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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CASINO ROYALE (2006)

It’s always an iffy proposition to attempt the revivification of a moribund franchise, and some attempts are more successful than others. TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY went tits-up the second it hit the screen (did anyone other than me see that one?), BATMAN BEGINS met with critical and box office success (I couldn’t stand it), and SUPERMAN RETURNS gave us special effects that finally caught up with what the Man of Steel can do and rendered his super-feats visually believable, but offered little other than Brandon Routh’s turn in the role. Yeah, I know I gave it a gushing review a few months back, but upon careful consideration after a second viewing, the flick really wasn’t all that (I can hear Jared’s maniacal laughter right now). Which brings me to the latest entry in the forty-four-year old James Bond series.

James Bond, agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is a character rooted firmly in the Cold War, first turning up in novels in the 1950’s before making the leap to cinema in 1962 (it’s best not to recall the piss poor American television “adaptation” of CASINO ROYALE from the fifties) and as the years went by he has been retooled for each subsequent generation of moviegoers. As his original Cold War scenarios gave way to a changing world, Bond’s adventures relied more and more on fantastic sci-fi elements to keep things moving, and the ruthless secret agent became a self-parody for whom no situation was non-negotiable, and as a result his adventures held little or no suspense.

After Sean Connery left his indelible, dick-swinging mark on the series and moved on, George Lazenby stepped in for a one-shot performance in what many fans consider to be the finest entry in the run — 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, in case you don’t know — but he heeded some of the worst career advice ever given and quit the series because his agent was convinced that the Bond series was destined to die in the wake of “youth-oriented” hits such as THE GRADUATE and EASY RIDER. Connery returned once more for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, a regrettable decision since the movie has the dubious distinction of being the first 007 movie to flat out suck balls as opposed to simply being dull (THUNDERBALL, anyone?), and it’s truly painful to witness Connery overweight, a bit rickety, and sporting a toupee so bad that one expected to see Davey Crockett steal his walker, punch him in his beer gut and demand the return of his coonskin cap.

Then Roger “I Was Better As the Saint” Moore took the reins with his smarmy, aging hipster portrayal and the series went to previously undreamed of realms that redefined “over-the-top,” shifting gears into outright comedy that self-consciously winked at its audience. After the post-STAR WARS excesses of MOONRAKER and its Bond in space idiocy, the filmmakers wisely ditched much of the goofiness, coming back strong with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, the tightest entry of Moore’s run, and then almost immediately backpedaled to outright implausibility with the execrable OCTOPUSSY and A VIEW TO A KILL, my own personal choice for the absolute nadir of the series (old-assed Roger Moore snowboarding and killing bad guys while “California Girls” blares on the soundtrack? Nigga, please). Fortunately, that debacle saw the end of the Moore era, with seven films in a row leaving him as the actor who holds the record for most appearances as 007 in the official series.

Next in line was Timothy Dalton, a perfect choice for a late-1980’s reboot that aimed to bring Bond back to his edgy template from Fleming’s novels, but Dalton had the misfortune of being stuck in two of the weakest flicks in the franchise’s history, namely THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and LICENCE TO KILL, the former being so fucking boring that it should be patented as a surefire cure for insomnia. What really galls me about the films in Dalton’s run is that most viewers blame their failure squarely on Dalton, when the real problem was in the scripts; no solid story, no movie, but to this day Dalton gets unjustly slagged off as perhaps the worst Bond ever seen, and that’s a damned shame.

Pierce Brosnan’s handling of 007 swept in like a suave breath of fresh air, but once more the stories were very much hit-or-miss. There are those who love GOLDENEYE, but I place it just behind THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS as a stone-cold, boring dud, and out of Brosnan’s four installments I only enjoyed TOMORROW NEVER DIES (BTW, what the fuck does that title mean?) and about two-thirds of DIE ANOTHER DAY, while THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH comes in just behind A VIEW TO A KILL in my estimation as the most painful vindaloo turd of the entire series, barely edging out DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER to claim second place. But as James Bonds go, Pierce Brosnan was my favorite since Sean Connery in his prime.

