Just because you've done something, doesn't mean you've got to keep doing it.
And that is Casino Royale (2006) in a nutshell.
Remember back, to the long and unsettling 4 year gap between Die Another Day and CR06. After all of the interminable haggling over pierce Brosnan's future, after all of the insane and incessant casting rumors, after all of the vituperation producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were getting in the wake of the critical and fan disdain for some of the excesses of DAD...we really had no idea what to expect, did we?
Sure, Daniel Craig was a respectable choice (despite some dunderheaded loud early opposition...why can't Bond be blond?). Sure, Oscar winner Paul Haggis came on board to work in some unspecified capacity on the script. And sure, they were finally adapting Casino Royale, Ian Fleming's first--and many say best--Bond novel.
But Casino Royale had already been adapted twice before, with none too impressive results. And the "comedy" CR67 had so much high caliber talent involved that it couldn't fail...yeah, right. And the way the filmmakers had flushed away the potential they themselves had set up in the first half of DAD left us seriously in doubt whether they were capable of pulling off a proper hardcore Fleming story.
Silly us, and our short memories. We've been through this before, haven't we? After You Only Live Twice showed a drop at the box office and was less well received by critics, Eon responded with a back-to-basics, amazingly faithful adaptation of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. After Moonraker made a gazillion bucks but received a panning from many critics and fans, Eon followed up by giving us For Your Eyes Only, a hardcore gadget-free spy film weaved together from a couple of Fleming short stories.
So we shouldn't have been too surprised, given the backlash against DAD's CGI and ridiculously oversized sci-fi trappings, that Eon once again went straight back to a highly faithful Fleming adaptation, back to basics.
But there were 3 real surprises.
First of all, this time the public bought in. Historically, the gadgetless, straight spy Bonds haven't done well at the box office. Despite seeming to give people what they were asking for, OHMMS and FYEO had significantly lower grosses than their picked-upon predecessors. But CR06 actually surpassed DAD's box office. Not by a ton, but CR06 still passed it, which was an impressive first for a "retrenching" film.
Secondly, we got a reboot. If you read comic books, well, you're used to this sort of thing. And it's not as if there was any kind of particularly tight continuity between the Bond films to begin with. But for Eon to essentially say, "We're starting over," well, that was pretty damn shocking. Yes, Casino Royale was the first Bond novel, but we weren't expecting "Bond Year One."
And finally, the biggest surprise was how amazingly freaking good the movie turned out to be.
Let me hasten to emphasize, the film is still new to me...it's still the Bond film I've seen the least. Maybe after 5 more years to digest it, and catching portions of it every other week on cable, and comparing it to the movies that follow so we can properly understand what it spawned, perhaps then the newness and shock will have worn off, and my opinion might have mellowed. So maybe you should take my opinions with a grain of salt here, just as you would an adolescent in the bloom of first infatuation who can see no wrong in his new love.
But you know what? It wasn't just me. It scored a 94% on RottenTomatoes, the highest score of any movie for 2006. And the public agreed, going in droves. Who could have figured--a hardcore "straight" Bond film, with a relative unknown in the lead, in the longest Bond movie ever, became the highest grossing Bond ever. Wha happened??
Part of it, I think, was the "Bourne-ification" of the movie marketplace. Not that Bond was "copying" Bourne, as some opined--Bond was doing serious spy back before Jason Bourne was even a twinkle in Robert Ludlum's eye. But the Bourne movies, as well as the TV show 24, seem to have uncovered (or created) an appetite for the more serious action movie. And CR06 was in the right place at the right time to catch that wave.
Another factor is that, at some level, mainstream movie goers and critics were just as disgruntled at DAD as many of the fans were. Scan some of the reviews for CR06, and you'll see sighs of relief that the "silliness" is gone, that the "outlandish" is played down, that the reliance on gadgets and puns was over. (Of course, that just means we're due for the tire swing backlash, as reviews of QoS from the very same critics will no doubt decry the lack of gadgets and whimsy...but I digress)
And, of course, we can't forget 9/11. In a world where we're all frightened that scruffy terrorists with box cutters can destroy our cities, the escapism of evil billionaires with death satellites was exactly the wrong way to go. Maybe we wanted our heroes to make us feel safer by fighting the very threats we're scared of right now, rather than distracting us with fantasy threats. To that extent, perhaps DAD was caught in a bad place, and guessed incorrectly about which way to go.
