Saturday, January 4, 2014

Casino Royale

  I love James Bond movies. Most of them anyways. There's something about a good 007 caper, that no matter who's playing him it's just so damn engaging. He's one action hero, who doesn't need to be in action, to be fascinating, or at the very least, entertaining to watch. I wasn't much into James Bond back in 2006 when this came out. It looked good, but what the hell did I know? Not much apparently. It wasn't until 2008 I even got around to seeing it. By god it was good. Really good. Exceptionally good. I took it upon myself to snatch up as much Bond as I could. By way of bargain bins and netflix, I was always watching one or another. Dr.No (which is not only the first, but my all time favorite), Thunderball, From Russia With Love (and come on, who doesn't love the Connery era?) then there was the Roger Moore ones (which I haven't seen as many as I would have liked) and lest we forget his one shot predecessor, George Lazenby- and well you get the point. There were a couple others too. My list is far from complete, but I've seen enough to choose favorites and do so educated.

  Daniel Craig is the second best James Bond ever. Right next to Connery. Pierce Brosnan would be a close third. Why is Craig the best? Because of what Casino Royale gave to the franchise. New life. Which is no small task. How do you take something which has been loved for generations and make it brand new yet preserve what was so loved? You have to make some hard choices. Which begs the question... what do people love about James Bond? Oh I'm sure if you asked people what they know about James Bond, you'd probably get "Exploding pens!", "-a really cool jetpack", "Invisible cars-", "Gets all the hot women-" et cetera...  Yet... he had all of that in Die Another Day, and that was practically laughed out of the box office.  Do jetpacks, super cars, and gadgets make James Bond... James Bond? As it turns out, they don't. James Bond is not the working man's hero, he's a sophisticated protagonist. James Bond can generate as much sexual tension or dramatic suspense drinking a martini as he can actually bedding a female conquest or getting in a shootout. Which is also... no easy feat.

  This is why it was a smart move to give the franchise, and the character a drastic make over and go back to basics. Look at Dr.No... no gadgets, no ejecting seats in his Aston Martin, no exploding pens... just bare knuckled brawling in the action department, and a car chase or a shootout or two for good measure. What does Dr.No have that makes it so great? The villain. However, we'll get back to that before I lose track of what I was saying about the big double o himself. Bond is about suspense, and tension, and about thinking on his feet. Daniel Craig can do suave, he can do intense, he can flex a muscle and his enemy might startle. When his eyes land on a target, no doubt someone gets goosebumps. He's a force of nature, yet after the most grueling ordeal... he can dust off his dinner jacket, adjust his cuff links, and act like he's only been away- freshening up. Not to say other Bonds haven't been able to pull this off to some extent, but Craig embodies it. What Bond is supposed to be like. Retrofitted for the modern spy game, for modern audiences, and for fans who are only capable of chuckling weakly at in-jokes and puns which have become drier than 007's trademark martini.

  With Casino Royale, we're not introduced to a Bond we've never seen before- only one we've forgotten about. Naysayers argue it's not true to form, yet I'd argue it's the truest. Side by side with Dr.No, they match rhythm so damn well. Bond is not a walking cliche this time. He's a character we're rediscovering as he's being introduced into this lurid mess of shady deals and licenses to kill. He lives and breathes the atmosphere, but he's a bit green. Casino Royale is the movie in which Bond cuts his teeth on. He becomes the 007 we all knew we loved. Which is why, at the end of the movie when the trademark theme slowly creeps up on us and we know what's coming- we're not ready with a weak chuckle, but a sense of excitement and anticipation. "Bond. James Bond." Words that have become so iconic they almost lose their impact, yet the movie behind them this time gives them new energy. Maybe they're not so relevant anymore, maybe people only need a hero like Jason Bourne... but Casino Royale itself is the perfect argument that Bond is still relevant.

