Saturday, 1 September 2012

Casino Royale

James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.

It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare double-O prefix - the licence to kill in the Secret Service - it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional - worse, it was death watch beetle in the soul. 

And yet there had been something curiously impressive about the death of the Mexican. It wasn't that he hadn't deserved to die. He was an evil man, a man they call in Mexico a capungo. A capungo is a bandit who will kill for as little as forty pesos, which is about twenty-five shillings - though probably he had been paid more to attempt the killing of Bond - and, from the look of him, he had been an instrument of pain and misery all his life. Yes, it had certainly been time for him to die; but when Bond had killed him, less than twenty-four hours before, life had gone out of the body so quickly, so utterly, that Bond had almost seen it come out of his mouth as it does, in the shape of a bird, in Haitian primitives. 

What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving licence. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for the dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all of Mexico.

That's the opening from Goldfinger (1959, hence the stuff about 'primitives'). Apologies for quoting it at length but it's important. This stinking bandit is important. And here's why:

Run through the intricate sausage-machine of film-adaptation, Fleming's reflective passage ended up on screen as that clip. Whilst the literary Bond Pooh-ishly ponders the capungo's death and sees something astonishing, Connery simply struts out the door, amused with himself. It is the moment ink and screen versions of 007 diverge.

I know, I like that bit in Goldfinger too. I certainly enjoyed it almost a year ago when I watched it for this blog; I called this the 'first and superlative quip' and lauded the PCS to the rafters. But then I spent the rest of the last year watching all the other Bond films and something happened: I saw where this would lead, twenty years later.

Mainly I got sick of the quips. Pretty quickly. Probably by the middle of Thunderball, in fact. Of course, if you only watch a Bond film every now and again it's not too annoying. But if you're watching them in order, regularly - like, say, society does - the quips get worse and increasingly callous. The ghastly nadir comes in TND where, having just casually pulverised a random security guard by throwing him into the threshing mechanism of an industrial printing press, Brosnan's 007 breezes "They'll print anything these days!". Lines like that work to deliberately dehumanise the victim, to mock them and dismiss them. The cumulative result, after so many films, is to render such deaths dramatically and emotionally meaningless. To kill that man costs Bond nothing. It costs the audience even less to watch him do it. 

If both your leading man and your audience are so desensitised as to be almost incapable of feeling then there are limits to the sort of stories you can tell. How can you make a film where Bond must fall in love? How can you show him to be affected by death? In short, how can you make Casino Royale?

The answer is that they ripped everything out (apart from Judi Dench) and they started again. Along the way they managed to recombine Fleming's Bond of the books with the on-screen 007. The result is the best film so far in the series.

There is so little wrong with it. It can be difficult, when something works so satisfyingly, to identify all the bits that make it so good. It's brilliantly written, well acted and the music is superb (David Arnold's best score). The action looks terrific and feels exciting. Everything we have grown to love and associate with Bond - the martinis, the women, the car chases, the casinos, the fighting - is there. But everything is there for a reason. Best of all the ingredients are mercilessly stitched together to form a convincing and realistic world.

Two things make this the best Bond film. Two little, inconsequential things, that this film absolutely gets right: Love, and Death.

The relationship between Bond and Vesper is excellently portrayed. In the book it is nearly all squeezed in the last few chapters, but here it is cleverly pushed into the the very centre of the story. As soon as Bond and Vesper meet on the train, the air between them is fizzing with wit and chemistry, and throughout the hotel and poker scenes they continue to dance about each other in a way that lifts everything else. That their affair is convincing as well as entrancing is due to wonderful writing and to great performances from Craig and Green.

Daniel Craig is stunning as Bond, turning a flat cartoon into a living man. He has the unique advantage (well, apart from Lazenby) of being the only actor asked to develop the character over the course of a film; he does it beautifully. For the first time since the books themselves we get a real sense of Bond as a broken, damaged man: an orphan, and then a killer, who has had to construct an invulnerable exterior around his frailties. What was, for most Bonds, smug sang-froid, is with Craig clearly a coping mechanism - a mask that tries to disguise his real emotions.

