August 11, 2006

Casino Royale: The Good, the Bad and the Sexy

Posted in Movies at 11:33 pm by Calico Jack

After 44 years of seeing Bond on the big screen, I think the producers had it exactly right when they declared that it was time to return 007 to his roots. There hasn’t been a good Bond film since Goldeneye, and the past few have become increasingly silly. Die Another Day had a few good moments, especially in the first half; but as soon as the action switched from following Bond’s personal vendetta to foiling yet another megalomaniac’s plan to take over the world, the movie quickly lost its sense of urgency and became another cliched, rather hokey action film.

There is a rather complicated formula to all Bond movies, but it’s easily distilled into three things: guns, gadgets, and girls, with a helping of quips on the side. It’s part of what makes watching 007 so much fun. The problem that arose in the late 90s was that the formula stopped working, mostly because The Powers that Be (TPTB) ran out of ways to tweak the quintessential Bond story. Both Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough were a mash and rehash of many previous Bond films, but they lacked anything special to make them worthy movies in their own right. Die Another Day did it a little bit better by including deliberate homages to 007’s past, but much of the latter half was just trash.

I still think Pierce Brosnan is the best Bond since Connery, but he wasn’t given many good scripts to work with. The silliness quotient in each succeeding Brosnan film was amped up, and that jarred with Brosnan’s ability to play scenes perfectly straight when needed. If you go back and watch Connery’s films, especially the earlier ones, there is a palpable sense of menace that radiates from his portrayal of Bond. He was not a man to be taken lightly, even with the quips. He had a harder edge that made his Bond dangerous and exciting, something that was lost when Moore took over the franchise in 1973 with Live and Let Die. Moore’s films were lighthearted, and he played Bond with a wink and a smile. Unfortunately, his successor went in completely the opposite direction. Timothy Dalton played a Bond who was not only dark, but dour. Audiences didn’t like the lack of humor, and the franchise suffered to the point where producers wondered if they would ever be able to resurrect Bond. Six years later, they found their man in Brosnan, and his first entry Goldeneye ranks at the very top of Bond films.

This brings us full circle to today. Die Another Day did well at the box office back in 2002, but everyone sensed that the franchise was starting to teeter over the edge of the creative cliff. After all, there are only so many ways to keep bringing back the same plot before audiences declare that they’re tired of the repetition. Die Another Day could have taken a step in a bold new direction, but they only got halfway there. Now the 21st film in the franchise hits theaters in November. Casino Royale promises to be the reboot we’ve all been waiting for, but how well can TPTB pull it off? Here are some hints.

The good:

The director. Martin Campbell also directed Goldeneye, and apart from someone like Matthew Vaughn or Alfonso Cuarón (yes, I’m not kidding), Campbell is the best choice for a movie like Casino Royale. Goldeneye wasn’t bloated, had a good sense of pacing, and contained a few interesting directorial touches. Campbell knows Bond, and he won’t get lost in special effects or gadgets over plot.

The story. Casino Royale is the only book by Fleming that hasn’t been made into a movie, and it is one of Fleming’s leanest, darkest novels. Casino Royale tells the story of how Bond became the icon he is, and audiences will be surprised to learn just how much suffering he has to undergo before he earns his 007 status. There is little humor in this novel, but I think that this is exactly the type of story that will bring a freshness to the franchise. Save the quips for Bond 22.

The producers. I think they finally woke up and realized that they had made a mess of the past few films. Barbara Broccoli stated in a recent interview:

”We’re going back to the character Ian Fleming originally conceived. It’s not a period piece or anything like that. It’s set today, right now, and it’s got all the action fans have come to expect from the movies. But we’re getting back to the essence of Bond, to the Bond in Fleming’s first 007 novel.”

That’s a very encouraging sign.

The actor. Daniel Craig galvanized Bond fans when he was revealed as the sixth official actor to play 007. His blonde hair is still a bit of a turnoff, but I like the fact that he isn’t as charmingly handsome as several of his predecessors. Fleming’s Bond is craggy, with a three-inch scar on his left cheek and a cruel mouth — quite unlike the what many people are used to. As for Craig’s acting skills, he was competent in Tomb Raider, but he shined as “XXXX” in Layer Cake. He has the edge needed to play this type of Bond.

In addition, Craig has support from several previous Bonds. To quote from E! Online:

Brosnan also expressed his support for Craig, stating that he thought the naysayers would eventually be proven wrong about his successor.

“I think Daniel is a very fine actor,” he said. “These are rocky waters, and they’re going to get him one way or another, but I think he will have the last laugh at the end of it.”

Brosnan’s not the only former Bond to stand up for Craig. Roger Moore also has the latest 007’s back, pointing out that critics have yet to see Craig in the role.

“He’s a [expletive deleted] good actor,” Moore, the star of seven Bond films, told reporters. “So why attack him?”

And back in December, Craig received a ringing endorsement from the original–and perhaps greatest 007 — Sean Connery, who told the BBC that Craig was “a terrific choice…a completely new departure.”


The Bad:

It’s no secret that Craig has been a bit of a wimp on set. He was reportedly unable to drive the Aston Martin because it wasn’t an automatic. Craig also dislikes guns (something that came through in his performance in Layer Cake), got his two front teeth knocked loose in his very first fight scene, and suffered from a severe case of sunburn while filming in the Bahamas. Oh, and he has a fear of heights. None of that is very Bond-like, is it? Now, it’s true that the actor off-screen has little to do with the actor on-screen, so I still think Craig could be a good choice for the role. I won’t pass judgment on him as others are doing.

One of the things that worries me the most is that the writers of Casino Royale are none other than Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Together, they penned The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. I would much rather have gone with someone else who isn’t tied so closely to the Bond that Was, but it appears as if they’re under contract to write the next James Bond film also. As long as they stick fairly close to the novel and don’t write too many extraneous scenes, they might do a decent job. And they had better keep in the infamous torture scene from the novel.

Judi Dench as M. I liked Dame Judi as M, especially the added level of gender tension that she brought to her scenes with Brosnan’s Bond. Having said that, I wish we could have gotten a completely new M for this movie. If the producers are going to do a reboot of the series, it doesn’t help much to leave in one of the actors most associated with the franchise over the past decade. As the movie goes back to the beginning of 007’s career, so should the actors. And with Craig willing to do at least one or two more films, it would be jarring to suddenly have to replace M should Dame Judi be unable to continue her role.

Under the category of minor irritant: Why did TPTB decide to change the iconic Bond game of baccarat to Texas Hold’em? Baccarat has been a part of the Bond legacy since Fleming’s books; and it is a shame to see the producers blatantly pander to the masses by switching to a game that, although possibly being more easily understood on-screen, is a complete disregard of the elegant Britishness that is 007.

The sexy:

‘Nuff said.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Casino Royale. It has many of the elements of a good Bond film; and if TPTB can manage to refrain from making this an overwrought, bloated, flashy 007 outing, I think we could be in for a surprise come November. Until the full trailer comes out, I can’t really comment on the snippets of scenes that have been shown so far. But I do hope that Casino Royale manages to overcome all of the skepticism and doubts that have plagued the movie since pre-production. I want to go to the movie theater and get excited when I see the opening credits and hear the classic theme. This could be what we’ve all been waiting for.



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