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Birth of a blunt instrument
A film review of CASINO ROYALE by Camus
 
"He knew that the beginning of torture is the worst..."
Ian Fleming's Casino Royale

 

 

For some narrow minded souls, the beginning of the production of Casino Royale was torture. A blond Bond who lost teeth in fights, was afraid of the water and who couldn't drive a car with a gear stick? All that internet and tabloid nonsense gave Daniel Craig the perfect opportunity to shine and the dark bastard is blinding. It's almost as if he started all the rumours to come up triumphant and triumphant he is. I swaggered out of the cinema with that locked off emotionless look and a walk to go through walls (see the movie – Bond actually runs through walls!). It's been ages since I took a little sliver off the character and briefly added it to my demeanour but then as a kid, Bond was great at making me do that. On the minus side, I once refused to open the glove compartment of my father's (bless him) old green Ensign (that's a car to those born after 1874) because I had just seen Dr. No and was convinced, way beyond my parents' abilities to un-convince me, that there was a large and deadly tarantula spider in there waiting to bite me (in the novel, purists note, it was a poisonous millipede that crawled from under the bed sheets).

This is the power of Bond. Actually, this is the power of a young boy's imagination but hey, what a muse; a cold war dinosaur, a blunt instrument, a man with a licence to kill. It's often been said that Bond's qualities (men want to be like him, women simply want him) are primal and universal. I think that's selective critical hindsight at work. After all, he's had six handsome hunks personifying him for over forty years. This vicious, chain-smoking, hard drinking anti-hero of Fleming's books is a bastard – a racist, misogynistic thug (in the novel Casino Royale, Bond thinks of – and I quote – "the sweet tang of rape..." Lovely). But take one long look at Connery whom Fleming grew to admire in the role to the extent of giving his very English spy some Scottish ancestry in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. If Bond on the page was Connerised on to the screen, the smallest transformation was required. Only once in the series (and I am prepared to be proved wrong on this as I have barely re-viewed most of the Roger Moore efforts – too light, too silly) does Bond do what most of the cinema-going public would normally reject in a hero, especially in the sixties: he shoots a man in cold blood while under no threat. Dr. No came as an icy shock to audiences in 1962. Don't forget how new and dangerous Bond was. "That's a Smith and Wesson, Professor and you've had your six..." Just watch Connery's eyes after the deed is done just before the mix to the next scene. That's acting talent but it's natural and in good actors, it appears effortless. Connery at that moment, just in the eyes, embodied Bond and then, albeit reluctantly, owned him like no other actor has ever owned a character.

Guess who's got that same look in his eyes?

Craig shoots an unarmed man in Casino Royale's first minutes. And remember, he has already played a murdering spy. He put on a Seth Efrican accent and went around killing those held responsible for the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich – and he was good, very good. But as Bond, James Bond, he's better. As Bond, he nails it because he's a very talented and accomplished actor who knows what's required. And it's all too obvious how hard he worked in the role. Eon productions are not about to cast anyone as their flagship character without faith and their faith is gloriously justified. I guiltily enjoyed Brosnan's last, Die Another Day, partly because a close friend worked on it – but it was still Brosnan yearning for a character part but not getting one. Bond is not really a character in the drawing room-Chekov "fields of rippling wheat" dramatic sense. He's been with us too long to have too many levels but hell, Craig makes us feel again and it shouldn't work but it does. The overblown gadget-conscious, suave, über-production had reached a natural end and Eon needed another way to go. What this usually means (apart from a cheaper Bond) is what the producers love to tag 'going in another direction'. The Bourne series of films (soon to have a third added, The Bourne Ultimatum) has set a new benchmark for spy movies recently. Eon and director Martin Campbell have both done something so sorely lacking in modern films – they trusted their story. Bourne movies have a style of their own and literary origins. But Bond is Bond and you have to balance tradition, expectation and genre demands and still tell the story. Credit to Eon and Campbell for having faith in Fleming's first literary stab at Bond. And the source material is a corker (reading the novel, one must accept the racism and sexism as a nasty after-taste of the era).

As mentioned, re-inventing Bond is Eon Productions-speak for reigning in the fantasy circus and toughening up the lead. Timothy Dalton, as close to Fleming's original as any that went before and after him, was stone cold and a tad too good looking but for my money has claim to be the most authentic Bond. Connery was the best Bond mostly because he was the first and he actually affected his literary character while the books were still being written. What Craig has done – and making it seem easy along the way – is take elements from both Connery and Dalton but infused them with his own steely, blue-eyed take on the character. And boy, does this work – in spades (and hearts, diamond and clubs)... As well as Bond's famous chip, the entire movie sits on Craig's shoulders but it does so with no complaint and actually is more than happy to be there.

