Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I was stirred, not shaken

Babble on.

Well, I saw the latest James Bond offering last night, Casino Royale, and I must say I came away impressed. Imagine the best of Sean Connery's take on the character, but with a Bourne Identity feel. Then imagine it rougher. Daniel Craig makes the part his own, partly because he was given a really good script to do it with.

I like the fact that this Bond film has stepped back from the excesses of previous movies. This Bond-girl is a better foil than the 007 has ever had, and while she's pretty enough, she wasn't cast for her looks alone - that is to say, she's not a bombshell who can't credibly pull off the part (Denise Richards as a scientist, anyone?). The gadgetry was kept to a minimum, but not eliminated - although Q was conspicuously absent. The fight scenes were exciting and original, but they weren't over-the-top as so many Bond fights and chases have been through the years.

In fact, the fights were more brutal and gritty than fantastic, which was a welcome change for me. Instead, what we got was an international mystery involving a British field operative who happens to be extremely aggressive and unorthodox. According Casino Royale's producers - both of whom are related to the franchise's driving force, Albert Broccoli - this is deliberate. More than that, it's actually been done before (from Famous magazine - the free one you get at the theatre):

"Well, I think we've seen the Bond films go through different periods of change," offers Michael G. Wilson, who produces the Bond films with his stepsister [Barbara] Broccoli. "In the 1970's they got bigger and bigger and more fantastic until we reached Moonraker [1979] in outer space. And we realized that it was going in the wrong direction and we brought it back to basics with For Your Eyes Only [1981].

"And what we saw with Die Another Day is that we got to the same point," continues Wilson. "We started getting too high in the sky - outer space, invisible cars - the technology begand to overwhelm the story and the characters. We felt it was very important to bring it back down to earth."

They certainly accomplished that, but without bringing it so far back down to earth that it became mundane. Bond might not fare well when it becomes a caricature of itself, but the franchise would implode if it ever became boring and commonplace. This film walks the line quite nicely.

Perhaps I feel that way because I'm partial to the recent trend to go back to a well-known character's roots and reinvent the character without throwing out all we already know and love about them - a la Batman Begins. Casino Royale was the first of Ian Fleming's Bond books, and while the script has taken obvious liberties modernizing the story, it gets to the heart of what has made Bond such an elemental figure in film for the past forty years or so.

In the opening scenes of the movie, Bond doesn't even have his "Licence to Kill" 00 status yet, and the movie-makers allow the story to venture into both his motivations and his weaknesses - but not so much that it lapses into a Barbara Walters self-examination mush-fest. We see how much he puts into the job, and how little that actually leaves for himself. Not in such a way that we feel sorry for him, mind you, but just enough to add depth to a character that can lapse into two-dimensionality all too easily.

In fact, if you go to the Sony Pictures website and get into Bond's dossier, you see psych evaluations, personal history, military record, and intelligence work prior to 00 designation. That's a lot of back-story for a character that has been dismissed as a cardboard cutout, and it demonstrates the producers' commitment to reinventing James Bond in a more complicated and therefore believable incarnation without throwing out the past.

I liked the little touches, too: the origins of Bond's martini; some context for his rather cavalier attitude towards women; the use of not one, but two Aston Martins, old and new; the reintroduction of Felix from the CIA; a revisiting of the classic Bond locale - the Bahamas.

But most of all, I liked the fact that Daniel Craig - in a way not seen since Sean Connery, and maybe not to the same degree even then - convinced us that James Bond isn't just a clever cad, he's a dangerous man. A man that has been given a "Licence to Kill" by Her Majesty's government for a damned good reason - he can do the jobs nobody else can. Daniel Craig takes this part to the most physical place it has ever been, and the toughest and bloodiest as well. Some might say this isn't Bond: that true Bond doesn't muss the hair, that true Bond is about clever quips in the middle of a bloodless fight where the opponent dies quietly when Bond shoots him in the heart with a silenced Walther PPK from fifty yards after rolling onto one knee in a perfectly tailored tuxedo. Me, I'm with Daniel Craig on this:

"The truth is, if you're not getting bruised when you're doing Bond, you're not doing it properly..."

Craig has signed on to film another two movies, and if they hold true to Casino Royale's promising start, they'll be damned good indeed. I can't wait.

Babble off.

Update: For once, I go into greater depth in a movie review than Master Flea. Who knew that was even possible? And if you think I liked the film, Nick positively gushes:

For fear of aforementioned spoilage I shall say nothing except that this is the best Bond film ever made. Yes, I am including all the Sean Connery films. Yes, that means this a better Bond than From Russia With Love, a better Bond than Dr. No. Time to see the film if you have not already done so.

The only reason I've not said the same is that the film is still too new to me. I've seen it once, and I'm still enjoying the afterglow. I want to see how I feel about it after I've watched it a few times through, like I have the rest of the Bond movies.

Besides, I don't think the Bond franchise is about each individual film taken on its own. And while Daniel Craig has a compelling Casino Royale working for him, Sean Connery has an entire oeuvre that set the bar for the most successful movie franchise of all time. To use a sports analogy, one good season is not a Hall of Fame career.

But put another couple of performances like this up onto the big screen, and I'll be ready to finally bump Connery out of top spot in my personal pantheon - something I thought I'd never say.


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