Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Double Oh...21: Casino Royale

2007, d. Martin Campbell

Casino Royal Preamble:

From my review, 12/15/2006
"As a James Bond movie  you certainly get more than most other films give you in the way of character.  It works for the movie but feels more akin to Bourne Identity than Bond in many ways.  At the same time, the big action moments that bookend the film are drastically out of place and too big for their own britches.  In Bond terms it's suitable, but in film terms it's just disjointed and leaves the film "V" shaped with the story sagging in the middle between these two big moments.  As I've told friends, it's a good Bond film, it's an okay movie."
With really only the Brosnan films and scattered memories of Moore under my belt at that time, I'm not sure I was really the best judge of Bond.  I really do wish I'd been more of a fan at the time though, as my ex-girlfriend at the time (now wife) were in London at the time of the film's premiere and actually wandered by the red carpet festivities (with helicopters overhead and paparazzo abuzz)... and kept walking.  As noted above, I liked the movie okay, but I felt it was overlong and a little too wild in structure (looking at this now, I can tell that I really didn't understand the tempo of a Bond pic).  I've seen snippets of the film since but haven't sat through it fully, so my initial impressions have held these past 8 years.

Villains:

When Mads Mikkelsen was cast as Hannibal, I only knew him from Casino Royal, as the blood-weeping Le Chiffre.  I thought it was interesting casting when I first heard, and he's so dominated that role that he's supplanted Anthony Hopkins as the quintessential Hannibal by a wide margin.  I was excited to see him face off against Bond again, and had to remind myself that it's not Bond vs. Hannibal (but how cool would that be.  We're introduced to Le Chiffre in Uganda, providing banking services to the seediest men around the world.  He takes a great deal of money from this ...drug baron? rebel? it's not quite clear... and immediately short sells some Skyfleet stock (despite the protests of his colleague since the stock is only predicted to go up).  Bond's interference interference in Miami stopping the destruction of the new new Skyfleet megaplane loses him this $101 million.  As a result Le Chiffre sets up a high stakes poker game in Montenegro to attempt a recoup before his investors find out (desperate and overconfident).  But those guys from Uganda come to Montenegro looking for their money and it's Bond's interference that actually sames him.
Le Chiffre's has a rather prominent tell when playing poker, the weeping blood, which is a result of deformation of the tearduct.  He's very much a gambler, a statistician, a chess prodigy and mathematical genius.  He's scarred around his weeping eye, and requires an inhaler for unspecified reasons.  He's also developed fancy hand tricks playing with his chips at the table.

Le Chiffre is inevitably killed by Mr. Whyte, who largely just looms in the background of this film.  He's told "money isn't as valuable to our organization as knowing who to trust" as they recognize that he's a hunted man and that he will turn over on his clientele to save himself.

Bond is led to Le Chiffre by his colleague, Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) in the Bahamas.  Like Le Chiffre, Dimitrios is a gambler, and a violent and petty man.  He's a terrorist contractor, a middleman but a practitioner when the time comes.  He's arranging the bombing of the plane in Miami, and Bond, to get close, plays him in an escalating poker game where he wins wins his vintage Aston Martin (and Valet ticket) and then seduces his girl Solange (but leaves her hanging) when he learns he's off to Miami.  A pursuit through the Body Worlds exhibit leads to a tense knifegrab, and Dimitrios stabbed.  Bond pursues the bomber, a tough, silent, resourceful mercenary, but gets the better of him in the most delightful way possible (a moment that's fun with each viewing)


Bond Girls:

Solange Dimitrios (Caterina Murino) is introduced bounding on horseback in a bikini, but instead of Bond leering at her from afar, it's the opposite, with her leering at Bond emerging from the water -- Ursula Andress style -- buff, toned and in tiny shorts.  Later she parades into the Ocean Club in a slimming, sheer, sexy red dress, but Dimitrios admonishes her for being two hours late instead of appreciating her effort (but later Bond buys Vesper a dress and tells her she needs to come in, kiss him on the neck, and distract the other players with her cleavage, obviously learned this from the Dimitrios').   She winds up being interrogated and killed by Le Chiffre and left mangled out front of Bond's hotel room in a hammock.

