Thursday, November 30, 2006

Casino Royale

*ing Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench

Like most other Bond fans, I've watched every Bond movie made so far, with the sole exception of the earlier Casino Royale. And like every Bond fan, I've worshipped at the altar of Sean Connery. I rate Goldfinger among the best movies I've seen. It was a perfect example of the Bond formula - gadgets, gorgeous women, a megalomaniacal villain, a great climax, memorable one-liners and oodles of style. To me, everything that followed it simply tried to repeat it, with minor changes and mixed results.

So you will understand how much it has taken me to say this: Of all the Bond movies I have seen, Casino Royale is the best. And of all the actors who have played Bond over the years, I rank Daniel Craig's interpretation to be the best. Yeah, even better than Connery. If you have a problem with that, go read someone else's review.

There, I've said it. Now I can actually review the movie.

After twenty movies, the makers decided to reboot the Bond franchise. And to do that, they went back to the superspy's origins, in Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale. It is an interesting move, not only because it gives them the freedom to break a few rules, but also look at Bond as an actual human being, not a lawn ornament in a tuxedo with things going bang around him.

One of the best indications of this comes right at the beginning, in a low-key opening sequence filmed in black and white. The editing rhythm, the dialogue and the gritty look make you wonder if you walked into a different movie altogether. You expect Guy Ritchie or Steven Soderbergh to make something like this, not in a Bond movie. And yet, it is effective in introducing both a new Bond and a new actor in the role.

The story involves a terrorist financier named Le Chiffre, who has set up a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. M sends Bond, apparently the best poker player in the service, to compete against him. Not without misgivings, mind you: Bond isn't exactly the flavor of the month in the MI6 right then - his effectiveness seems to be matched by his lack of subtlety. At one point, M says, enraged by his latest faux-pas, "Earlier, when one of our agents did something this embarassing, they at least had the decency to defect. God, I miss the Cold War!" (Thank heavens they retained Judi Dench - where would a line like that be, without her to deliver it?)

The first act, which sets up the plot, involves two well-executed chase sequences. Both longer than necessary, both saved by the fact that they're well done. The first one involving what is, I believe, called a "free-running sequence" is especially splendid. The last few Bond movies had crossed the line from live action to cartoons. It was good to see something relatively plausible. The rest of it is standard stuff - cars, women, beaches... no surprises.

The second act involves a lengthy poker game, interspersed with violence. Low-key stuff, mostly. Interesting, but not thrilling. The more interesting parts here are the interactions with Vesper Lynd, the woman sent by thhe Treasury Department to keep an eye on Bond. And for the first time in the series, you have Bond engaging in an actual conversation with a woman - not about plot points, not about trading innuendoes, but about each other. The dialogue, while not great, is a few notches above the pedestrian. Heck, one conversation on a train goes on for so long, I kept wondering when the makers would lose patience and blow something up.

The third act is where the meat is. For one, it involves a lengthy torture sequence that might serve to explain why Bond's definition of safe sex involves not a condom but a Walther PPK automatic (see Goldeneye for an explanation of that comment). For another, it spends a considerable length of time on Bond and Vesper. And most importantly, this is where you see Bond as a human being rather than as an action hero or a ruthless spy. You see him fall in love. You see him change. (I must add, in all fairness, that this is also the segment where you hear some really bad dialogue. There were moments where it compared with the tripe that Anakin and Amidala exchanged in Revenge of the Sith. Yeah, that bad. But if you can get beyond that, you will find that this is a pretty good concluding act.

Since this is a movie with more focus on plot and character than on action, much depends on the performances. Thankfully, there isn't any seriously weak link. Eva Green plays a perfect foil to his character as Vesper Lynd, the woman Bond falls in love with. The actress, once described by
Bertolucci as "so beautiful it's obscene", brings charm, sass and vulnerability to a role that has traditionally been ornamental in the Bond movies. She's given some phenomenally ripe dialogue to utter at times, but manages not to make you cringe too much. And of course, it does help that she really is so beautiful it's obscene. Judi Dench plays the tough-as-nails M as well as one would expect. Mads Mikkelsen is just about adequate as the bad guy, but since he's not after world domination, he manages to get away with an understated performance.

Which brings us, finally, to Daniel Craig. And to the question of why I consider him the best Bond ever. So here's why.

For anyone who is familiar with the franchise, the idea of a Bond origin story automatically brings back memories of the first Bond film, Dr. No. While Goldfinger has long been my favourite, I am quite fond of this one for one simple reason: it showed Bond as a resourceful, yet fallible spy. To me, Dr. No represents Connery's finest work as James Bond - he actually had to act, and create a character that audiences would love. After that outing, the last part was a given, and he simply had to embody the part. Sure, you can see him evolving through the first three movies, but these were mostly incremental changes.

Daniel Craig faces a similar, yet different challenge here: He has to create the James Bond who could've plausibly evolved into the Connery of Dr. No, and yet, he has to do enough to make the role his own in the future. It is to his credit that he absolutely nails it. He brings dimensions to the role that none of the others even suggested. By the time you hear him uttering the immortal line of introduction ("The name's Bond. James Bond."), with the John Barry theme playing in the background, you feel exhilarated.

There has been much hoo-hah on the Internet about the unsuitability of Daniel Craig for the role. Some even started a website called Folks, I dunno what you're having for dinner, but I think humble pie for desert is in order.

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