Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Royale with Cheese

On Thanksgiving Night, the Wife and I got to go see Casino Royale. Now, almost four weeks later, I guess it's time for me to say what I thought of the movie.

It's really good.


OK, I'll say more than that. Be aware, though, that I make no effort to avoid spoilers for the movie in this post. Yup, I'm gonna post me some spoilers. You have been warned. About the spoilers.

How good is Casino Royale? I've only seen it once, but I've been thinking a lot about it, and it very likely is the best Bond film in years. In fact, it seems to me to be able to crack my personal top five (which does not include Goldfinger). Over and above the film's status as a "relaunch" of the whole Bond franchise, making the character a rookie who still has to earn his chops, it's just a very well-made film. It's well shot, well acted, well written, and well scored. The Bond series isn't usually where one goes to see really good filmmaking in action, for the most part, but this one really clicks.

So what of the story?

I found it both maddening and fulfilling at the same time. Part of this is, no doubt, to the fact that the film plays with the conventions of the Bond series without totally embracing them, and thus the film is quite good at confounding expectations. Things happen in this movie that you don't expect in a James Bond flick. In one brutal scene, Bond gets tortured. Shown as a fairly green agent, Bond makes mistakes and acts impulsively. We see Bond in over his head; we see him at times surviving various predicaments out of almost literal sheer luck; we see Bond unsure of himself and of his abilities.

That's what makes the film's ending so perfect. It's the second Bond film to not end with 007 making love to the woman (one of many marks of quality Casino shares with the great OHMSS), but interestingly, as the film ends, Bond's mission isn't even over. That, I thought, was a pretty brazen bit of storytelling. There's no final confrontation here with the villain; instead, we see Bond tracking down yet another name in the long chain of villains he's been pursuing all through the film, and after shooting the man in the foot, Bond looms over him, rifle in hand, smiles, and introduces himself: "The name is Bond. James Bond." Smash cut to the end credits, with those famous brass chords from the James Bond Theme blasting forth.

I can recall few films that have ended with so perfect a final shot. In that moment, a guy named James Bond becomes James Bond. And that's what the film was about in the first place. Daniel Craig didn't have to have the gravitas of a Bond actor through most of the film, because the film's very story is about how he earned that gravitas in the first place.

Now, there are some narrative gaps in the film's logic. The way things unfold after Bond is captured by LeChifre isn't entirely clear, and it's a bit unsettling that this is the second consecutive Bond film where a key plot point involves the failure of the powers-that-be at MI6 to do their homework on one of their own people. The Venice sequence is hard to follow as well (I wasn't sure just why that building collapsed). But the sudden murder of Le Chiffre, whom we've assumed was the main villain in the classic Bondian sense, with a half hour left in the film was a nicely unsettling touch. Suddenly the audience is thrown into a position of being as ignorant as Bond, and watching Bond slowly catch up with the situation gives the last all of its tension as we realize that Bond has been betrayed, and just who the betrayer is.

I read the book of Casino Royale years ago, but I was able to note a lot of material in the film that was straight out of the book -- the way Bond names a drink after Vesper, the way Bond's mission appears doomed until a CIA agent named Felix Leiter introduces himself at the right moment, and the fact that Bond is betrayed by the woman with whom he's fallen in love.

So where does Bond go from here? I'm wondering what the producers have in mind for the follow-up. Since the character has been relaunched, perhaps they could actually remake all of the original films, updating the stories to the present day. One thing's for sure: as much as I think that Casino Royale has breathed new life into James Bond, I hope we don't see a return to villains plotting to destroy the world anytime soon.

Welcome back, Mr. Bond. It's good to see you again.

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