That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #16: Do I look like I give a damn?

Posted by kozemp on November 7, 2012

Scah-ry

Casino Royale has the odd distinction of being one of the very, very few movies in the last 20 years that I have seen in a theatre with my father.

I have spoken here and other places about my dad’s, shall we say, unique point of view on what constitutes appropriate entertainment for a small child. To his credit I was not actually allowed to watch a James Bond movie until I was 10 years old, which is a pretty strong parental movie showing for my dad, considering some of his other mishaps on that score. However, to his… I don’t know what the opposite of credit would be in this instance. Discredit? Debit? Either way, backing off from the kudos a bit, I was allowed to read Ian Fleming at the ripe old age of 8.

Goldfinger is an interesting and confusing book to an eight year old, let me tell you.

Looking back on it, though, Ian Fleming may be the first instance in my life of a now-common phenomenon, whereby I discover a new author that I like and then proceed to devour everything they have written at a truly dizzying speed. I read Goldfinger in the early spring when I was in third grade. By the time school was out, I had read every book Fleming wrote, with the notable exception of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the only remotely third grade book in the bunch.

I was 8 years old and I LOVED James Bond. James Bond was awesome! He had guns, which are still cool when you’re eight. He traveled the world, which was pretty awesome to a kid whose farthest away trip at that point was to West Point for a LaSalle basketball game. He was great with girls, a skill which 26 years later I am still waiting for basic competence in. And he was a foreigner! This was very exotic to eight year old me, since even though I’d read the Lord of the Rings the summer before – remember, my father has no concept of age-appropriate entertainment – and Frodo was okay and Gandalf and Strider were awesome and technically foreigners, they weren’t real people, obviously, and thus weren’t COOL foreigners like James Bond.

Man did I LOVE Ian Fleming. You know, like all eight year old kids.

So a few years later when I was allowed to actually watch a James Bond movie for the first time, my father took me to see The Living Daylights at the Orleans, and my lifelong love affair with James Bond was well and truly burned into the bedrock of my psyche.

Let me tell you something else: a lifelong love affair with James Bond movies is like being a particle physicist who married his high school sweetheart. However amazing things where when you were 16, eventually you realize that you are eternally shackled to someone who is really fucking stupid.

All the same, that was a ways off, and my kid self had no conception of any of that, and I was just thrilled that James Bond movies were a cool grownup thing I got to do with my dad. After The Living Daylights we went to Licence to Kill (great movie for a 12 year old), and then we waited out the Bond interregnum, and then even though at the time we hardly got along at all we went to see GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. The latter film was the one that broke my streak of going to Bond movies with my father, after he deemed that Bond movies had become “too stupid to see in theatres.” He missed out on The World Is Not Enough, a movie I still kind of like a bit, and was mercifully spared the horror of Die Another Day, after which -I- deemed James Bond movies too stupid to see in theatres.

Thankfully, then, the change came on again, and Daniel Craig took over, and though I was cautiously optimistic – Martin Campbell brings a lot of goodwill, or at least did back then – I wasn’t about to rush out on opening night.

I should have.

Like I hinted earlier, as I’ve gotten older, I have realized that James Bond movies, at their heart, are really, really dumb. And it’s not because I’m some sort of cineaste dickhead who can’t bear to watch anything but The Most Important Cinema. (c.f. my love of Top Secret) Or that I can’t enjoy spectacle for its own sake. (c.f. my love of the first Transformers movie) No. It’s just…

It is admittedly hard to pin down, but it’s one of those things that sitting in the theatre watching Die Another Day, I had a sudden epiphany that oh my god these movies are DUMB. And that they always had been.

This is not to say that I don’t still like them, or that James Bond in general does not still hold a place of honor in my heart, or that I don’t eye that complete 007 Blu Ray set with barely disguised avarice (my birthday IS coming, mind). Like I said: it’s like the physicist and the cheerleader. You can be content now and again trading happiness for pleasure.

All the same, when Casino Royale came out I was dubious. I’d been burned before. Hell, if you go back the entire franchise I’d been burned probably a dozen times. So I waited for a Saturday matinee, and went in with a healthy dose of earned skepticism.

My skepticism did not survive to the title sequence.

