Monday, December 3, 2012

Casino Royale

In 1999, MGM studios, which has owned the Bond film rights since they bought United Artists back in 1981, acquired the rights to film the novel Casino Royale from Sony (according to wikipedia, the acquisition involved the rights to make a Spider-Man film going back in the other direction, from MGM to Sony, which involved Sony receiving the James Cameron script treatment that eventually turned into the Sam Raimi movie in 2002).  Casino Royale was the big hole in the Bond film canon, the one full-length novel (and Bond's debut to boot) that Eon films had never been able to make a film of.  Things worked out very nicely for MGM in these regards - when Pierce Brosnan walked away (or was forced out, who knows with Bond) after his 4 film deal expired, MGM had the opportunity to recast the part, and reboot the franchise, with the first Bond novel ever written.

Daniel Craig was an inspired choice to play Bond.  He was not a big star at the time - the odds, if there were a such thing, were on Clive Owen, who had a much bigger profile and had already done a bit of a Bond dry-run in Croupier.  Craig has a physical immediacy that none of the other actors who has played the role possesses; you never have any difficulty believing that he could lapse into brutal violence at any moment.  Connery could be brutal, to be sure, but he wasn't physical in the way that Craig is (and his last couple of films, featuring extremely lazy performances, sucked a lot of the edge from the character.)

So it's within this context, with the perfect Bond actor situated in the perfect Bond story, that I have to confess that I was ever so slightly disappointed with Casino Royale on what was my third viewing of the film.    It'll land pretty comfortably in my top five all time, to be sure, but I had placed it as A#1 with a bullet in my mind, and it didn't quite get to that level.  I identified three problems with the film that stuck with me, one minor, one medium and one major, and I'll point them out as I get to them.  I'm not going to recap the plot of the film, because it's pretty straightforward and I'm sure most people have seen it recently enough to remember the general outline.

First things first though, the opening scene might just feature the coolest moment in the entire Bond canon.  We get an intercut scene of Bond's first murder (which is our first "Daniel Craig gets down and dirty" fistfight, though far from our last) with his second, which is cool and clean, and when target number two begins "you needn't worry, the second is..." Bond aces him before he can finish the thought and then says, "Yes.  Considerably."  Fucking awesome.

I don't know whose idea it was to have Chris Cornell sing the theme song (in full-on hunger-dunger-dang rock mode, no less) but it was a very poor choice.  I actually suspect the theme song is decent (and it contains elements of the OHMSS theme, which I've waxed rhapsodic about enough at this point) but Cornell's caterwauling is just awful.

I'll start with my medium problem with the movie, which is that the action never really gripped me.  The most famous stunt is the first one, where Bond chases some living MacGuffin in a fully-realized parkour action stunt scene.  And as much as I admire the scene from a technical standpoint, I never really got much of a thrill from it, unless it were to say, "Bond, it is very high up there, wouldn't you like to get down and perhaps drink a martini."  The most underwhelming action scene, in my mind, is the chase at the airport, where one of Le Chiffre's minions attempts to blow up a brand spanking new jet plane.  It's very drab, and very dark, and cribs a bit too much from Raiders of the Lost Ark for my taste.  It has a funny button at the end though, when the bad guy gets blowed straight up by his own bomb.

Le Chiffre might be the second most famous Bond villain, after Blofeld, and it's a real tribute to Mads Mikkelsen that his performance easily outshines both Peter Lorre's and Orson Welles' in the public consciousness.  Now, granted that both of those men played the character in non-Eon, mostly forgotten films, but Mikkelsen is great in the part, giving Le Chiffre the right mixture of arrogance and petulance.

I wanted to dive into Bond continuity a little bit, so if that's the sort of thing that doesn't interest you (and really, it shouldn't, because it's a very silly thing) then skip this paragraph.  Okay, so, the most straightforward reading of Bond series continuity is that the films proceed in chronological order, with Bond being a single man, born James Bond, who works for M and MI6.  It takes a good deal of suspension of disbelief, of course, with Bond's changing face and the political situation of the world morphing over the course of 50 years, but if you're willing to do that then you start from there.  This movie throws a major monkey wrench into that idea, though, because the Bond of Casino Royale is very clearly at the start of his career (and M uses the line "I knew it was too early to promote you" so you can't really fall back on the idea that the opening scene happened way in the past, and everything else happens in the present).  But in GoldenEye, Bond referred to M's predecessor, meaning she was just starting the job at that point.  So this doesn't square.  A common fan theory, an obvious one, is that James Bond is simply a code name, and that each actor who takes the role is a new man, assigned that name and that number and proceeding through time in a normal fashion.  This would work out perfectly if it wasn't for one problem - Tracy, Bond's late wife, who is referred to by Connery, Lazenby, Moore and Dalton.  Perhaps a hybrid of the two would work, that those four are one man and Brosnan/Craig are separate men from them, but it's all very convoluted and broken at this point (and will only get more broken with Skyfall).  This is not a series for continuity hounds.

Judi Dench immediately has more interesting things to do than she had during the entire Brosnan run.

Bond checks his Sony Ericsson phone so many times that it almost reads as a meta gag about the ubiquity of product placement in the Bond films.

Bond wins his 1964 Aston Martin from some greasy Eurotrash scumbag that he's tracked to the Bahamas and I bet the car stinks like Drakkar Noir and garlic.

The interplay between Vesper Lynd and Bond in their first meeting aboard the train is among the best things that has ever happened in a Bond movie, and it's a little bit of a shame that the family background she intuits for Bond (their interplay is based on each making judgments about the others' background from first impressions) is undermined by Skyfall.  Eva Green makes a very impressive Vesper, and if she doesn't land in my top 3 Bond girls it's only because the character is given too little to do.

