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November 19, 2006

Casino Royal: Three Stars

It all starts crackling good, then goes off the rails in an ending so anti-climactic and interminable you'll wish you were back watching nine hours of goodbyes in The Return of the King.

For about two thirds of its running length, this is one of the best Bond movies ever. Then a curious combination of over-fidelity to the book, coupled with a contradictory impulse to change the ending of the book, leads to a meandering denoument that largely makes you forget how good everything was before the ill-advised Act Four. (There's a reason movies have three, not four, acts, and Casino Royale will be cited in future sceenwriting classes as an example of what happens when you add that superfluous fourth act.)

It's only remembering the movie later you again realize, "Hey, the first two thirds were terrific!"

I can't really discuss my great disappointment with the ending without giving away spoilers, so I won't. (And please don't offer up spoiler comments; people read those. Keep it spoiler-free.) So I'll focus on the rest of it, and just leave Act Four out of it, except to say: It did not work for me. And, stranger still, there was an obvious way to go with the ending to make it work very well, but they chose to, well, do something very counter-intuitive in terms of basic dramatic structure, a high-risk play (to put it in poker terms) that doesn't pay off, and in fact loses a lot.

The movie opens differently from other Bonds in several ways. First of all, all Bond-fans know the opening consists of three parts:

1) Bond walking from right to left, viewed through the barrel of a gun (or through the sight of a gun). The Bond music plays as he whirls towards the camera, shoots a round, blood drips down, etc.

2) The actual teaser.

3) The main credits, usually featuring silhouettes of naked dancers or gymnasts.

The "gun-sight" view of Bond is missing; it goes right into the teaser, sans music. And it's in black and white too boot-- a flashback. And this flashback itself contains a flashback, which is also in black and white, but grainier and harsher to show it's an even deeper flashback. Then, as an actual part of the flashback, a guy really does aim a gun at Bond and we see (in-scene) Bond through the gun's barrel, and then he shoots, and then the main titles begin.

But no music. In fact, the Bond theme doesn't play until the end-credits. The idea is, I guess, that this is an origin story, and Bond hasn't become the man we know as Bond, James Bond until the end of the movie, and thus he doesn't "earn" the Bond Theme until the end.

This is kind of cute, I guess, but I really missed that music throughout the movie. There have been a lot of crappy Bond movies that were basically carried by how cool that theme was. Fortunately for Casino Royale, the movie isn't crappy, but it still misses the theme. And the "You Know My Name" theme that plays frequently throughout the movie just isn't anywhere close to having that kind of impact.

I know I enjoyed Never Say Never Again much less than I might have because the Bond Theme was absent (due to legal reasons -- that movie was a remake of Thunderball made by a competing studio and couldn't use any of the trademarks of the actual Bond franchise, save the basic plot of that specific book).

Same deal here. I kept wondering when the Bond theme would finally play, then realized, halfway in, they would save it for the ending. But it's just not a big enough payoff to justify not having the theme throughout the movie. (Fortunately, for future entries, having earned the right to his theme music we will, presumably, get to hear it from the very beginning.)

Okay, enough about that. The basic plot is that a man named Le Chiffre serves as an investment banker for terrorists. Some reviewers call him a "terrorist financier," like bin Ladin or Ahmadinejad, who actually fund terrorism out of their own funds, but that's misleading. He takes terrorists' own money and invests it (and, presumably, launders it). But he's greedy, and, assumedly based on inside information he's gotten from terrorists (though this isn't clear in the movie), plays the market with the terrorists' money based on his expectation that a terrorist attack will occur and hurt a specific company. And he does this not to increase the terrorists' funds, but to line his own pockets-- his plan is to reap the windfall from the market play, then just return the terrorists' money into safer investments.

