The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)


Wow.  I have to say that I’m still a little bit shocky after watching the newest (21st) installment in the perennial film series based on Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007.  I first fell in love with the series back in 1964 at the age of 12, watching “Goldfinger” at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  It totally blew my mind, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Goldfinger had its moments of camp, but it, along with “From Russia With Love” are generally considered the best of the entire series.  Which one you love more defines you as belonging to the “Serious” Bond camp (in which case you’ve had precious little to enjoy over the last 40 years) or the “escapist” Bond camp—in which case, in all probability, your appetite and tolerance for absurdity has been tested beyond the limits over the same period of time.

It’s always been interesting to me that Bond is perceived as  a “Chauvinist” or a “Misogynist”  when it is pretty obvious to me that he is a misanthrope.  He has no real friends.  He can have no real relationships.  He kills for a living, and lives in hotel rooms.  Fleming’s 007 was a border-line sociopath smoking and drinking himself into the grave, balancing on the edge of breakdown, capable of being wired together for one more assignment…maybe.

And that Bond, the real Bond, we’ve never seen.  Until now.  Even “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the only Bond movie that even really gave a nod to his actual emotions, was undercut by the adequate-but-not-impressive thesping skills of the newbie actor George Lazenby.  I’ve always thought that if St. Sean, the ultimate Bond, had played the role, it would have been considered the very best of the series.

Now, I’m not so certain.  Connery wasn’t a great actor when he started the series.  He never became a great actor, although he is a great star of fantastic virility and charisma.  But Acting?   Check him out in “Diamonds Are Forever”’s opening sequence, when he is pursuing the man who killed his dearest love.  Does anyone believe the emotions displayed, even for a moment?

Pierce Brosnan is actually better…but watch “ Tomorrow N ever Dies” again.  There’s a woman from his past who, he admits, got too close to his heart.  She dies directly because of his asininity, and fifteen minutes after he discovers the body, he’s chortling away as he remote-control drives his car through a parking lot. 

There is nothing recognizably human about either Bond, not really.  But you don’t get it until you watch a real actor, in a film where they at least TRIED to touch on real human emotion.

For Eon Productions to attempt to reboot a 40-year old franchise like this is just incredible, and they largely pull it off.

“Casino Royale” offers Daniel Craig at a young Bond on his first 00 mission.  He makes mistakes.  He is arrogant to a fault, and his ego gets people killed.  He is no aristocrat playing spy like Roger Moore’s Bond.  This is a middle-class guy with phenomenal courage, physical skill, and intuitive/creative intelligence.  When he puts on a tux, he is playing a role, and mocking the snobs who made his childhood hell.  This is a lethal athlete, a “Die Hard” Bond with more than a whiff of “Bourne” and “24”.  

The plot, which has Bond accidentally bankrupting a terrorist financier, forcing this shadowy adversary into a potentially ruinous game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker to recoup his losses, bounces Craig around the usual exotic locales.  But there is a real, real difference.  This man has feelings.  He is haunted by the men he kills (and the kills are nasty, brutish, and short).  He is aggressive to the point of insanity, throwing himself into the most dangerous pursuit (the film’s best action sequence is its first, a Parkour Free-Running pursuit around a crane site in Madagascar.  Yow!) without a moment’s thought.

This guy is frightening, volatile, and anyone who thinks he hates women hasn’t noticed the way he treats men.  He’s a nightmare.

Then…he meets a Woman.  Not a married tramp—his usual sexual target.  Not a little girl or a plastic bimbo, as so many of the Bond women have been.  No, Vesper Lynd is an accountant sent to oversee Her Majesty’s stake in a multi-zillion dollar poker game, and she is nobody’s fool.  And he falls hard.  And what happens as a result transforms him into the genteel, smiling, emotionless killing machine we know and adore.

This is special, a love letter from Eon Productions, a “Thank You” for 40 years of fandom.  For them to risk their four billion dollar empire like this is all the evidence I need that they genuinely give a damn, and are trying to do something…well, if not artistic, shall we say at least creative?  With the second most profitable franchise in film history.

Danial Craig is the best actor ever to play the role.  He is the second most physical (after Connery, whose effortless grace is still a joy to behold, even after all these years) and that combination makes him…dare I say it?  A potential threat to Connery’s Crown.  He could very well be the standard by which all future Bond fans measure the role, depending on the quality of the films to come.

How good is he?  Let’s just put it this way: HIS Bond would actually be a deadly, fearless, courageous, outrageous operative in the real world, the kind of man to inspire legends.  All the others—including Connery—are more like actors hired to portray him onscreen.  And that’s something I never thoughts I’d say.  How good is Casino Royale?  Up there with the best five Bond movies ever.  Ever.  This is terrific stuff, and the most enjoyable time I’ve had at the movies this year.

For Bond fans, an A+.  For action fans, an A.  And for moviegoers in general, a B+.  Be warned: this is an R-rated movie, whatever the official ratings say.  The violence is realistic, grueling, and not at all played for jokes.  This ain’t your daddy’s Bond.  But it just might be yours.

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