Here’s the thing about James Bond movies: they don’t have a whole lot of ways to distinguish or differentiate themselves. Suave secret agent. Villain. Henchmen. Sidekicks. Evil plot. Girls. Gadgets. Guns. Stunts. The triumph of good over evil. And so on and so forth, until the end of time, amen. The problem with the old generation of Bond movies is that they get so cookie cutter and so production-line oriented that whenever there is something different it sticks out, and badly. Even when something is great, really really great, it’s regarded as an anomaly. Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill. Everything in For Your Eyes Only.

I don’t know who it was, if it was Purvis and Wade, or Campbell, or even (dear god) Paul Haggis, but somewhere along the line someone said, “what if we did all the stuff in a James Bond movie, but did it completely backwards?”

So instead of the villain’s evil plot for world domination, or mass murder, or whatever, you get Le Chiffre who wants nothing more than to be rich, and enable other (bad) people to also be rich. You have, in Vesper, surely the most competent Bond girl since Melina Havelock. The out-of-nowhere casting of indie darling Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. The gadgetry (if I’m remembering correctly) is pretty much limited to the neato-nifty device Bond uses to cure himself from being poisoned at the casino (a scene, I note, that is for some reason not in the TV version). And you also have a heaping dose of dreary, post-9/11 realpolitik: M doesn’t send Bond after Le Chiffre to assassinate him, just to bankrupt him so he can become SIS’ informant. Felix offers to help Bond not because they’re friends or anything like that, but because he can bargain the CIA into getting first crack at LeChiffre’s intel.

And then there is, as Valentin Zukovsky memorably put it, the “charming, sophisticated secret agent,” of which Daniel Craig’s James Bond is decidedly neither.

You almost hate to bring it up, since it really shouldn’t count, but the most telling thing about Daniel Craig, and the Daniel Craig era approach to James Bond, comes at the end of Quantum of Solace. After Bond has spent an entire film murdering his way across the globe in presumed revenge for the betrayal and death of his One True Love at the end of Casino Royale, M confronts him outside Vesper’s “boyfriend’s” flat and they have what is one of the most emotionally loaded exchanges in recent movie memory.

M tells Bond, “I need you back.” And 007 just looks at her, slightly unsure of her meaning, and simply says, “I never left.”

And Judi Dench gives one of the greatest “oh FUCK” looks ever.

So much of that scene is carried by subtext that I actually missed it on first viewing, but when you come around to it again the meaning of it is pretty clear: he wasn’t on a vendetta. He wasn’t out for revenge (though that was a convenient side effect). He isn’t crazy. He was just doing his job, which is to find and kill bad guys.

The look on M’s face at the end, when she realizes what she’s created, is priceless. And it’s that ethos that suffuses both Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale, and sets CR apart from the rest of the franchise.

Craig’s Bond is not suave. He is not sophisticated. He is not charming. He is so not charming that how he gets the women he gets, especially the reserved and wound-up Vesper, is frankly a mystery to me. Craig’s performance takes the best of what simmered under the surface of the earlier Bond performances – early Connery, Moore at parts in You Only Live Twice, and Dalton in Licence to Kill, and Brosnan before Die Another Day – and places all that subtextual stuff front and center with the character. Craig’s Bond is vicious and remorseless and, one suspects thanks to Vesper’s actions in this movie, completely and totally heartless. In a lot of ways Casino Royale bears a lot of the hallmarks of a superhero origin story, which is another way it sets itself apart from the rest of the franchise. The character actually changes and grows over the course of the film. When it comes to a James Bond film, that kind of thinking is revolutionary. The presentation of the character is a complete 180 from what it had been for more than 50 years (60, now) and god DAMN it’s spectacular.

James Bond as put forth by Daniel Craig is, essentially, the platonic ideal of Fleming’s original creation: this brutal, sociopathic… CREATURE, who just happens to be on the good guys’ side. And thankfully so, since that guy, as opposed to gadget-happy playboy, makes for far more interesting movies.

I’ve said for a while now that I’ll always prefer a great movie with James Bond in it over a great James Bond movie. Good thing they made Casino Royale to show us there is a difference.

JLK

(Also, note that the original teaser version of the poster at the top, the vertical US edition that just a picture of Craig using the gun as a chip marker, is my absolute favorite movie poster ever, and I think one of the best promotional movie images of all time.)

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