December 12, 2006

Best Bond in a long, long time

I’ve always liked James Bond movies; they are a particular guilty pleasure. Sure, they’re politically incorrect (women are celebrated more as playthings and with the insolent and cheeky humor that has characterized the Bond films, they are also given very unfortunate names). Sure, they’re violent (007 means a “license to kill” after all) and they’re racy (each Bond film generally involves him getting involved with more than one woman in an extramarital situation); and they usually involve pretty impossible situations (Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones; Denise Richards and physics can not exist in the same sentence.).

But whatever they are, the Bond films are always great fun.

Casino Royale is not, however, only great fun; it is the best of the Bonds I’ve seen in a very, very long time. The last great Bond film I watched was Thunderball with a great Sean Connery (forget Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, George Lazenby and please do not get me started on Roger Moore).

Daniel Craig is a great Bond; he has screen presence comparable to Sean Connery in his first few Bonds. He is the most physical and the most violent Bond but, as the 007 implies, he is after all a “blunt weapon” (a phrase that is commonly employed in the Bond books). His face is an impenetrable mask that fits perfectly the pre-Sean Connery Bond (this, after all, is a prequel).

The action scenes are not Bond-ish in that there are no gadgets at all (Major Boothroyd, or Q, does not appear at all and fans of Q must wait until a later film perhaps for the character to be resurrected). Craig’s Bond relies on his skills—something that is a throwback to the early Connery Bonds and which the later slightly effeminate Bonds like Moore and Brosnan have rejected (particularly Moore). The first real action scene on top a building crane is absolutely superb because Craig’s Bond has absolutely nothing to support him but his wits, his skills, his physique and his determination.

His is also the first Bond to really get himself dirty and bloody. None of the other Bonds, Connery included, have managed to get a scratch on him but Craig’s Bond revels in it; more than once, you see his already slightly disarranged face bloodied and even more disarranged.

Craig is a great actor as well. He is able to capture quite well the point of the movie—that Bond started as an aspiring 00; his first “kill” shows his raw skill without the finesse that the later 007 would display; he gets better at killing later on. He also manages to display an initial raw and unrefined wit and skill at repartee that would hint at a later sardonic and oftentimes cruel turn of phrase—and he does this with his “unsmiling” smirk, which makes his wit even more unexpected but truly funny. Craig also manages to show just how Bond becomes human as his heart is later captured by the Treasury agent Vesper Lynd and he, finally, displays his human side, only to lose it later.

The final scene where he now uses the now-famous “Bond; James Bond” introduction brings him full circle as Bond—no longer an aspiring, inept, unwise 00 but a more suave , confident and quite effective 007.

Judi Dench’s M is a great revelation; she is a fantastic actor but this time, she lets it rip with tongue in cheek humor—unlike the dour and humorless M that she introduced in the Brosnan Bonds. In character, Dench’s M is the closest to Ian Fleming’s M who was written as a “father figure” to Bond; while M chews out Craig’s Bond so often in this film that you have to wonder how he managed to get the promotion, we also see in Dench’s characterization of M how close the two really are; in M’s carefully subtle oversight of Bond (from installing a transponder to discreetly asking about him in person), the hint of Admiral Miles Messervy (the M in Fleming’s books) is quite clearly conveyed and the film is all the better for it.

The plot isn’t much nor is the villain but the star of Casino Royale, after all, is deservedly Daniel Craig and HIS Bond. The producers of this film may have taken a risk in replacing a charismatic and popular Brosnan as Bond by taking on a grittier, less known and “blonde” Bond but, from the looks of it, Casino Royale and Craig appear to have broken the bank.

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