Over the course of Casino Royale we see him change. The parkour chase at the beginning shows Bond to be, literally, a 'blunt instrument' as he runs in straight, relentless lines, bulldozing fences and crashing through walls, utterly direct and lacking in much guile or sophistication. He is also reckless and impulsive, a natural gambler who can't stop himself throwing away his cover at the hotel, and who desperately decides to go after Le Chiffre with a knife when he runs out of money. Slowly, the Bond we know emerges. He performs real detective work to track down Dimitrios and brilliantly improvises to gain access to him in the Bahamas. He even gets to follow someone, like an actual spy. We see him acquire the icons of his own identity: the tuxedo, the vodka martini, the Aston Martin DB5. Tempered by the advice of friends and allies, tested by the cruelty of his enemies, he grows stronger and cooler. This development continues into the very final seconds of the film and crucially allows both him and the audience a cathartic climax that transcends the sadness of Vesper's death.

Craig sells the idea of Bond completely, convincingly wrapping all the brutality, charm, coldness, humour, passion, savagery and wit around a fearsome engine. We know, we see, that this is a Bond that won't stop. Nevertheless Vesper is capable of driving thought of duty from his mind.

Eva Green's Vesper is beguiling, waspish, strong yet vulnerable, completely fascinating and utterly real. She's unlike any other female character in the series and, of course, this has to be the case in order for the audience to fall for her as well. She is the Best Bond Woman. I know I said that about Fiona Volpe (who is still sexier, more flamboyant and more dangerous) but Vesper is a complex, three-dimensional character, capable of transfixing and ruining Bond in a way that no other could.

At the centre of their badinage is a telling little exchange where Bond announces that he will call his new vodka martini recipe 'Vesper' after her.

"Why, because of the bitter aftertaste?" she snaps back, disbelievingly.

"No," replies Bond, surprisingly earnest. "Because once you've tasted it, it's all you want to drink."

Vesper laughs and they agree to dismiss the moment as 'a good line', but we, with twenty films of retconned hindsight, know Bond meant it. We know that he didn't, won't, drink anything else ever again.

The new approach to death is signaled in the first few minutes.

"How did he die?" Dryden asks.

"Your contact?" replies Bond. "Not well."

Nobody is easily disposed of in this film. The refreshing authenticity of Casino Royale lies in the fact that all the violence and killing is conducted by people who are fighting for their lives. The struggle with the bomber in Miami matters. When Bond tussles with Dimitrios, the men lock eyes, knife clenched in their grappling hands, each willing the other to submit. Le Chiffre's torturing of Bond is driven by the very real fear that people are coming to kill him. The fight with Obanno, the African war lord, in the stairwell of the hotel is the most savage and unrelenting we have seen in a Bond film since the one on the Orient Express. Protracted and exhausting, the audience is given nowhere to hide from the violence, forced to watch a man die in tight close up. There is no quip to let us laugh it away and we are made to feel complicit as Bond hides the body and washes the blood from his hands, like a murderer. When he reappears moments later, immaculate, we understand that his suave exterior has been reassembled - but we have seen the wild look in his eyes in the mirror, the large glass of scotch he had to throw down his throat. We know what it cost him.

This James Bond will remember the Ugandan he killed in the stairwell of the Hotel Splendide. He certainly won't be able to forget the wide-eyed silent screaming of Vesper as she gulped down lagoon water into her lungs. He'll pretend to others, to himself, that he is detached, unaffected, cold. He will even take satisfaction in the deaths of cruel or evil men. But then, stuck in an airport, or on an overnight flight to Bolivia, with too much time on his hands, he will sit and knock back the drink he named after Her and see in his mind the invisible bird that flew from their mouths, greater than all the world.