The story, yanked by the 21st century lapels from the 50s' novel, is simply this. Bond needs to beat the French villain and terrorist money launderer, 'Le Chiffre', in a poker game to ensure the money he launders does not end up in terrorist bank accounts. Along the way he tries to put a bomb maker in custody (oh, how that goes belly up and the relevant word there is 'up'), foil a terrorist plot to blow up a very big plane and deal with an accountant for the government whose own mission is to look after the money with which Bond is to out-play the bad guy. The catch? The accountant is a raven haired beauty, stunning to look at and in high-flying, role playing mode, is supposed to be Bond's lover. What kind of 'supposed' is that?

The money girl, Vesper Lynd, is a complex character in the novel and her translation to the screen has been very satisfying. Eva Green does a terrific job in convincing us of the many levels of Lynd (I'm already looking forward to her airborne witch queen in the up and coming His Dark Materials). It would be churlish of me to give away too much of the plot but I will say that Green and Craig make a very convincing couple (acting is all about convincing). Their first dialogue scene together sparkles. I was quite moved by the scene glimpsed in the trailer (they sit fully clothed in the shower). Bond has just despatched someone but dirtily – death as extreme manual labour. As the man dies, Green is there, wide eyed at the awful world Bond inhabits and in shock returns to 'Lady Macbeth' herself clean. The scene is played superbly well and brings a lump to the throat. Remind yourselves, this is Bond, not Brecht. Bond is having his cake and swallowing the damn thing.

The stunt work is beyond jaw dropping and I winced more than a few times as limbs – hyper-realistically – smash into unyielding surfaces. The opening chase, in which Bond is forced to go to extraordinary lengths to catch his man, is a furious text book example of staying just a hair's breadth under the believability radar. At every turn, there is a physical 'wow' and it's refreshing that Bond is using his head to outwit his quarry rather than try to simulate the extraordinary sport of le parkour going on in front of him. After all, he is chasing Sebastien Foucan, the number one parkourologist (for a flippant definition of this 'sport-cum-lifestyle', Father Ted might have said "Running around and jumping off buildings and such. It's mad!") It's also spectacular.

Judi Dench's almost hypnotic hold on critics and public alike (I have always admired her but never understood the across-the-board adoration) essentially plays Bond's step-mother. The 'M' of MI6 myth is almost uttered but here it could very well be 'Mother'. In fact wasn't 'Mother' the head in early Avengers episodes? Dench is dynamic and tough and keeps Bond on the Roman road straight and razor sharp narrow. Mads Mikkelsen is suitably creepy and cold enough for Le Chiffre, a man who cries tears of blood. And for all you Fleming fans out there, yes, the torture scene is in and screenwriters Neil Purvis and Robert Wade have put some canny spins on that scrotum smashing encounter and it's all the richer for them.

If I had to gripe... If it wasn't for Craig, you could see Casino Royale as just another Mission Impossible; devise amazing action sequences, space them out and them write a screenplay-marquee big enough to be propped up by them but let's not forget, Bond practically invented that form of movie making. And no Mission Impossible would linger for so long and so effectively over a card game. The usual Maurice Binderesque opening sequence is frankly screamingly effeminate. This isn't Bond, it's like an ad for a gay night club and whatever memory I have of the main song (none) tells you a lot about that choice of song and artist. This brings me to small gripe No. 4. Bond used to have such idiosyncratic scores and main themes. I do not doubt David Arnold's talent (I thought his main theme for the re-vamped Randall and Hopkirk sublime, very Bondian) but there's no distinction in these movie scores, no piece of music you latch on to. I have all of his Bond scores and there's not a theme that stands out in the lot (obviously the Bond theme is woven in and out). If I remember Madonna's Die Another Day main theme last time around, it's only out of numbed shock – not in a good way. Lastly – and I almost let this gripe spoil the party – almost, there is the godawful and utterly ubiquitous product placement. Yes, Bond's lifestyle dictates certain products – Aston Martins, Saville Row suits et al but these are luxury items that were never really in the reach of most punters. In one scene (a very good scene) Bond even name checks his fecking Omega watch. The Sony products on display are almost embarrassing. Both hero and villain use Viao laptops (we need to spread the message over all moralities) and everyone uses fecking Sony mobiles. Shots of these things linger too. It's shameful and appalling and the producers stress: that's the price paid to get the film made. Welcome to corporate Hollywood. It's no secret that Sony own MGM now and fully expect Bond to return on their investment.

One final very heartening thing; at the screening I attended, the average age of the audience must have been late fifties. Bond inspires brand loyalty and now he's back. Craig is superlative, Campbell's work is terrific but next time, get Shirley Bassey to belt out a decent theme and whatever happens, do not let Bond anywhere near a fecking Playstation...

Casino Royale

USA / UK / Czech Republic 2006
144 mins
director
Martin Campbell
producers
Barbara Broccoli
Michael G. Wilson
screenplay
Neal Purvis
Robert Wade
Paul Haggis
from the novel by
Ian Fleming
cinematography
Phil Meheux
editor
Stuart Baird
music
David Arnold
production design
Peter Lamont
starring
Daniel Craig
Eva Green
Mads Mikkelsen
Judi Dench
Jeffrey Wright
review posted
19 November 2006

related reviews
Quantum of Solace
Skyfall
Spectre

See all of Camus's reviews