There's a real playfulness to Craig's performance that I'd forgotten.  Craig can be a dour, humorless presence on screen, a problem that I think is getting worse (he was the worst thing about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), but in this film he is actually pretty damn charming.

The movie implies that Vesper is the first person to ever put Bond in a finely-tailored tuxedo, and man does it look like great.  Latter-day Bond films do not skimp on the tailoring budget, that's for damn sure.

The center of the film, which is the center of the novel, is a card game between Le Chiffre and Bond (plus a bunch of other players, including the return of Felix Leiter for the first time since the Dalton era.)  Then we get to my minor problem, the game.  The trappings of the game are super swanky, featuring Montenegro's coolest hotel and a bunch of dressed up people playing the highest of high stakes cards.  But the game, as you know, is Texas Hold'em, and it is so deeply, deeply uncool.  Not as uncool as the backgammon he played in Octopussy, but uncool enough since it places the film firmly in 2006, when poker was all the rage.  It dates the movie terribly and, worse still, suggests to douchebags like this:

that their chosen "profession" is so cool even James Bond plays it.  They are wrong.  Bond, as a world-class dilettante, plays baccarat, a game of fairly minimal skill, because he doesn't have time to learn proper game-playing strategy while he's memorizing wine vintages, screwing beautiful ladies, and occasionally getting off his ass long enough to save the world.

I love Jeffrey Wright and he, as per usual, makes the most of his limited time on screen as Leiter.

The scene right after Bond kills the two African warlords (who were after Le Chiffre for some money of theirs that he lost shorting airline stock, hence the attempted plane explosion) at the hotel is like no other scene I can remember in any of these films.  The way Martin Campbell shoots the consequences of his violence is really remarkable, with quick cuts of Bond cleaning the blood off of himself interspersed with shots of a decanter and tumbler filled with whisky that Bond downs; he upped his game for this movie.  Then the shot of Vesper and Bond in the shower is done in a single long take, with the scene ending as Bond wordlessly comforts the distraught Lynd as the camera slowly zooms out.

"Shaken or stirred?"
"Do I look like I give a damn."
- A line that singlehandedly adds a half a letter grade to this movie.

The poisoning scene reminds me a lot of the (very goofy) tarantula scene from Dr. No, with a lot of closeups on Bond's sweaty face.  Here it's played totally serious.  Actually, it was played serious in Dr. No, it's just that you could clearly demarcate when Connery was in a shot and when his double was (hint: the double is in scenes where the tarantula actually touches skin).

So, my major problem.  The last 30 minutes or so of the film happen after Le Chiffre has already been offed (he goes out like a total chump, shot by someone who isn't even Bond, but that's sort of the whole point), and Bond and Vesper running off together to Venice, with Bond even turning his resignation letter in to M.  This is all well and good in a film that's just the 21st Bond picture, with Bond getting sucked back in to action courtesy of Le Chiffre's bankrollers (and Vesper's double cross) serving to put a capper on the notion that Bond has to be bury his emotions to adequately do his job.  But it is completely undermined by the fact that this is implied to be Bond's second mission as a 00 agent.  I gather that the novel was supposed to be an in media res opener on Bond's already-in-progress career, so when he runs off with Vesper (and ultimately denounces her after discovering her double cross), it is meant to tell us something profound about Bond's character.  But in a movie where we are asked to believe that Bond has just started his 00 career, for him to immediately throw it away for Vesper suggests something else, that he is impulsive and emotionally attached to basically everyone. I get that this film says, this is who Bond was before he "got religion" and decided to remain closed off to everyone as a means of protection, but it just never squares, for me at least, with the Bond that we've known through 20 films prior.  That Bond turns his charm on and off, not as a means to protect anyone, but because he's easily bored and kind of a dick.  It also kind of sucks that we learn the details about Vesper's betrayal through post-hoc exposition delivered by M - the last 30 minutes are a real rush job after the languid pace of the rest of the movie, with an enormous amount of plot and character dumped into a tiny space, the audience left to sort the whole thing out mostly on its own.

The film suggests (and then follows through with, in the next film) a direct sequel, which I was very excited about at the time it came out.  Stick around to find out how that turns out!

Bond sleeps with Vesper, probably a bunch of times.  He never manages to close the deal with the very sexy  Catalina Murino, who plays Mr. Eurotrash's girlfriend and gets an ugly and very unfortunate Bond Girl Death.


  1. (copied from what I said elsewhere) One, the movie is very faithful to the source novel - a rarity among Bond films - outside of changing the setup of LeChiffre from "commie banker" to "terrorist banker" and switching the game from baccarat (which few can actually follow or play) to Texas Hold 'Em Poker (which is for what I know more competitive between players, upping the conflict). As a result, some of the complaints you have about Royale's ending (the extended prologue involving Vesper's betrayal) is actually from the novel. Otherwise, the movie is damn near flawless IMHO: the cold, calm prologue of Bond earning his 00 status standing in stark contrast to every other action-packed opening sequence; the chase scene between parkour terrorist (leaping through wall gaps) and Bond (literally BULLDOZING his way through obstacles); the visit to the Bahamas; the train dinner between Bond and Vesper (yes, one of the best Bond Meets Bond Girl moments in history); the "first" time Bond wears the tuxedo; the torture scene, and how Bond laughs it off; and how Bond introduces himself to Mr. White at the end...

    1. and I should have edited "prologue" to read "epilogue", my bad...