Graphic: CardsIn this film, Vesper has very few moments in which any vulnerability is apparent. There is a very good scene when Bond comforts her in a shower following a bloody battle. But the Vesper of that scene seemed incongruous to the Vesper of the rest of the film—the Vesper who is always poised and in control. All in all, Bond’s love for her seems to derive from having gone through a tough battle together, and spending a lot of quality time in bed. I realize that in real life, there may indeed be a great many loves founded on just such matters, but to me, in this film, it seemed unconvincing. Particularly since the rest of the film leaves very little room for doubts of any kind. Perhaps I harp too much on this point. But it is precisely because Green and Craig are so good, that I hold the Bond/Vesper relationship to such a high standard. My heart was wanting Casablanca, but my brain was telling me that wasn’t what I was getting. Fortunately, because the rest is so good, the failure of the Bond/Vesper relationship to fully gel does not ruin the film. In fact, it is of surprisingly little consequence in the overall experience of this film that hits so many right notes so often.

    One of those sweet notes comes in the form of Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Le Chiffre, ‘financier to the world’s terrorists’ (even if that’s not the precisely correct line, I can hear Dame Judi Dench’s M saying it in my head right now). Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre is a wonderful character, and he, along with Bond and Vesper, is the third piece in the triangular core of the film. I am not afraid to place him among the very best cinematic Bond villains. While not in the bigger-than-life mold of Auric Goldfinger or Hugo Drax, he nonetheless projects an essential energy into the film. He also provides a bit of that element of the bizarre we all want to see in a Bond film. Personally, it was not so much the ocular bleeding or the inhaler, but rather the smirky glint in his eye, the overly sporty lapels on his tuxedo and the wonderful way he pronounces ‘perspire’ that I found deliciously strange. Le Chiffre does not inspire in us a fear of world domination, or even, really, of the death of Bond. But we are afraid he’ll hurt him, or perhaps worse, show him up. Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre has charisma in the same range as Craig’s Bond. When he is onscreen, he yields very few, if any, power points to Craig’s Bond. Their interaction at the Casino Royale is splendid stuff, full of delicious Bond/Villain exchanges that rank with the best in the series’ history. The culmination of their relationship is, of course the infamous torture scene. It is presented with suitable brutality, and is very well-acted. Nonetheless, and a bit surprisingly, it did not move me to the extent I had anticipated. I found myself thinking Bond should have been considerably more battered (I’m really not a sadist!). And Bond’s defiant sarcasm, in the face of emasculation, seemed less effective than Fleming’s original line in which Bond simply tells Le Chiffre to go F—— himself. [I’m nitpicking here, for sure, for this Bond/Le Chiffre business has all been truly great stuff.] And then, sadly, when Le Chiffre leaves the film, the effect is a great escape of air from the balloon. With him gone, we have only a vague, unseen menace to worry over for the balance of the running time. Sometimes that kind of thing can make for a very powerful experience. Not so, here. We may not realize it as it is happening, but the loss of Le Chiffre deprives the finale of a good deal of the intensity and urgency that, up until then, has made the film so engagingly fun.

    Much of that fun comes from the card game that is the film’s centerpiece. Fleming was a master at rendering suspenseful card games in his books, and Martin Campbell has done him a great honour by directing a riveting 150 million dollar poker game that is the central element of the film. There could, perhaps, have been an effort to achieve more clarity in regards to the poker elements, so that the uninitiated would more easily understand the developments of the game. But I actually find that a bit of vagueness contributes to the suspense of sequences like this one. In any event, the casino scenes provide the glamour we’ve all come to appreciate in a Bond film, and they also provide some real tension, which is woefully lacking from many films in the canon. The marathon nature of the game was especially interesting, in that it allowed for several key action segments during breaks from the game.

    In addition to establishing a molten core that powers the film, the filmmakers have taken care to do right by some of the more secondary components of The Bond Film™. Graphic: CardsFor example, we get a bona fide sacrificial lamb, a Bond tradition that has been rather underused for a good many years. Caterina Murino’s Solange is a convincingly troubled and sympathetic character who provides an exciting interlude for our hero. She is also a stunning beauty in the best tradition of Euro-Bond-Babes. When she is killed, we mourn her loss.

    The locations are fantastic. Travelogue is back! The train sequence harkens back to From Russia with Love, the shop-lined streets of Montenegro remind of Murren in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and of course the Bahamas conjure up fond memories of Thunderball. All the locations are beautiful, and convincingly authentic. Although, Venice has never looked so sparkling clean, ironically to the grand city’s detriment.

    On the other side of the scoring card, the much-talked-about pre-titles sequence, shot in monochrome black and white, is curiously underwhelming. It’s not that it’s not well done. The writing is crisp, the performances good, and the camera work is excellent (in particular, a grainy close-up of Craig after he’s just disposed of a baddie in a loo). But the adrenaline that powers the rest of the film seems unaccountably lacking here.

    The titles themselves were diverting. I don’t think Daniel Kleinman was pushing the limits of his potential here, but sometimes simple is good. Suffice to say, they work well with Chris Cornell’s energetic title song.

    Other minor quibbles: the brilliant Jeffrey Wright is woefully underused as Felix Leiter; the Aston Martin DB5 seems to serve little purpose other than product placement for Corgi; CraigBond recovers awfully fast from that near fatal poisoning…OK, I’ll stop. Once a fanboy, always a…

    Much has been made of the fact that the film does not feature Miss Moneypenny or Q. I personally didn’t miss them much at all. But, assuming the traditional camp nature of the characters was removed, they could have easily taken the place of a couple of the other supporting characters from Mi6 and the film’s tone and story would have been completely unaffected. One wonders, then, at their highly publicised absence.

    One wonders, too, at the much-ballyhooed ‘Bond Begins’ mantra that has been so prominent in the marketing of the film. This is not an origin story. It is not even really a reboot. There are a very few token allusions to the fact that Bond is newly a 00, but surely the Bond we see barking orders in the snake pit in Madagascar is not some tender newbie. Bond is harder, and at least as cynical throughout this film, than he has been in any of his other cinematic adventures. Either the ‘Bond Begins’ angle was primarily a marketing component, or it was all but neglected in the actual final construction of the story. The fact is, this reboot angle is wholly unrelated to the film’s strengths. Casino Royale succeeds due to the performances of its leads, the first-rate direction, and the story’s adherence to a significant chunk of Fleming’s original plot—all of which contribute to the urgent energy that pervades most of the film.

    That it succeeds so completely is a surprise to many of us in Bond fandom, and to cinemagoers in general. We have come to expect a level of compromise from the films in the series. Casino Royale is, if anything, uncompromising. We see Bond get his balls beat to hell. We hear him explain that ‘the bitch is dead.’ We see him sweat, bleed, laugh, cry, and kill remorselessly. None of which is mitigated by any fun-for-the-kiddies antics, or rote exercises in traditional Bond movie elements (No Q branch silliness or dick jokes here). For anyone who has spent the past four years quietly wondering whether James Bond really was going to return—and if he did, would he still be cool? Would his world still enthrall? The answer is here, loud and clear. Bond is back. And he kicks ass.

    Casino Royale Rating:4 Stars out of Five

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    The CBn Team @ 2006-11-21
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