Wednesday, 30 November 2016

CASINO ROYALE: Ten years later

In his first mission, James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes head-to-head with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an international financier of terrorism. After Le Chiffre bets against the stock market with his clients' funds and loses, he starts a high stakes poker game to quickly win it back before they find out what he's done. Bond is tasked with beating Le Chiffre and bringing him in. To help him he has Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) -- unlike his previous conquests, the combative and intelligent Vesper sees through his BS. Initially this puts Bond off, but as the game progresses and the stakes rise, the pair find themselves drawn together...

I cannot believe that Casino Royale is ten years old. It seems like only yesterday I was down at the Highland Park cinema (RIP) to catch the new Bond movie. I had heard good things going in, but I was somewhat trepidatious. The last Bond movie had been Die Another Day, a movie I had spent months looking forward to. That was the first time I remember being really disappointed with a movie, and it killed my interest in Bond for a while.

When Daniel Craig was announced as Bond, I was more interested in the other info in the announcement. The movie was going to be an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond book, Casino Royale. This was more exciting to me -- the book is the best in the series but the Bond producers had never owned the rights.  I had read it several times when I was younger, and while I enjoyed the other books, Casino Royale was the one I kept returning to.

While the other novels diverge from the movies, they follow the same basic pattern as the film series -- Bond goes on a mission, meets a beautiful woman and kills a dastardly bad guy. Casino Royale always stood out -- not only was it the only book the series had not touched (I did not know about the 1954 TV movie or 1967 spoof until much later), it went against many of my assumptions about the character: Bond does not win the mission, loses the girl and feels every second of it. While the literary character has a certain vulnerability in the other books (throwing up after killing people; getting beaten up and tortured), Casino Royale is the only one where Bond felt human. He also did not feel particularly likeable. He's a trained killer who's deadened to ordinary human feelings, and is more interested in card games and his recipe for scrambled eggs and his favourite drink than pesky things like other human beings.

In these respects (the small scale, the lack of action, Bond's ambiguity and vulnerability), I always felt Casino Royale was a cut above the other books, and felt these elements made a potential Eon-backed film impossible. So when I heard the news that Casino Royale was finally going to get an official adaptation, I was excited but a little suspicious -- I was afraid the filmmakers would try to expand the story beyond its limits, and top load it with gadgets, action and all the other unnecessary BS that had sunk Brosnan.

The filmmaking team gave me mixed feelings. On the positive side, it was going to be directed by Martin Campbell, who had made Brosnan's best movie, GoldenEye. Phil Meheux, Campbell's favourite DP and another GoldenEye alum was also coming back. The one thing that made me nervous was that the screenwriters would be Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the scribes behind Brosnan's last two movies. The addition of Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis blunted my misgivings, but I remember at the time feeling vaguely excited, but a little held-back.

And then other announcements came out. Casting. And this was where I started to get really excited.  Back in 2004, I was in hospital for a bit of surgery. I read an article about an up-and-coming actress who was making waves in Europe. I had taken a few books along for my stay, including Casino Royale. And while I was re-reading the book, I could not help but read the character of Vesper Lynd with this actress in mind. When Eva Green was cast, I could not believe it. This was also the point where I began to take this project seriously -- if a serious actress like Green was interested, then maybe there was something good here.

The next thing that made me excited was the first teaser trailer. More athletic and violent than I expected, this trailer was the first time where my preconceptions of what a Bond movie could be were shaken. It felt different. It felt cool. By the time I sat down to watch the movie, I was very excited.

The review

Craig's follow-ups have been hit-and-miss, but nothing can dent the impact of this, his first and best stab at the role. It almost would have been better if he had not made any sequels -- Casino Royale is a self-contained story that takes Bond's character as far as it can go. To watch any of Craig's other movies is to watch filmmakers -- talented no doubt -- struggle to come up with Bond-centred stories, while forgetting everything that made this movie great.

Going back to the book, one of the keys to Casino Royale's success is how small-scale it is. The stakes are high, but they are not as abstract as world annihilation. While Le Chiffre's actions will have horrible consequences, their most immediate will be the deaths of Bond and his cohorts. Like other great 'contained' genre movies like Die HardAlien or The Narrow Margin, the contained nature of the story clarifies the struggle between Bond and the villain, and creates an intimacy which makes the stakes feel more immediate.

