Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Oh, yes

The new James Bond movie, Casino Royale, has been getting accolades right and left, all well-deserved. In fact, to this longtime Ian Fleming fan, it's the best Bond movie in forty-one (41) years. The combo of staying true to the original novel (as much as possible considering it was written in 1953 at the height of the Cold War), grounding Bond in enough gritty reality to heighten the fantasy buy-in, and making the best lead casting choice since Sean Connery makes this one a big, big winner.

It would be asinine to give away any of the plot points, great moments or memorable lines, so instead I just want to say something about the unique pleasure of watching a really great Bond movie.

I went to see the picture with several family members including a teenage niece and two teenage nephews. The guys have read a lot of the Bond books, as I did at that age, and were actually more familiar with the novel (Fleming's first to feature what became the world's most famous spy) than I, but they're also kids of today who go see the superhero pix currently in fashion (last year we all went to see the successful Batman reboot). One of the previews was the very promising trailer for Spider-Man 3, with some eye-boggling Sandman effects and what appears to be an interesting plot. As a fan of the comics from even before my James Bond phase, I found the first two pictures gratifyingly true to the spirit and content of the source material. But what I discovered was that I've outgrown my fascination with superheroes and their super powers, so no matter how great a job director Sam Raimi and co. have done with the franchise (and they've done great), it's just not that important to me anymore.

This Bond movie, however, is a superhero movie for adults. While Bond performs nearly superhuman feats of physical action (nobody could run as long as he does in the first action set piece, or drop from towering cranes, or smash through walls and not get so winded they just have to stop), while he is a master at the poker table and beds the most attractive women in two continents, there's no science fiction in this one -- no outer space sets or invisible cars -- and virtually no "Q" gadgets, so there's a higher level of identification. In essence, while what he does is as close to impossible as improbable gets, you still walk out with the illusion that someone could actually do all of it, maybe even (ho ho ho) you.

The script does a brilliant job of balancing the reinvention of Bond (this is where he gets his double-o) with crafty deployment of all those fetishistic elements we've grown to love and expect from the series. Director Martin Campbell is clearly at the top of his game, something he may not get enough credit for in the Bond factory world. (He also directed the last successful Bond reboot, Goldeneye, the first in the Pierce Brosnan series, but this one is lightyears ahead.) But it's Daniel Craig who seals the deal. He's rough enough, vulnerable enough, intelligent and brutal enough, and it helps that he's a clearly skilled actor.

In essence, he's got almost everything Sean Connery had, maybe a little less total command of the frame, maybe a little more humanity in the role, but it's a negligible trade-off. The fact is you don't want to take your eyes off of him, although Eva Green as proto-Bond female Vesper Lynd owns her individual shots, and their interplay is so sharp and adult it feels like the least contrived Bond romance ever. Craig is also very, very funny in a grown-up way -- you'll know what I mean when he talks about his "itch" -- so the audience catnip tongue-in-cheek pleasures never come across spoofy or forced.

The other great male-female interplay in the picture is between Craig and Dame Judi Dench as "M". Dench was an inspired choice to replace the stalwart Bernard Lee because with her tremendous authority it never felt like some "PC" casting decision. She was always good with Brosnan, but in this one it feels like she's especially appreciative of playing opposite Craig. Part of it is his acting skill (delivering arguably the standout performance in Steven Spielberg's Munich) but part of it felt to me (and see if you agree) like some real sexual chemistry. Dame Judi may have 34 years on young Craig, but she's always had the fire in her eyes, and as a stage and screen vet must know how to recognize a scene partner opportunity when it arises.

It's not a flirty relationship but it isn't mother-son either (or maybe that's more in the scripting than the performance). It's a battle for domination within a certain set of codes, where Bond is pushing the boundaries of their personal relationship and M is working the professional reins. We see her grappling with how much to tug the bridle and how much to let him loose, and it feels real this time, because Craig has none of the Brosnan gentility.

The movie is generous with the locations and sick with the Aston Martins, but what got me was something to do with the clothes. I'm not generally interested in fashion as much as I think I should be and clothes shopping has always been more chore that pleasure, but there's a moment about an hour and ten minutes into Casino Royale where Bond gets a tux jacket and I was audibly jealous. (For the record: Brioni.) It's the moment when Craig slips it on for the first time, and deft timing it is. We've watched him long and spectacularly enough by then to feel like he's earned it, and you can sense the acceptance throughout the theater.

Sure, Daniel Craig is a very different, very appealing, very unexpected kind of Bond. But the revelation is, he fits like a glove.

An exquisitely tailored glove.

With some poor chap's blood on it.


Scott Veach said...

I don't get Bond. I just don't get him.

The movies seem to be from another time... an older time... when just seeing some exciting action was enough to excuse a plot that made no sense, enough story contrivances and coincidences to choke an elephant, and internal logic contradictions that could confuse Godel.

These movies just aren't well-written. Why doesn't anyone see that?

Keeping with Netter's desire to leave spoilers out of it, I won't go into the long... very long... list of plot, story and logic holes... (chasms?) that makes this movie unwatchable.

I can only imagine that the people liking this movie are engaging in is some sort of nostalgia for the sixties/seventies.

Explain this to me, Mark. You are a great script reader, a tough note-giver. You have a keen eye for pointing out when a spec writer is being lazy. So why do you let these million-dollar A-list guys off the hook so easily??

I guarantee you that if I had shown you this script and changed the name Bond to something else, told you it was my new action-spy spec script, you would have covered it with red marks.

Mark Netter said...

Of course, if you got Daniel Craig (or Sean Connery) to play your lead character...I might leave the red pen at home!

For a more complete answer, check out the 11/26 post...