*   *   *

Pre-Credits Sequence: Shot in black and white with some Dutch angles, this little scene seems to hark back to Bond's cinematic Sixties roots, but really it's more evocative of something like The Ipcress File. It's a clever and careful introduction to Craig's Bond. He's at his most suave and polished here - the killer line 'Considerably!' is clipped so hard that he could pass for Trevor Howard - whilst the lighting makes Craig's controversially blond hair look very dark indeed. It's a very managed, traditional version of Bond and it is violently juxtaposed with the flashback to the ragged fight in the bathroom. With economy and style it establishes that these are Bond's first kills, cleverly underlining all this by showing us Craig through the gunbarrel, as if for the first time. The message is clear: this is where it all started.

Theme: I didn't warm to it initially, but the more I watch this film the more I like it, to the point that I would now rate it as one of the very best. Unusually muscular, it suits the new Bond very well and (most rarely for a Bond tune) has some good lyrics. I particularly like 'Arm yourself because no one else here will save you' - it perfectly captures the grim self-reliance of a lone agent like Bond. Meanwhile Kleinman turns in his best ever work on the visuals: clever story-telling with imagery ripped from the film's plot and setting. It's so good, you should go and have another look at it here, okay?  

Deaths: 21. But they all matter. For the record that's very low - only DRNO, LALD and TMWTGG can beat it. 

Memorable Deaths: Just about all of them. Even Solange, who dies off screen, gets a vivid corpse scene. But the murder of Obanno in the stairwell is especially visceral. Vesper's horrifically realised death is specifically designed to be unforgettable.  

Licence to Kill: 10. Not so very low, given the film's overall body count. The most important thing here is that all of these deaths become personally significant struggles. Some are mental contests, like the one in the PCS, others are tests of strength, like the stairwell battle. But always the sense is that Bond is pitting his whole self, his wits and his will into the fight. 

Exploding Helicopters: 0. I'm developing a theory about these you know.   

Shags: Just the one - except, of course, that it's not a shag, but a love affair. Bond and Solange remain conspicuously dressed for the duration of their unconsummated assignation.  

Crimes Against Women: For the first time in ages it feels like it is just the characters in the film who are sexist, rather than the film itself. And even then this is the least sexist Bond film I can think of. Solange and Valenka both seem to be trophy girlfriends but they prove themselves to be more than that. Solange is happy to get back at Dimitrios by shagging Bond, having observed the latter emerging from the sea. And Valenka shows tremendous strength of character, not to mention loyalty to Le Chiffre, when Obanno threatens to chop off her arm. For once there's no Moneypenny to file a harassment claim against 007 so Bond has to make do with teasing Vesper. It's mild stuff, although sexually charged, and she's more than a match for him.   

Casual Racism: Very little. Small town policemen in Montenegro are corrupt. Mendel, the Swiss banker, is the campest German speaker in fiction since Lieutenant Gruber. Actual Germans, like the gentlemen at the club in the Bahamas, are oafish and fat. Otherwise we're back to the most casual of Bond stereotypes: all the baddies are foreign (and even Vesper, thanks to the casting of Eva Green, has the odd tell-tale non-English inflection).    

Out of Time: Ubiquitous CCTV combines with the internet to splash Bond's embassy raid across the online headlines and show that the franchise has moved into the 21st century. Airport security concerns haven't gone away since 2001, whilst Le Chiffre's plan of using the stock market to profit from terrorism is directly connected on screen to 9/11. 

Fashion Disasters: Time will tell, but I couldn't see any. This Bond seems to be able to wear anything and make it look good. 

Most Shameless Advertising: Sony is heavily involved. The Vaio laptop is everywhere, as is Bond's Sony Ericsson phone. Aston Martin is very visible too, Bond driving the DB5 and (ostensibly) the DBS v12. Our winner would be the Ford Motor Company (who managed to get a scene included where Bond drives a Mondeo) if it weren't for Richard Branson popping up at Miami Airport. 

