East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Casino Royale: Craig listing

Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen
Written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with Paul Haggis
Directed by Martin Campbell

Bartender: "Shaken or stirred?"
Bond: "Do I look like I give a damn?"

In Casino Royale, the best James Bond movie in decades, the super-agent knows less than we do. That dissonance is the source of the movie's humour, its tension, its sorrow. Since the tragic On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969, Bond seemed closest to a recognisable human being in GoldenEye, Casino Royale director Martin Campbell’s previous franchise reanimation. In GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan's Bond faced an unbeatable enemy -- middle age. The attempt at depth was limited by Brosnan's inexperience in the role. He finally became comfortable in The World Is Not Enough, by which time no one cared.

This relaunch, starring Daniel Craig, takes the more conventional approach of returning to Bond's early years, the prelude showing his first use of his licence to kill. Bond is slightly out of sync with his 007 role -- his movements are a little off, he struggles to dispatch run-of-the-mill enemies. His playboy nature is still something of a facade. His image is still in the process of seducing him.

Once again, no one would care about the character development if there weren’t some memorable set pieces. Bond's best ever bipedal chase occurs early in Casino Royale. Bond chases a bomb maker, played by Sebastien Foucan, through a construction site. The breathtaking agility of Foucan’s wall-bounces contrasts with the knee-crushing determination of Craig’s leaps. The final rescue, in a building crumbling into the waters of Venice, is nearly as good.

The action sequences, as aerobic and sweat-stained as they are, make up only a respectable fraction of the movie. 007 spends almost as much screen time playing poker (and, it must be added, when he succeeds, it’s mostly through dumb luck). Bond is new to the high life, and the movie lets us enjoy it with him. It's rare for a modern Bond movie to let us enjoy the scenery; rarer still for the particularities of landscape to matter, as in that Venice sequence.

Campbell’s direction is natty, but he lets his performers make the movie. That decision proves wise, as his leads play off each other as deftly as you could’ve dreamed. Bond uncomfortable with being Bond is an easier role to step into than Bond weary of being Bond, but Craig, who spent many years in arthouse purgatory before becoming 007, doesn't need easy. Claims of his ugliness are ridiculous – Sean Connery has funny-shaped ears as well, you know – but he looks more thuggish and exudes a more basic sexuality than any of his predecessors, best displayed in the latest Ursula Andress tribute scene, in which he emerges from the sea in his Speedos. His big, sky blue irises betray that there's something not quite right with him, which is necessarily the case for any hitman. It remains to be seen whether his features will make it hard for him to play the experienced Bond, the callous fantasy figure Connery mastered.

Eva Green, as Vesper Lynd, doesn't turn up for a long time. When she does, it's shocking: she's grown from game, limited eye candy (in The Dreamers) to witty, sophisticated actress. Becoming a Bond girl is supposed to be a career peak, but Green joins the still shorter list of Bond women: it's just her and Diana Rigg. When Bond tries to melt her by making inferences about her past, she scores a knockout counterpunch by repeating the trick on him. But she's
not emotionally invulnerable -- after she assists Bond in a life-or-death struggle, she's horrified. The scene that follows back in their hotel room is remarkably poignant -- it's a very Paul Haggis moment (he polished the screenplay by Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade), showing that when bluntness is a strength, he's one of our finest writers.

After Green enters the picture, other women are almost completely absent, with the exception of Judi Dench's headmistressy M, and after a while even she starts to get squeezed out. Vesper takes over Bond, rather than the usual opposite. She has him considering giving up his job, his lifestyle, everything. But we know he won't, and that dramatic irony makes the endgame the most affecting in series history. Unlike other Bond movie endings, during which we know, and don’t care, that we’ll never see the girl again, this one is a beginning.



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