There's one problem: James Bond. In an improvement over the book --which just started with Le Chiffre losing all the money trusted to him by The Sort of People One Ought Not To Cross-- it's actual Bond's intervention that causes LeChiffre to lose over one hundred million dollars that was never his to lose. So LeChiffre arranges a very, very high stakes poker game with (presumably, again) his last ten million dollars. He invites nine other gamblers to play for $100 million or more at a Texas Hold 'Em game -- initial buy-in ten million each, rebuy for five million more. Bond, being the Secret Service's best card-player, is sent to make sure LeChiffre loses -- and thus will have his own people turn on him.

This causes a basic dramatic problem in the movie -- which was also present in the book, and, just like the book, is finessed in an entirely unsatisfactory way. MI6 could, of course, simply kill LeChiffree-- but they don't want to. The plan is to bust him in Casino Royale, so that his own terrorist clients will turn on him, and he will thus be forced to come to MI6 for protection -- in exchange for all the information he has about terrorists' dealings. Thus, for Bond to succeed at his mission, he must not kill LeChiffre, nor allow him to be killed by anyone else. (A later scene plays on this last idea, though I didn't realize until just now that's what they were getting at. Too subtle by half, I guess.)

Thus the central dramatic problem: dramatic conventions and audience expectations dictate that Bond must kill LeChiffre at the end. Certainly he deserves it. But the whole premise of the film is that Bond cannot do that under any condition, or else he fails the mission entirely. Bond becomes enraged and desperate at one point and decides to do just that -- kill LeChiffre -- until someone forcefully reminds him that the whole point is to keep LeChiffre alive.

And, just like in the book, you're engrossed enough in the story that you kind of forget that there's a big, unavoidable plot problem that will ultimately have to be finessed ... until the ending, when the Elephant In the Room plotting problem can no longer be avoided, and the attempt to finesse the un-finessable leads to an entirely unsatifactory conclusion. The whole fourth act I mentioned is an attempt to fix this problem by throwing a lot more crap at the wall -- and it not only takes forever to get to the payoff, but the payoff itself is dramatically weak and still fundamentally unsatisfying.

This reminds me of the Batman films. Batman and James Bond are oddly similar (and I suppose that's why they're my two favorite superheroes). All of the Batman movies have a similar problem -- the audience (or at least the studio executives) desperately want the villains to die at the film's end. One problem -- it is part of the core definition of Batman that he will not deliberately kill under any circumstances. So every Batman movie has the villain dying due to circumstances of varying degrees of contrivedness, with Batman himself technically innocent of causing the death. The finesse just never works. Either kill, or do not kill. The half-assed "he died, but not because of Batman" really doesn't work.

That's all the bad news about the movie. Here's the good news -- or, rather, good news for some, bad news for others.

While I liked most of the changes in tone -- basically towards a darker, grittier, and more realistic interpretation of Bond -- a lot of people apparently don't like it at all. One Bond fan I know said the movie was okay, but just as easily could have been called "The Transporter III" or "The Bourne Gambit." There wasn't enough actually Bondishness about this Bond, he thought. He was called "James Bond," but he easily could have been called "Jack Bauer." (Another JB... hmmm.)

That's sort of true -- there is a lot of Bond jettisoned in this incarnation. Whether you like it or not will depend on whether you actually like those bits of Bond that have been eliminated, or you've been wanting to see those parts of the Bond formula jettisoned for a long, long time. I'm in the latter camp.

Bond movies have tended to be self-spoofing -- and no, this hasn't been only since Connery retired. Connery's Bond's self-spoofed as well. A lot of people -- more than imagined -- seem to like that self-spoofing nature of the Bond franchise. I always tolerated it, at best. Sometimes I thought it was cute, but more than often I thought it undermined my enjoyment of the movies. I wanted to watch a movie about a superhero secret-agent, seriously played (at least as seriously as a superhero movie could be played), with less winking at the audience, fewer sight-gags, less comic deflation of the basic heroic nature of Bond. I wanted more of a Batman Begins version of Bond, and less of a campy Burton interpretation.