But maybe I'm over thinking the wheel... maybe it's just that CR06 was such a freakin' great movie.
It starts with a very faithful adaptation of Fleming's novel. And how long has it been since we've been able to say that?!? Oh, they added a lot of things--CR was a fairly spare novel. But everything they added seemed very much in the Fleming spirit. And they modernized things a bit--LeChiffre was no longer a SMERSH paymaster, but a terrorist banker; they're playing Texas Hold 'Em, not baccarat. But the entirety of Fleming's novel is there, right down to Bond being smashed in the gonads by a carpet beater. Ouch.
The film begins with James Bond, before he's even a Double-O. And already they're playing against our expectations: we DON'T open with the gun barrel!! We're puzzled, we're bothered, what's happening?!? Black and white?!? Have they abandoned everything in this reboot?
Nope. It a pleasingly clever bit, we simultaneously get the "origin" of Bond's promotion to Double-O and the "origin" of the gun barrel!!! And not only does it work, it works fantastically...not only do we see the birth of Bond the sneaky assassin in the scene with Dryden, but we get to see Bond the hard-assed sonuvabitch in the bathroom fight with Dryden's contact. It's the most brutal fight in the series since the train car fight in From Russia With Love, and the inter cutting between the sedate conversation with Dryden and the bathroom fight is a cunning way to to introduce us to the "new" Bond.
As we go into the opening credits sequence, let's applaud Daniel Kleinman's originality. Aside from his sequence for Tomorrow Never Dies, which I thought was trite and uninspired, his work for the series has been exciting and original, avoiding repeating himself while making the credit sequence relevant to the film's themes (something Maurice Binder didn't always manage to do, especially towards the end). The playing card motif is based on the cover art to the British first edition of Fleming's novel, and follows the movie's mandate of being original.
As for Chris Cornell's song, "You Know My Name," well, I wanted to not like it. I've never been a big fan of his; I wasn't pleased with interviews wherein he practically boasted about not using the phrase "Casino Royale" in the song, joining Rita Coolidge's "All- Time High" on the chicken list; and his not allowing the song to appear on the soundtrack album is one of the biggest egotistical dick moves in the history of the world (Cornell's explanation: "It was a decision of mine not to have it on the film soundtrack. I wanted it to be mine.")
But damned if it isn't a good song for this movie, that grows on me more each time I hear it. Lyrically, it does a good job of setting up the movie's themes. Musically, it's hard-driving and exciting...and it's used very well throughout David Arnold's score (personally, I think it's his best yet...just listen to how he oh so subtly weaves in bars of Monty Norman's theme as the film goes along, until it's finally 'unveiled" at the end). Yes, it's different...but different is the name of the game for this movie. So, despite my misgivings, I really like the song. But, and let me re-emphasize here: not letting it on the soundtrack album=giant dickweed.
The movie's pretty recent for all of us, so I won't give a detailed synopsis, but there are a few things I want to focus on. The first is the casual globe-trotting. In the past, especially later on, Bond movies made a big deal out of there locations, practically jumping up and down screaming "look where we are!" Refreshingly, CR06 plays it a lot more casually. In the first ten minutes, we're in Prague (and deleted footage from the teaser establishes that Bond's bathroom fight was in Pakistan), Uganda, and Madagascar, and the movie just tosses it off without broad establishing shots or enthusiastic shots of local tourist attractions. It takes the globe-trotting more for granted, which in a way makes it all the more realistic and believable for the audience. It gives Bond's world a more "lived-in" feeling, that it's not a big deal for him to be jetting to several different continents and casinos in the space of a few days. And it emphasizes that it's the action, not the sight-seeing, that's the most important part. It's a preferable approach, I think, to the past couple of Brosnan films, where they practically were doing cartwheels to advertise that they were in places uglier than a 1970's Doctor Who quarry.
