Friday, 3 November 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

Your Ursula Andress moment

In the long run, I believe movie lovers will come to the realisation that the Bond franchise was almost destroyed during Pierce Brosnan’s turn as the British superspy. Without the Cold War or the superior writing of Ian Fleming to provide a decent plot, the Brosnan era was typified by over-the-top action sequences, crackpot villains with far-fetched devices and plots to take over the world, blatant product placements, super gadgets out of this world, and many silly, even ridiculous excuses to put huge explosions in almost every scene. Just take a look at the movie posters for the past 4 films: each feature a huge explosion in their key art. At best, the Brosnan era marked the change of the Bond franchise into a parody of itself, sparking off even more ridiculous and entertaining series like Austin Powers and xXx, and imitators with bigger explosions like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible trilogy. At worse, you could say the Brosnan era was a huge joke, bolstered by the fact that no one – not the audience nor the producers – could take James Bond seriously.

It’s a bit like how Joel Schumacher single-handedly destroyed the Batman franchise with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Just like how Batman was revived by a reboot of the story, the Bond franchise stakes its survival and credibility on a similar reboot. As Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, this version of Casino Royale resets the series by re-introducing James Bond – this time played by the controversial Daniel Craig – as a rookie in his very first assignment, and shifting the timeline to the modern day. That’s not the only move the writers take to wipe the slate clean and rid the series of its jokey taint – Bond is not the perfect, suave superhero armed with an arsenal of improbable tools; the villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a mad genius and neither does he possess some doomsday device (he’s merely an ordinary banker who provides instant, worldwide credit transfers to terrorists, guerillas and other criminals); and the action is limited to good old-fashioned chases, fights, and very few explosions. I am happy to say that the self-parodying Q and the weapons development laboratory do not appear in this movie, even though it’s set in the modern day. Good riddance!

Casino Royale follows quite faithfully the events in Ian Fleming’s novel, with a few minor updates to allow for the modern day setting. Strangely enough, the updates – as well as the refusal to resort to complex gadgetry (the only device of note was a portable defibrillator!) - don’t give the film a dated feel. Instead, the nitty gritty of the post-9/11 world is very much referenced silently, with mostly low tech villains operating in a relatively modern world. Due to the overzealous actions of newest 00 agent James Bond, Le Chiffre’s investments in global terrorism are liquidated, causing him to lose money and gain the anger of his clients. The only way out for Le Chiffre to recoup his losses, save his life, and continue funding global terrorism is to enter the ultimate poker tournament for no-limits Texas Hold’em at Casino Royale, and Bond is dispatched – this time under the watchful eye of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) – to foil Le Chiffre’s plan and apprehend the villain. The only drawbacks are these: Le Chiffre got his nickname for being a mathematical wizard, Bond may too arrogant and egotistical to win the game of bluff, and Vesper Lynd is repelled by Bond’s overconfidence, yet attracted to his little vulnerabilities.

So. imagine James Bond not as the superagent we have grown to know and love and then fall out of love with, but as a very human rookie, insecure, not infallible, and possessing an unwarranted arrogance and self-assurance. Imagine him as a man who has no super powers, no expensive hi-tech gadgets, imagine him as a true brawler. An actor playing him will have to rely on his raw animal magnetism, as well as work very hard on his stuntwork. That will be Daniel Craig, arguably the best James Bond since Sean Connery.

What you have to look out for in Casino Royale is not the gadgets or product placements, but the sheer energy and stripped down action style of its main actor. Daniel Craig fights unarmed most of the time in the movie, and does so much running and sweating that you instinctively appreciate the difference between Craig and the previous Bond actors: he is a bona fide action star, while almost all the rest had to rely on the dinner suit, the cheesy introductions, the Aston Martins and the gadgets to get audiences believe they were playing Bond. The re-imagining of James Bond is gives the franchise a much-needed and welcome dose of realism that has been lacking in its films for almost a decade. After the end credits roll, the movie promises that Bond will return. We certainly look forward to seeing more of Daniel Craig in this role, as well as more of the real world sensibility of the new James Bond screenplays.

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

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