Introduced roughly half-way through the film, Vesper Lynde (Eva Greene), is the money (HM Treasury) "and worth every penny", Bond comments. They have a dueling match at reading each other, with Bond observing that she overcompensates for her insecurities and drive in a man's world by wearing slightly masculine clothing.  But she's equally adept at reading people, or so it appears (but later revealed that she's perhaps not so observant).  She's never seen combat before, and does not take helping Bond kill the Ugandans well leading to a solemnly sweet shower sequence.  Bond recognizes that Vesper has a man (by way of her love knot necklace), which may be perhaps what draws him to her.  They have a wonderful rapport but she's understandably standoffish.
Once she warms to James, her past comes calling and she betrays him.  Her lover was being held captive, and she's been feeding the organization with information, and, in the climax, James' winnings from the poker tournament. After James stops her money transfer, she drowns herself, both because she can't face her betrayal of James, nor can she face that James' interference has gotten her lover killed.  She'd been a deceiver, a rather adept one, all alone, having even framed Mathis (and Bond arranging for his arrest).  When it's over James' reverts to form... "The job's done, the bitch is dead".
But it's revealed that she made a deal with Mr. White to spare Bond in exchange for the money.  So she did care for him, but she was torn between her two lovers and neither relationship was going to work out for her.
Vesper has become the benchmark Bond girl, the ultimate love in Bond's life, at least in the Daniel Craig series.  It's a pained romance, one where Bond opened himself up, and was betrayed fully for it.  In following the timeline, it wouldn't be until Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that Bond would love again, and face heartbreak once more.

Valenka (Ivana Milicevic) is LeChiffre's girl who almost loses her arm thanks to the Ugandan guys out for money and blood.  She makes a quick recovery from the attack and Poisons Bond's drink (despite the fact that he unknowingly saved her...gratitude for you).

Theme/Credits:

The film opens with a black and white sequence that leads directly into the gun barrel shot.  The vibrant splashes of opening theme animation animation take over.  Chunky vector graphic silhouettes battle against the backdrop of beautifully rendered playing card ornamentation and imagery.  The theme from Chris Cornell and David Arnold is acceptable, inoffensive, but not catchy.  It does come close to having a hook but never quite gets to it.

Arnold and Four Tet provide a fantastic closing credits crawl that I like far more.


Bond:

This film begins with Bond not yet a double oh agent, facing down a corrupt section chief with the task of taking him out.  It's just an introductory sequence to introduce us to him, to call into question whether he has the confidence in himself to take out this far more experienced player in international intrigue.  The conversation is intercut with flashbacks to Bond's brutal clash with the section chief's contact in a bathroom.  It really highlights how rough-and-tumble this Bond is (far more than any before him), in direct contrast to the Bourne series.  Following the credits, Bond's pursuing a bomber in Madagascar, leading to a very destructive chase at a construction site and very extreme feats of parkour.  There are some very clever moments in the fight, leading James into a very painful but utterly inspired pursuit, winding up in an embassy which Bond escapes in a fiery blaze.  It's clear James is an extremely resourceful fighter.

"You`ve got a bloody cheek," M says to Bond discovering him in her apartment (where he hacked her computer to track down info on that he learned from the bomber's phone). They bicker about his botched job and the international incident he's caused.  She says he was too young, too raw to be promoted to a double oh, to which he counters "Well, I understand double ohs have a very short life expectancy... so your mistake will be short-lived."  M considers him a `blunt instrument at least to his face, but there's a buried maternal instinct she has towards him (one she didn't share with Brosnan's Bond, that plays out all the way through to Skyfall).

As Vesper delves into his background we get a quick synopsis of his schooling at Oxford, being an orphan, his appreciation of his affluent lifestyle... the film directly approaching his personality in a way that Bond films past rarely did.
Bond to Vesper: "Don't worry, you're not my type."  "Smart?" "Single." But when Bond figures out that Vesper's necklace is a "love knot" he's drawn in even more by this woman obviously still clinging to a (former?) love?  She is indeed his type.

Bond is indeed confident, directly addressing all the doubts of the fan reaction.  Showing him gambling he's fearless, smart and observant.  But when he loses, Vesper chides him... "You lost because of your ego, and that same ego can't take it."  Of course, it turns out that he only lost because Vesper informed Le Chiffre of his tell and he used it to pull Bond into a big loss.

With Craig taking over, with all his beefy manliness, the movie spends as much time leering at James.  He's objectified moreso than any woman in the movie which after 20 films is a nice change of pace.