The next thing to talk about is what they give us in the teaser and the first huge set piece: real live stunts. After all of the hullabaloo and outcry about the over-reliance on CGI and the lack of human stunts in DAD, the producers did an amazing thing: they listened. Gloriosky, how they listened! Start to finish, top to bottom, CR06 is crammed to the gills with stunt work. Not just everyday, humdrum stuntwork. No, they rose to the challenge and gave us some of the best, most-exciting, wonderfully-filmed stunts in the series history. They turned it up to 11, and it pays off tremendously. Just take a look at a few of these:
No computer para-glacier surfing, just good old fashioned real people doing ridiculously dangerous things on film to amuse and awe us. Thank you, Eon. All is forgiven.
Just as important is how they approach "Bond Year 1." It truly was a movie of watching James Bond mature into his role as 007. He's truly a terminator from the beginning...despite all Mollaka's parkour skills, Bond is able to keep up with him, albeit in a less graceful way. He's relentless in his pursuit of the Miami bomber. But he's not living up to his duties yet, is he? His assignment to bring in the Mollaka is botched (not his fault), but he overreacts by killing the man and causing an international incident. Blowing up Carlos with his own device was amusing, but he could have just easily thrown the bomb away and captured the man alive, gaining valuable intel. After he goes bust at the poker game, he's ready to kill LeChiffre until Leiter stops him. It turns out that M was right...he couldn't see the big picture.
Not that Bond was entirely just a blunt instrument. He showed a lot of wit in his ability to keep up with Mollaka. When the Skyfleet bombing is thwarted, LeChiffre declares that someone must have talked, when it fact it was entirely good old-fashioned detective work by Bond that led him there (Bond? Following leads and clues? When was the last time that happened?). He's innovative and quick, able to improvise on the fly--the salt shaker ipecac he improvised after being poisoned, shooting out the air balloons in the Venice building, figuring out what "ELLIPSIS" meant, tracking down M's home and breaking in...
But as smart and resourceful as he was, lethal violence was his usually his first reaction (although note the care he uses to not kill any of the guards in the Nambutu embassy). But by the end, instead of killing Mr. White, he merely captures him. And that's when we get the "Bond...James Bond" and the Monty Norman music. Because, up until that moment, he hadn't truly been 007, but a blunt instrument with a licence to kill.
We also see Bond learning how to be 007 in other ways, as well. As clever and as dangerous as he is, he doesn't know to dress himself for the high society he'll be moving in--Vesper has to teach him that. He doesn't know how he takes his martinis. He's the dangerous man, not from money, who has to mingle with the elite to do his job, but he's not comfortable doing so yet. The attitude that Sean Connery brought to Bond--that the tuxedo was just a costume he wore, but was still the predator underneath it--is where Craig's Bond will be in a few years...but he's not quite there yet.
All of which would be meaningless if Daniel Craig weren't up to the task. And he knocks the ball out of the park. Here's how I can best sum up my reaction to his performance: regular readers know I've always felt the OHMSS would be the perfect movie if we could go in and digitally replace George Lazenby with Sean Connery. Well, I now think it would be even better (for that movie, at least) if we used Craig instead of Connery. That's not a knock at Sir Sean...but he was never called upon to give the kind of emotional context to one his Bond performances as Craig was here. And so in my head I can see Craig, the hard-bitten love 'em and leave 'em spy whose heart was turned to stone by Vesper's betrayal, have that heart thawed by Tracy, only to lose her. (of course, had it been Craig, we can assume that the intro to Diamonds Are Forever would have been a lot more intense, and Tracy's murder not completely forgotten afterward...different times)
And although he's not burdened by the quips and puns of his predecessors, Craig also turns in a subtly humorous performance (with the help of the writers and director, obviously), a wry style of understatement and facial expression that conveys lots of quiet whimsy. Just watch the sly smile he gives when Carlos explodes--the smallest of facial expressions, yet it drew a huge laugh from the audience. And yet the broadest of the jokes--"Everyone's going to know you died scratching my balls" while in agonizing pain--is equally well done.