  The other essential half of ANY 007 movie is the villain, which is what Dr.No did so well. Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. A sinister man who's gravitas is staggering, in the presence of brutal south African war lords and devious socialites who could afford to buy and sell your very life a thousand times over.  His onscreen presence is simply amazing. Sitting across from Bond, merely playing poker, and he somehow manages to be more threatening than a power hungry dictator with his finger on a big red button, wired to something catastrophic no doubt. This is where I am developing a theory... A Bond movie is only good if you could market the entire thing around the villain. I mean... your hero stays the same. More or less, you know what you like, you're already sold. If you can pull off a marketing strategy that focuses almost solely on the villain, then most likely you have a hit. If not... you have a Quantum of Solace. Le Chiffre would steal the entire movie from a lesser character, and Mads would from a lesser actor. Craig and Mikkelsen, Bond and Le Chiffre... they are fierce opponents, more brutal in their methods than any the franchise has seen before.

  There's something just beyond my ability to describe that just makes this movie work. Not just as a Bond movie, but as an action movie, a drama, and a thriller. The opening foot chase is amazingly exciting, even 8 years after it's release, it's still insanely gripping. For that matter so are the poker scenes, a veritable crux of the story. They carry so much tension and intensity. I never knew a mere poker game could be so nerve wracking. I suppose that's what the movie does so well, it sets the stage perfectly. The stakes are incredibly high, and more is on the line than just money or any one or two lives- but perhaps hundreds and thousands of lives. Because, see, in this universe of 007- it's not so much about a bomb about to go off, or a massive laser orbiting Earth, about to eradicate a whole country... it's about terrorism. Letting a terrorist financier go free would be disastrous, and more or less that's what Le Chiffre is. Those are the stakes. The movie asks us to think ahead, to consider consequences. Not just flashy special effects that blaze across the screen, or allow a car to look invisible.

  A fantastic part of this movie is also how it reminds us about the rest of what makes 007 movies so fun.
Exotic locations for example. The movie is nothing short of globe-trotting espionage. It's a broader type of thriller than say... The Bourne Identity. It's not drab or bleak either, lurid for sure. Murder and death follow Bond everywhere. But look at where he goes. The Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, London- it's all simply fantastic. The locations and the locale are interesting if not at the very least, visually interesting. This is something that's to be loved about the Bond movies. Classic sexy looking beach scenery is a must. Bright clear waters, golden sand, stunning blue skies- and yet... right around the corner someone is bound to get shanked in the back, or thrown out of a moving car, or shot, or punched, or... you get the picture. That sort of juxtaposition is really striking. Beauty with violence. Something 007 has revolved around since it's origins.

  I'd be a fool if I didn't bring up the "hot women" aspect on that note. This time, the Bond Girl so to speak calls him out on it right away "you think of women as disposable pleasures-" and it's true. He does. So... he's not entirely different from the 007's of olden days. You can tell this is a woman who's not here just because she's pretty. She's not a typical damsel in distress, and she's not the opposite cliche either. She's not the sort to pick up a Kalashnikov alongside him and take out a few baddies. She's a real character, played by a real actress who was picked to be able to emote and bring life to this James Bond. It's funny how that works. Most Bond girls are eye candy, and Bond treats them as such. He's expected to. He's Bond. James Bond. Yet... this time, we have a character who seems like a real woman, and he begins to treat her and react to her like a real person. Someone who maybe shouldn't be called a "Bond Girl". The title is too kitschy for such a character. Bond grows to care about her. A statement that in and of itself seems kitschy, but the movie pulls it off in such a way that the inevitable tragedy that climaxes their relationship will forever shape him into the cold hearted secret agent we all know and cheer for. The difference now? We understand, and dare I say... we sympathize.

  Is this too serious and droll for a James Bond movie? Not at all. There are poisoned martinis, car chases, foot chases, shootouts, fist fights (a machete ends up involved no less) and death defying stunts that still manage to make me gasp for air a little bit. Yet we actually care about this man, this... James Bond. Who while is so unlike the cookie cutter cliche his namesake had devolved into, he seems new. Fresh. Yet is on a journey which will make him cold and broken. Yet does that mean he has to be a boring character after this movie? Casino Royale promises: No. Quantum of Solace tried to keep that promise, only to leave Skyfall to pick up the pieces and continue with a fascinating take on 007. Because we can care about this character, and because he's wrapped up in such a well written story, airtight if you will- all the stunts and the action scenes and everything is that much more engaging. And the filmmakers' efforts to keep them somewhat grounded and semi-plausible help create this world that this Bond inhabits. It's not above supervillains, but maybe these supervillains play poker instead of rant about world domination... and maybe they're scarier like that.  Which is why this 007 works so damn well.

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