Here's an annoying (to me) of the comic deflation of Bond's heroism. Bond's given a car with a laser beam that shoots out of its side in The Living Daylights. Cool, right? Well, he uses it, but not to blow out someone's tires or ignite someone's gas-tank. Rather, he engages the laser for a solid thirty seconds to completely separate the top of the car from its underchassis, to produce the sight gag of the whole top of the car sliding free of the wheels and axles.

Your enjoyment of this movie depends on how much you like that sort of thing, or how much you hated it. For me, it was taking what was supposed to be cool -- and, sorry, "bad ass" and "bitchin';" Bond films are, like any superhero story, an adolescent male power fantasy at their core, after all -- and deflating it with a comedic sight-gag that pretty much ruined the coolness factor of having a side-firing laserbeam in your car. What could have been played for a thrill was instead played as farce. It was all the set-up for a joke, and if you were trying to get into the Bond fantasy, the joke was on you.

This movie doesn't do that. Bond doesn't come up with inventive-but-often-implausible-and-comical ways to defeat an opponent. He either shoots them, stabs them, or simply beats them to death. The movie tries to match The Bourne Identity in terms of the visceral brutality of combat. It doesn't quite match that high standard -- Bourne's fight-choreographer's and its director were simply too good -- but it's still good stuff, fairly realistic, and always brutal. It's never cutesy when Bond takes someone out, and Bond walks away cut, scratched, wounded and bloodied (often wearing more of his opponent's blood than his own, though).

Many reviewers say the film should actually be rated R for violence, rather than PG-13. I don't know about that, but I will say it's close to the edge. The big no-nos of violence that will get you an automatic R are avoided -- explosive head-shots, arterial sprays, decapitations and dismemberments, true gore, etc. -- but they definitely show more blood than has ever been seen in a Bond movie. (In fact, it's possible there's more blood in this movie than there has been in every Bond movie put together.)

Daniel Craig is very good and very believable as this particular Bond, and I imagine that even those who don't like this re-interpretation will still say he's done a good job (albeit, a good job at giving a performance they would rather have not seen performed).

Bond's quips are another trademark. They're still present, but they're used sparingly, and all of them are good. Earlier Bond films insisted on having a quip at just about every turn, and many of these were very forced, sometimes outright groaners, and occasionally were offered at inappropriate times. Like-- I hate it when a light-hearted quip is offered in a desperate situation. It's usually not funny, and it undermines the drama of the situation by showing the hero doesn't take his perilous circumstances very seriously at all. The dialogue is much better this go-round, no longer so arch and ludicrous. It's still a little melodramatic, but on the good side of melodramatic. M benefits greatly from the improved dialogue -- she's not half as annoying as she has been in the Brosnan Bonds, and has some lines that sound realistically cold-hearted. Actually, she's funny once or twice, which is a welcome relief.

The Bond girl this time is Eva Green, and she is heartbreakingly beautiful (in my opinion -- oddly, a guy I talked to wasn't that impressed with her). One thing that's annoying is that they're continuing the PC thing they started with the Dalton Bonds -- that women aren't any longer disposable playthings or sexual conquests, but fully-devolped characters (blah blah blah) and that Bond actually falls in love with them. The trouble with that is that the films are always claiming that Bond has a cold heart and can't allow himself to fall in love, and yet, in virtually every movie Dalton and Brosnan made, he does fall in love. And every time it's the same claim -- oh, his armor is finally off, his cold heart has finally melted, this is the girl who's the exception the rule. But it's not an "exception" when every time we see Bond he's over-the-moon in love with a girl -- it's the rule. How many times can this guy's heart melt into a puddle and yet still remain, supposedly, ice-cold?

But the romance angle is handled slightly better than it has been recently. I'd favor less romance -- these movies aren't really supposed to be fall-in-love romances, for crying out loud -- but if they're going to do it, at least do it somewhat well, which they manage here. (There are hints that maybe this will be Bond's last true fall-in-love romance for a while, but given EON's insistence on having The Man Who Cannot Truly Love find true love in every movie, I imagine they'll just have his ice-cold heart melt again in the next one.)