I know I shouldn't get overly enthusiastic--it's only one film, so far--but Craig completely erased everyone's doubts and owned the role from his first scene, digging deeply and not being afraid to give us a Bond who's not perfect yet, but is still struggling to come to grips with his new life. Plus, I'm told the ladies like the way he fills out a pair of swim trunks...
Much of the credit obviously goes to the script. I wasn't particularly complimentary to Purvis and Wade for their work on TWINE and DAD. But I don't want to fall into the trap of giving all of the credit to Paul Haggis, despite his credentials, as he's said publicly that his main contribution was rewriting the climax. Whoever is responsible, the dialogue sparkles and shines, especially between Vesper and James, without relying on terrible puns to push things along. And in contrast to the way that TWINE and DAD half-heartedly attempted to changes things up, but ultimately lacked the courage of their convictions and bailed out, CR06 never wavers in its commitment to give us a serious Bond Year One. The additions to the book are mostly character building moments for Bond and LeChiffre, and some thrilling action pieces, all well handled with none of the absurd tonal shifts of the previous two movies. A wonderfully solid writing job.
And let me go on the record right now: Martin Campbell can direct a Bond movie any goddamned time he wants to. With CR06 and Goldeneye to his credit, Campbell rivals Terrance Young as a Bond director in my book. Maybe he's only really good with an actor's first Bond movie, as he keeps declining offers to come back. But he's taken what on paper are two very different Bond movies and gotten right to the heart of them. But there are similarities: in GE he was given a movie about Bond at middle age, examining what the hell all the martinis and women meant to a man who should be jaded from having his life constantly on the line. In CR06, he gets a baby Bond, learning how to be a Double-O in the first place. In both cases, he has a firm vision of what he wants the movie to be, and guides us along confidently.
And the action scenes--oh, lordy, how wonderful. Despite the rapid action and quick cutting, you're never at a loss for what's going on, never confused as to how we got from point A to point B. Visceral, tough, thrilling--this movie quickens your pulse even when you know what's going to happen.
Which isn't to slight him in non-action scenes. Any scene with Vesper sparkles, and their shower scene is one of the most touching things in the entire series. In a movie with such highly-charged action scenes, there's a real danger that things will flag in between, but Campbell never lets our attention waver, making the poker scenes just as intense as the parkour, the conversations as riveting as the sinking buildings. Please, Martin Campbell--come back to us and give us Bond movies!!
Eva Green makes for a compelling Vesper Lynd. (Although I will say that her accent continues to bug me to this day--at times her English is so stiff, and accent so distractingly stilted, you almost wish that they had just found a way to make her character French...only at times, though). To make the part compelling, you have to believe that Vesper is intelligent, vulnerable beneath her haughty facade, and capable of both betraying Bond and killing herself because she loves him. Green pulls it off ably, creating a deep portrait of the woman Bond will come to love. Note that she doesn't even appear until one hour into the movie--yet the audience knows more about her, and feels a deeper connection to her, than any recent Bond woman. Green takes the strong script and executes her role amazingly well. Her repartee with Bond, the subtle signs of her guilt that only become apparent upon repeat viewings, and the depth of her feeling for James, come through beautifully. It's obvious why she's had such an impact on Bond's life, and why she is a top-tier Bond girl.
A special Felix Leiter shout out to Jeffrey Wright. Yes, it's once again a small role. But it's a refreshingly realistic Leiter--he's keenly aware of Bond's strength (cards) versus his own (money), and is willing to do the smart thing and stake Bond when the British government won't. For once, Leiter isn't there just as a sidekick or support staff for 007, but an agent with his own agenda that just happens to coincide with Bond's. Well played, "brother from Langley." Stay away from sharks, buddy.
