Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

I've never been a huge fan of the Bond series. Goldfinger's a fun movie, as is Goldeneye, but each movie has a similar formula, and the more you watch in a row, the more the similarities become apparent. So, the producers are faced with the problem of keeping things fresh film after film. With the latter Brosnan films they tried to do this by raising the stakes, making bigger and bigger setpieces until we got the invisible car and ice palace laser destruction sequence of Die Another Day, a film in which nearly every piece of dialogue was a cheesy line. After the excess, they smartened up and decided to scale things back and return some humanity to the character. It was a smart choice and works really well, resulting in the best Bond film ever made.

The opening sequence announces the change in intention. Rather than the increasingly massive setpieces used as the series went on, we get stark black and white and a cold Bond gunning his enemy down before he can complete his cliche. This is intercut with some nice, grainy shots of a nasty fight in a bathroom, Bond's first kill. This segues brilliantly into the classic gunsight opening and a very nice opening titles sequence. Now, some of this restraint and grit is undermined by the lengthy, over the top chase sequence that follows. It's a cool sequence, but indicates a bit of a compromise, reassuring the action audience that there's plenty for them here too.

This opening section of the film is solid, but in light of the quality later on, I think it could have been trimmed a bit. Having both the first chase action sequence and the plane/truck sequence pushes things too far in the not forwarding the plot spectacle department. The second sequence came too early in the film for such an extended setpiece, it would have been better to tighten it a bit. That said, I think the film gives you a better sense of Bond as a great agent, rather than a superhero. He's trained well enough that jumping over all those buildings doesn't drain him, but he's not able to do it with much style either. This Bond is all about just getting the job done, no matter the violence that's involved in doing so.

Now, a grittier Bond isn't necessarily a huge jump beyond what we've seen before. It makes the action sequences more tense, because Bond has to prove himself, but that's not enough to make the movie works. The biggest success is in finally giving Bond a foil who's an equal, not by trying to make a rival for Bond's action prowess, but giving him someone who's equally good at hiding her emotions and placing 'the mission' over personal interest. In most Bond movies, there's the 'good girl' and the 'bad girl,' and a clear delineation between the two. Usually, Bond will sleep with the bad girl, but eventually reject her and wind up with the 'good girl,' the one who gives him some assistance in his mission, but is more an object to be saved.

What Eva Green's Vesper does is fuse the two archetypes. For most of the film, she seems to be Bond's ally, and despite her initial resistance, quickly succumbs to his charms. However, for the first time, we see Bond as the one who's getting played. He lets down his guard and falls in love with her, and when he finds out she's betrayed him, it hurts him both as a man and a spy. He's let his emotions weaken him, and from this betrayal, we can see where the man who exists in the later films comes from. Bond doesn't trust women and won't get close to them because doing so means opening himself up to the betrayal he experiences here. The only way for him to ensure that this doesn't happen again is to never let his guard down, to put the man away and be only the spy.

It's not evident the first time through, but looking, Vesper goes through the same process. She is a professional spy, and does not want to fall in love with Bond. When she does, it presents awful complications for her, unlike MI6, her crew will not let her leave so easily. The parallels between the two characters are set up from the beginning, the fact that they're likely both orphans, who have had to shield their emotions. Vesper also had the troubled breakup with the Armenian guy, Bond is her way to overcome that hurt. In Venice, they both saw a future with the possibility of real emotional attachment. There's a brief moment of happiness before it all goes awry. Since Vesper was bringing them the money to pay for Bond's life, it means that Bond's spy instincts, his lack of trust for her, was what messed things up for both of them. Now, we don't know if M was lying to him when she said that, but I believe that Vesper was trying to save James. It's more poignant that way. The spy returned and that meant the end of James as emotionally open man.

The end of the film functions sort of like the end of Revenge of the Sith. We've been waiting the whole time to see James Bond, badass, emerge. But, like the revelation of Vader in Sith, the 'birth' we've been looking forward to turns out to be a death. Bond's theme song heralds the birth of the cold, professional, emotionless man who we see in the other films of the series. It's a fantastic moment, the slow build of the theme song as Mr. White climbs up the stairs, culminating in the shot of Bond holding an automatic and delivering the line. But, there's a sadness in it too. His brief respite from the life is over and now we know he'll be 007 for life.

The end of the film also sets up interesting sequel possibilities, as Bond will presumably investigate the organization that Vesper worked for. I heard that they were planning to do an actual continuation with the next sequel, which would be cool. However, it does raise the issue of how to avoid the character problems that the other films were plagued with, this one was all about bringing Bond to that point, how do they keep him interesting after he's been emotionally shut down here.

And, I'll definitely miss the presence of Eva Green, who did fantastic work here. Her performance in The Dreamers is one of the most raw, emotionally vulnerable I've seen, and she brings humanity to the character here. Her and Craig make what could have been a somewhat cliched relationship really work, and that emotional base is what makes this one of the best action films of recent years. All the special effects in the world can't replicate an emotional engagement with characters, and this film had that.

So, I was really happy with this film. It got a lot of critical praise, and deservedly so. I think a bit of tightening on the top end could have made it a better film, but I'm sure a lot of the audience was there for the action setpieces, and the franchise needs to fulfill that demand. The Bond franchise is about beautiful people in beautiful places doing ugly things, and this film delivered on that better than any other in the series.

34 comments:

Alexander said...

I agree with everything you said. Eva Green is rumored to be reprising her role in the next one. I'm not sure what that would mean. I suspect they'll return to the time-tested formula after a couple more films, as the success of the series in the long-run is because die-hards enjoy seeing how the same story can be repackaged every two years. And while Casino Royale is one of the few really great films released under the Bond brand, the formula has allowed just about every entry to be at the very least dependable. But yeah, I enjoyed Casino Royale so much.

- Alex

Patrick said...

I think the finale of this sets up a way to keep the series moving forward, by having some kind of ongoing narrative arc rather than just standalones as was done in the past.

On some level, this film is all about bringing us back to the old status quo, and I'm curious to see whether they'll keep investigating Bond's character like they did in this film in the future, or if it's just going to be a straight ahead presentation of the suave guy from the other movies. Ultimately, they'll all have essentially the same formula, even this movie does, but I think it's possible to have that formula and still use it to interrogate the character in a different way with each movie.

crossoverman said...

I was impressed, as a life-long fan of Bond and Ian Fleming, this was an incredibly good film. I'm not yet ready to say it's the best - because it both was of the same formula and playing against it. So, as far as I'm concerned, it's easily one of the best Bond films - but it simply equals other great ones. I won't definitively say it's better than the rest.

My review:
http://crossoverman.livejournal.com/112100.html

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