It is here that the lack of a complicated scheme helps, because it allows the filmmakers time to spend on the characters and their relationships -- which is the main reason why Casino Royale works. It's not because of a sense of 'realism' or 'believability' -- this is, after all, a movie based around a simple game of cards, an insane parkour chase across a construction site, and a woman riding a horse along the beach. It's because the filmmakers care enough to flesh out the characters and make them relatable. As Die Hard proved, action is so much more impactful when you are invested in the characters.

To this, a lot of credit should go to screenwriter Paul Haggis. He was brought on to heavily revise the script, and while much of the basic structure is the work of Purvis and Wade, Haggis focused on fleshing out the characters, and added the third act in Venice which cements the movie. Ask any screenwriter, and third acts are the most important component.

Another person deserving of praise is director Martin Campbell. He deserves credit for honouring the visual vocabulary of the series while finding the tone and style appropriate for the story. He also deserves credit for keeping the movie's action clean and clear. He manages to shoot the action in such a way that feels visceral without cribbing from the Bourne movies' approach of hand held camera work and hyper-kinetic editing. In terms of its style, Casino Royale feels like the best eighties action movie that did not come out in the eighties.

Over and above all the spectacle, the reason Casino Royale works is the performances from the leads.

In my reviews of Spectre I made the point that the relationship between Bond and Madeline Swann felt short-changed. It's a pity that Craig's era has reverted to vacuousness of seventies Bond Girls, considering where it started. Outside of Judi Dench's M, Eva Green delivers the best female character the series has ever had. She is the only woman who can stand toe-to-toe with Bond, and the only one to ever affect Bond's character. 

Usually a female character starts strong (ala Pussy Galore) and then gets 'turned' by Bond's magnetism. In Casino Royale, this conversion is reversed. It is Vesper who sparks a glimmer of humanity in the secret agent -- and all without going between the sheets.

And now to the final element that pulls it all together.

 Daniel Craig came under a lot of unnecessary and irrelevant criticism when he was cast. Too blonde, too short, ears too big. Four films in, it is safe to say Craig proved the naysayers wrong.

Cold yet vulnerable, brutal yet suave, Craig has proven to be a great Bond. This is particularly true in Casino Royale, where Craig has the benefit of an actual character arc. Bond's arc is somewhat unique in that it is more a circle than a true progression. He starts as a killer, cold, detached and arrogant. As his relationship with Vesper develops, he becomes more human and empathetic. When Vesper betrays him, he reverts  -- only now he is even more detached from reality. When you boil it down, it puts quite a dark spin on the famous ending.

It sums up the schizophrenia of the character as a whole -- on the one hand, it's a crowd-pleasing moment. James Bond is back and better than ever. On the other hand, after spending two and half hours deconstructing this character, there is a darkly comic edge -- we're cheering a man who has lost everything and become a sociopath.

My experience watching Casino Royale is something I have rarely felt in a movie theatre. 

When I sat down, I had an idea of what a good James Bond movie was. As the movie went on, it became clear that this was something different. It became clear that Casino Royale was not just a great Bond movie like previous re-sets like The Living Daylights or GoldenEye, it was better. 

By the time the movie segued from the action-heavy first act into the casino-set Act 2, I realised something else: this was not a great adaptation of the book, it was better. The Bond of the books is a singularly despicable character -- a racist, misogynist aesthete who epitomised the kind of man Ian Fleming wished he could be. The cinematic character of Bond has always stood far apart from the literary original, but the characterisation of Casino Royale's Bond is the most fully realised of his filmic incarnations. As Film Crit Hulk said in his review, the movie is about the development of a 'damaged' man, and the reason the Bond of Casino Royale resonates in a way that previous Bonds do not is because of how believably flawed he feels. It is a fleshing out of the character in a way that feels like a natural outgrowth of the qualities we enjoy about Bond, while never dispelling his inherent mystique or sugar-coating his less appealing qualities.

By the end of the movie, as Monty Norman's theme blared triumphantly, I felt elated. It felt like a paradigm shift. All the expectations I had for Bond movies, everything I held as the high watermark for the franchise -- every preconceived notion of what a Bond movie could be had been wiped from my brain.

This was not a Bond movie. This was a great movie. Above and beyond its status as a Bond movie, Casino Royale is one of the best action movies I have ever seen. 

Previous reviews
For Your Eyes Only & The Living Daylights

Diamonds Are Forever & Octopussy

Quantum of Solace

Second Look

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