Judi Dench's return as M can cause some consternation if you worry too much about whether or not this is a full reboot or just a Year One. After all, in Goldeneye we saw her introduction, and she replaced a previous M, and Bond had never worked for her before, so how could she have been Bond's first boss?? But just as with the "how come Bond and Blofeld don't recognize each other in OHMSS?" problem, I choose to ignore it. No solution makes good sense, so why not just relax and enjoy Dench's mastery of the role? She's on the top of her game here, balancing her anger at Bond with her trying to mold him into the agent she needs, giving him a long leash because she knows he's going to keep digging. Plus, we get our first shots of her home, her sleeping husband, and the first inklings of her real name (which apparently she's not terribly fond of...Mildred? Mulva?). I don't care what meta-fiction might have to be involved, but for heaven's sake keep Dench as M, no matter who is Bond or when the movie is set.
The movie is not 100% perfect...but many of those imperfections stem from following the structure of the book. Some have complained of the early death of LeChiffre and the "meandering" of the movie's last half hour. But that is exactly how the book does it! In the novel, Bond and Vesper cavort around Europe, but their relationship gradually breaks down over her guilt at having been the traitor (and her fear that SMERSH will catch up to her and kill James, too), and she kills herself with sleeping pills and leaves a tearful suicide note. Perhaps, in trying to mirror the novel so closely, they might have made a cinematic mistake. For those who weren't familiar with the novel, that 20 minutes of bumming around Europe being in love can feel anti-climactic and wandering, up until the phone call from M asking where the money is gives us a jolt of adrenaline. It's a segment that gives us a lot of appreciated character moments, yet feels very unlike a James Bond movie the way it unfolds, without the narrative drive the audience has come to expect, both from prior Bond movies and CR itself up to that point. I don't have any kind of answer here--I don't mind it, but I can understand why some people regard the longueur as a time to take a bathroom break. Could they have done it differently? Should they have? Were they too focused on being faithful to the novel?
This same fidelity to the novel also hurts Mads Mikkelson's presence as the villain. I'm not criticizing his performance at all--he's more than menacing enough, thinking his arrogant intelligence is enough to solve all his problems as things go to hell around him. Yet like in the book, LeChiffre doesn't actually have a lot to do. He doesn't really have any henchmen, and so other than his silent girlfriend, unless he's with Bond, he doesn't have anybody to bounce off of. The physical traits they give him--the asthma, the "weeping blood"--are just gimmicks glued onto the character to make him seem more Fleminesque, in lieu of spending time giving him more personality or background. We end up knowing far less about LeChiffre than we do Vesper. Take away the poker games and the torture scene, and there's really not much there. Throw in the fact that he dies 3/4 of the way through the film (and not even at Bonds' hands!), and we seem to have another situation where perhaps fidelity to the novel doesn't work as well as it might cinematically. Perhaps the writers should have deviated from the book a bit more in order to make LeChiffre a better character...
Those are minor quibbles, though. Eon completely stunned the world by, seemingly out of nowhere, producing one of the best James Bond movies ever. After a post-DAD break filled with controversy and unrest, after a nearly complete re-imagining of the series, Casino Royale (2006) has by sheer audaciousness and pluck muscled its way to near the top of the Bond pantheon. Did any of us expect that to happen?
Just because you've done something, doesn't mean you've got to keep doing it. Just because the first 20 Bond films followed a pattern, doesn't mean Eon had to keep following that pattern. That would have been the safe thing...but to the credit of everyone involved, they not only went back to Bond's roots, but they replowed and replanted the whole damned field. It's too early to know what the result will be--is this a one time aberration, or a new trend? A triumphant debut, or what we'll come to regard in 10 years as a false step? But for now (and at least for another week), I can confidently declare that Casino Royale (2006) is one hell of a movie. I guess the third time really was a charm.
I'm at the end of my journey through the Bonds. But we're not done yet. There will be posts aplenty over the next week, as I try to pass the time until midnight Thursday with lists, discussions of odd topics I hadn't gotten to yet, and more Cletus! And of course, QoS will undoubtedly give me a lot to write about, too. And then we can begin the countdown to The Hildebrandt Rarity (hey, don't laugh...who ever thought Eon would actually use Quantum of Solace as a title?!?).