The recurring theme of the film is how cold Bond's hart is, M addressing it a number of times (such as his reaction to the death of Solange Dimitrios), and Vesper commenting on the armor he puts up.  Even Le Chiffre senses it when he's being tortured, Vesper screams and Bond doesn't even consider giving up his password to his gambling winnings.  It's Bond's unwillingness to yield during his torture that really showcases his character.  Naked, strapped to a chair, having his testicles walloped with a knotted rope, when he should be at his most vulnerable, he seems at his strongest, his most resolved.  He's a man with no shame or fear, he's committed to his task, his country, if not the rules they want him to follow.

As Bond recovers (Vesper - "If the only thing left of you was your smile and your little finger, you'd still be more of a man than anyone I've ever known.".  Bond - "That's because you know what I can do with my little finger.") he's raw from his torture and Mathis' perceived betrayal, from almost dying (a half dozen times) in two nights, and is utterly smitten with Vesper. He lets down his guard.  He and Vesper vacation and develop as lovers, Bond ready to quit the service and live his life with Vesper (whom, even still, he has trouble reading... she's his blind spot, his tell).  But when all's said and done, with Vesper having drowned herself, he's angry, mostly at himself, and he freezes his heart once more.  "The job's done," he tells M, "The bitch is dead."

Movie:

Well, I have to admit that after having seen all the Bond films now, most of them multiple times at this point, this really does stand out as one of the best.  It does everything on such another level, from the technical execution of the action set pieces to the involving emotional drama.  Hitting the reset switch on Bond was a risky proposition on 2006 but it worked out extremely well, reestablishing Bond and M's dynamic in a much different manner (there's more cutting back and forth between M and Bond than any other in the series) as well as showing Bond as being more fallible than ever. Craig steps into the role with both extreme confidence and a hint of vulnerability, something that I recognize I like best in my Bond.  He can't just be a cock-sure smarm machine, he has to take some lumps, and not just physical ones.

Nearly every Bond film has a romance, but none compare to Vesper.  Most films end with Bond getting the girl (or, at least, a girl...) usually on a boat or a raft or somewhere adrift.  But here, though water is still a strong image, it's where he loses her.  Perhaps it's this underwater trauma that gets him so randy when asea...?

My initial complaint that the film was overlong but that had more to do with my lack of understanding of (or perhaps just investment in) the story the first time around.  Most Bond films feature overly convoluted plots that often have huge leaps in logic or stretching of credibility, but this one plays out, sure in larger than life ways, but in a more organic fashion than most Bonds.  Beyond the opening sequence, which is really just a Bond reintro, the rest of the film moves from point-A to B to C to D to E to F.  Sure you have to pay attention, but if you don't that's what repeated viewings are for.  There's such a solid through-line, and yet that coherent story doesn't stifle any opportunity for exciting and inventive action sequences, tense fight scenes, romance, character building, and a thoroughly gripping series of poker matches.  The story doesn't give you every little detail, so much is left unsaid, plus there's a lot of parties in play, which is why it was so easy to lose the thread on first viewing.  It's not often we're asked to understand the motivations of Bond, the Bond Girl, and the Villain, as well as understand how so many of the other players fit into the piece, but this script, from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (writers of a few of the Brosnan features, oddly enough) and a redraft from Paul Haggis make the assumption that the audience is ready for a more involving and mature Bond.

Two characters of note in this one.  Firstly, Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), Bond's Montenegro contact.  He's always  watching the scene, brokering deals and making sure that Bond has his back covered.  In one instance, LeChiffre has the local police chief in his pocket but Mathis manages to have him ferreted out by state police.  Mathis also proves helpful at disposing of dead bodies (and finding a use for them).  It's an unfortunate turn when LeChiffre's  states "I'm afraid your friend Mathis is really my friend Mathis", but of course we later learn that this was Vesper's doing.  Secondly, the return of Felix Leiter, last seen in License To Kill, half eaten by a shark.  Of course this is before then and it's his first meeting with Bond at the high stakes poker tournament.  Jeffrey Wright is the perfect Felix, affable but astute, calm and observant.  He's the type of Agent who knows how to use his country's resources wisely, but doesn't rely upon them solely.  He doesn't measure up to Bond, not in the same way, but he's not that type of Agent.  Wright just has the perfect demeanor for the role, and if there's one thing I don't like it's that there's not more of him (and no place for him in Skyfall, boo).

Q-gadgets:

A very sweet Aston Martin with secret compartments for emergency medical, and a tagging device that tracks his vitals.

Classification [out of 01.0]: 00.9 -this is about as good as Bond can get, actually.  I'm a convert.