Eh?: Goodness this film hangs together well. I suppose it's the benefit of sticking so closely to the novel. There is a slight oddness though. When does Vesper turn traitor? And how involved is Mathis? M says that Vesper had obviously made a deal to hand over the money to Le Chiffre in order to save Bond. That sort of implies that this happened during her kidnap, but we know that she was compromised already, because of her Algerian 'boyfriend'. That would suggest that Vesper is a 'back-up plan' of Le Chiffre's, just in case Bond won the game. But the earlier in the plot that Vesper is leaned on, the less likely it is that she gives up the money for Bond's sake, rather than to save her boyfriend. Perhaps it isn't Le Chiffre she deals with at all, but Mr White, in which case that would have to happen after Bond's torture. Most probably, she deals with Le Chiffre and then Mr White - she has to have contact with the latter or else she would not have his mobile number, or recognise Gettler in Venice. >> But hang on. In the dinner scene directly before the kidnap Vesper appears to be unsettled, suggesting perhaps that she has made contact with Le Chiffre and is complicit in the kidnapping (as she is in the book). If this is the case then she uses Mathis' name as an excuse to leave. What if she doesn't know about the kidnapping? (Remember the villains leave her lying in the road for Bond to run over - yes, I know it's to try and force him off the road, but then why take the risk with her life unless they don't mind killing her? They also place her behind a blind summit to maximise the danger of her being hit.) That means either the villains are using Mathis as a lure, or that Mathis himself is involved. Bond certainly thinks so (he mutters "Mathis!" before he jumps up, as if he has just realised something important - we never find out what exactly) and later has the man tasered away as a traitor. Le Chiffre implicates Mathis too: "I'm afraid your friend Mathis, is really my friend Mathis," he tells Bond. What reason does he have to lie? Having just dumped Vesper in the road and seeing that he is about to torture Bond to death, he can't be too bothered with protecting Vesper's cover? It's all very murky and never really explained. By QOS Mathis has been declared innocent of all charges, but who knows? >> The sudden introduction of Gettler, the man in Venice with tape across half his glasses, feels last minute and false. But it's taken precisely from Fleming's novel: the same character (same name, with an eye patch instead) stalks Vesper in the last few chapters for similar reasons. >> One other tiny thing. When Vesper enters her account number into the banker's magic suitcase, we only hear three button beeps. I'm guessing the Treasury are a bit grown up for three digit account numbers.  

Worst Line: Hardly any. There are no cringe-worthy quips and the exposition is neatly and naturally woven through the film. The only line that sticks out a little is Bond's "The bitch is dead", which is taken straight from the novel.  

Best Line: Over dinner Vesper asks, "It doesn't bother you? Killing all those people?" Bond raises his Martini. "Well I wouldn't be very good at my job if it did." Bond sullenly orders a drink and the barman asks him if he'd prefer it shaken or stirred. "Do I look like I give a damn?" It's the best script probably ever and certainly the funniest since, oh, Thunderball? Lots of brilliant lines and every single conversation between Bond and Vesper crackles superbly. The exchange on the Pendolino is perhaps the very best. 

Worst Bond Moment: Bond flouts diplomatic neutrality to murder Mollaka the bomb-maker. Bond drives a Mondeo. Take your pick.    

Best Bond Moment: Let's just pick a few of the best ones, shall we? Bond crashing through walls, chasing Mollaka, getting up and carrying on. Bond pranging the oaf's Range Rover in the club car park. Bond turning on the charm to melt the club's receptionist. Bond's DB5 seduction of Solange. "I love you too, M." Bond examining himself in the mirror in his new dinner jacket. Bond haring after the kidnapped Vesper in his DBS. Bond's composure when M calls him to ask where the money is. The best bit, of course, is Bond stepping forward over the fallen Mr White and answering his question.    

Overall: After a twenty film franchise in which everything had become locked down with suffocating familiarity, EON throw off the shackles and give us the original James Bond story. Despite being skilfully updated for post-9/11 sensibilities Casino Royale is a remarkably faithful adaptation that restores Fleming's credible, thinking, wounded 007 to the screen. This is as good as it gets.    

James Bond Will Return: to wrap up some enticing loose ends in Quantum of Solace.

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