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**We'll have a long talk this weekend about the poker in CR06. There are several questionable things there...
**Interestingly enough, Eon finally got the rights to Casino Royale thanks to a studio trade--MGM gave Sony the rights to do Spider-Man movies, and Sony in return gave MGM the CR rights. Of course, by the time they got around to making CR, Sony had purchased MGM, so it was something of a moot point...
**One aspect of early Bond's spy abilities is that he is COMPLETELY TERRIBLE at surreptitiously following someone. In the deleted scene from the trailer, Dryden's contact sees Bond following him, which results in the bathroom fight. Bond gets made in Madagascar, but that's his partners fault...we'll give him a pass. But Dimitrios catches Bond tailing him in Miami; Carlos the bomber sees Bond trailing him at the airport; the Ugandans nail him at the hotel; and Gettler catches Bond spying on Vesper in Venice. All of these serve to make Bond's life much harder. Really, you'd think that before promoting him to Double-O, M would make sure that he had passed Surveillance 101 (or that the writers wouldn't keep using the same plot device over and over to advance the action...)
**Listen to Dryden talk all about Double-O's, and advice Bond that the second kill is easier. Does he know from experience? Was Dryden a former Double-O, now a corrupt station chief?
**Should LeChiffre really be making his investment call in the open?? Where not only the Ugandans, but Mr. White might overhear? Geez, he's not even trying to conceal the phone call...
**Aah, fictional countries again. Nambutu...the question is, why did Mollaka flee to that embassy? Was he a Nambutuan? Or was he working with their government in some of his terrorist activities?
**How, exactly, does the press leap to the assumption that Bond was a British agent? He never says a word the entire time to anybody in the embassy, or does anything that might betray his identity...why not assume he's American, or Russian? Did the Madagascar authorities somehow manage to track this info down? Did somebody in MI-6 leak it?
**Speaking of which, whatever happened to Bond's oafish partner on this mission, Carter? He's never mentioned again after blowing things. Was he captured, and then dropped the dime on Bond?
**Well, at least we now know why Bond never fathered any bastards during all those liaisons over the years--crushed gonads!!
**I asked this same question in TWINE...why is Vesper making a physical withdrawal from the bank, as opposed to a wire transfer, such as the one that put the money into her account to begin with? Just to give us a briefcase MacGuffin, I guess...
**If that's someone from the Treasury asking M to call Bond about why the money hasn't been transferred yet, why aren't they also calling Vesper, since she actually worked for the Treasury?? Then again, maybe they did and she just never returned the calls...
**So Skyfleet is going to do the big public unveiling of their new jetliner in the middle of the night??
**Vesper may be at the treasury, but she seems a little iffy on certain mathematical concepts: "So you're telling me it's a matter of probability and odds...I was worried there was some chance involved." Uh, Vesper dear...that's sort of the definition of chance...
**Why all the muckity muck about planting the tracker/bug in LeChiffre's inhaler, when all it ever did was to show Bond what floor LeChiffre was staying on? Really, you need a gadget for that??
**I can't finish without mentioning Solange...mmmm, pretty lady.
**Did M know about Bond's deal to give LeChiffre to the Americans? Obviously, it never came about, but would she have approved of such freelancing? Would she have applauded it as a necessary improvisation under the circumstances?? Or would she have ripped into Bond for giving away an asset to the Americans??
**So, just for the record...we know MI-6 and the CIA had infiltrated the game. Who else was the? Japanese intelligence? The Mossad?
**Bond Score: 2. Solange and Vesper. Cumulative Bond Score...hmm, does this count anymore? If it's really a reboot, maybe not...but since so far they're not remaking any of the older movies, I say they still count for Bond Score purposes...so Cumulative Bond Score: 57.
And, as always
Tune in next week for "5 minutes later..." Damn it, the anticipation is killing me!!