The Brosnan Bond films attempted a lot of characterization on the cheap -- characterization, supposedly, of Bond, through assertions made about him in dialogue, but seemingly contradicted (or at least unsupported) by his actual behavior. As they always say, "Show, don't tell," that is, show us the character's psychology through is behavior, reactions, and choices, don't attempt to tell us what it is through mere assertions. And, whatever you do, don't tell us something that actions and behavior show to be almost completely untrue.

For example, I think in GoldenEye 009 claims that Bond is haunted by the screams of all the men he's killed, and Bros-Bond seemingly confirms that with a sad sigh. Well, you know what? He sure the hell doesn't seem to be very bothered by all the killing at any other moment in the whole series. Stop claiming Bond is this or that when his actual behavior suggests he's almost completely the opposite. This movie gets that stuff right -- the claims about Bond more or less match how he actually behaves. (Well, except that bit about falling in love.)

In this movie, they claim he's a basically amoral thug who really has not any care or concern at all about killing people, for example, and his behavior actually matches that claim. In this respect, he actually is a pretty dark character -- almost entirely without empathy for his fellow human beings or much in terms of a working conscience or restraining superego. In other words -- a borderline sociopath, who just happens to be (fortunately for us) working for the right side.

Bond's character has changed a bit to be more Jack Bauer-esque in terms of his violations of procedure in order to get the job done. I don't think this is really a spoiler, as it occurs so early, but part of Bond's detective work for tracking down LeChffre includes finding M's apartment, breaking in, and hacking into her personal computer (and then using her passwords to find out information he might not otherwise be privvy to). The idea that Bond is an arrogant rules-breaker, and a bit reckless and sometimes ego-driven and easily provoked by anger into mistakes, has always been implicit in the movies, but here that aspect of him is highlighted. He's more believably flesh and blood, and flawed, than he has been in a long time.

A small change to his character that Bond fans will notice is that he's no longer, as was generally assumed in previous movies (and stated in the books), from the upper class. In a psychological guessing game in which the romantic interest and Bond exchange insights into each otehr, Vesper Lynd states that Bond went to all the right schools but didn't come from money, and his richer classmates never let him forget it, and Bond never has. And when Bond puts on a tux in a movie the suggestion is that it's one of his first times in one (if not his very first time). Now Bond does not actually confirm Vesper's guess about his lower-class upbringing, but neither does he challenge it, and it does seem implied by the tuxedo incident that Bond grew up poor or lower-class and only rose to become an oddball member of the gentle class through his own grit.

I don't know if this is a huge change or not. Per the books, Bond is from the upper class (he has a family crest and all). In the movies it's always been sort of vague. Sean Connery had the air of a gentlemen, but one thing critics have praised about his performance is that that always seemed like a very thin veneer, and that beneath that he was essentially a thug in a tux. (Moore and Brosnan seemed more as if they were genuine members of the upper class.) And of course Sean Connery was, in actual life, from the lower classes; Ian Fleming despised the choice of Connery for a long time, sniffing at him as that "Scottish lorry-driver." (Fleming always wanted the elegant, but hardly imposing, David Niven for the role.) So if this interpretation holds, they've decided to settle on a Connery-esque version of Bond, not an Upper Crust Killer like Roger Moore, but a lower-class scrapper who just manages to pass for a gentleman most of the time.

Anyway. I'm going on and on.

This is a pretty good movie, very enjoyable through two hours of its bloated two-and-an-half hour running length. The problems with the movie seem particular to trying to have this particular plot pay off in a dramatically satisfying way; but that's because this particular plot is mostly doomed from the get-go. The changes in the Bond formula here suggest the next Bond outing may just wind up being the best Bond movie ever made, and maybe the Bond movie I've been waiting for since I watched my first one with my dad.

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posted by Ace at 01:57 PM

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