Which brings us up to date, and to the first serious attempt at rendering Fleming’s first 007 yarn, 1953’s CASINO ROYALE, as a big screen confection. Please don't get me started on the comedic version from the 1960's...

For those not in the know, Fleming’s novels are (for the most part) straight-up espionage thrillers, each hung on the shoulders of a deeply flawed professional killer whom the reader respects not for any bits of incidental heroism that he may display, but more for the coldly efficient way in which he approaches his job. Bond’s is an occupation he’s perfectly suited for, and that’s being the school bully with lethal skills and a government stipend. He’s a bit sadistic, has major issues with women, and is not necessarily a person you’d want to know or be like in any way, and considering when the film series got started, much of what made Bond so interesting as a protagonist in prose form had to be toned down for the mass market theatergoing audience.

The 2006 CASINO ROYALE can get away with what its predecessors couldn’t, and it seeks to relaunch the franchise from the ground up with what is essentially the story of how James Bond made the leap from freelance hitman to his status as a licensed-to-kill “double 0” operative of Britain’s MI-6, and his first mission in that capacity. Yes, we’re supposed to approach this film as though there had never been another James Bond flick, so the leaden baggage of over four decades does not weigh down this film, although the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time does stretch things a tad.

The story is simplicity itself: upon earning his double-0 status, Bond sets his sights on Le Chiffre, a scumbag who funds international terrorism. The poker-expert villain seeks to raise $150,000,000 for his evil endeavors by winning a high stakes Texas Hold ‘Em game (Chemin de Fer in the novel) at Casino Royale in Montenegro, so the Brits send badass poker player 007 to destroy the bastard with his card-playing acumen. Throw in some taught, downright exhausting action sequences and a beautiful love interest, and you have a recipe for a James Bond movie that could go either way. Thankfully, this time around we have capable filmmakers who actually gave a shit about what they were doing.

Contemporary setting aside, the producers wisely chose to stick pretty close to the source novel, and the film has the nasty, violent flavor that I love in Fleming’s books, something that may be shocking to Bond fans who are unfamiliar with the character outside of the movies. This film is shockingly brutal, especially considering its PG-13 rating, and the violence works both ways, affecting Bond as well as his enemies, the only difference between the hero’s injuries and those of the bad guys being that Bond survives his set-to’s, albeit broken, slashed, bruised, and bleeding.

Daniel Craig is excellent as 007, and he’s definitely my favorite in the role since Sean Connery, even delivering scenes of emotional depth that I doubt Connery could have pulled off during his Bond years. He’s nailed Bond as a brutal, if skilled, thug whose seemingly blank blue-eyed gaze disguises an ambulatory killing machine who can explode into a flurry of hand-to-hand asswhuppery in an instant, and there is little about him that is admirable; he’s definitely an off-the-leash pitbull for the British government, one step removed from being a total animal thanks to his meticulous, professional approach to his work. This guy would kill you as soon as look at you, if that was what needed for the job, and he is one very scary motherfucker.

Another plus is the absence of ludicrous sci-fi gadgets, the element of the series that annoyed me even more than the nauseating one-liners. The tech stuff this time around is nothing more than intelligent usage of cell phones, some tracking devices, a "bug" or two, and Bond's car having a glove compartment stocked with acceptable neccessities. And none of the automobiles have super-powers, for the first time since 1964's GOLDFINGER, and I welcome that with open arms.

I won’t say anything else about the film itself so you, the moviegoer, can discover this Bond on your own, but I will mention this for those who know the book: yes, the torture scene actually made it to the screen — guys, hold onto your “boys” during that one — and the novel’s character-defining final line is there as well, used to a much more understated effect than in the book, but at least it’s present, even at the risk of turning off a large portion of ticket buyers.

The Bond geek in me was quite satisfied, so much so that I rank this CASINO ROYALE as number three among my favorites in the series, coming in behind ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, and the superlative FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Pleased to meet you again, Mister Bond. Come back soon, and show no mercy.

"You know my name": Daniel Craig as a truly badass Bond.

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