Thursday, April 05, 2007

Licenses to kill

A long time into Casino Royale---a very long time into Casino Royale---Daniel Craig, modeling his new tailored tux, looks up into the mirror and gives himself a smile that, with the camera looking in over his shoulder at his reflection and his reflection looking back at the camera, is really meant for us, a smile that asks, "Remind you of anyone?"

Of course he does.

Bond, we say in our heads, James Bond.

And it would be a great moment, like the moment in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie when Clark Kent, dashing across the street, pulls open his shirt to reveal the big red S we've all been waiting to see, if it had been the moment it was meant to be, the moment when we finally accept that Craig is the new Bond.

But as I said it comes an awful long way into the movie, a movie in which Craig has been extremely busy right from start being James Bond.

I thought Casino Royale was supposed to be about how Bond became Bond. I expected a learning curve to be part of the plot. But aside from a few lines of dialog mentioning it and a couple of good jokes---"A martini!" "Shaken or stirred?" "Do I look like I care?"---Bond's being the new kid in town doesn't figure much in the storyline. He's just been promoted and the ink's still wet on his license to kill, but he takes to the job as naturally as Craig takes to playing the part.

Which makes it just another Bond film.

I say that as a compliment. It's just not the compliment I expected to be paying it based on all I'd heard and read about it before seeing it.

As just another Bond film it's better than most of them, as good as a few of the very best, but except for the big chase through the construction site and the embassy it didn't add any scenes to the ultimate ideal Bond movie that's been playing in my head since I saw my very first Bond, which, for the record, was Live and Let Die, so Sean Connery, great as he was, does not define Bond for me---he's a contributor, but not the creator. Roger Moore didn't define Bond for me either, much as I enjoyed his take on 007, because he was already defined in my imagination as The Saint and Beau Maverick and Lord Brett Sinclair, Tony Curtis' partner on The Persuaders. I had the same problem with Pierce Brosnan, who will always carry a little too much of Remington Steele in his Bond. That's why, back in the day, I was so looking forward to Timothy Dalton's Bond and why I really liked Craig's. Neither one of them entered my head with any previous work's baggage to check.

But, not even considering how it fails as an origin film, Casino Royale disappointed me as a Bond movie because its plot was upside down.

Spoilers coming.

Putting the poker game in the spot where the big climactic chase or shoot-out should have been was a really bad idea. The loss of the money and Bond's apparent betrayal would have been a good way to get the plot off the ground and the chase across the airport runway, which, by the way, was as clumsy and dumb as the big chase in A View to a Kill, although it has a great payoff, should have been the big finale. The buildings crashing into the Venice canals could have been left out entirely. Structured that way, the whole middle part of the film could have been about how Bond learns to be Bond or at least how he learns to be a better Bond. M would have had a whole lot more to be exasperated with him for, a real reason to consider pulling his license to kill, instead of merely fussing over his failure to shoot out the security cameras in the embassy.

Spoilers over.

What Casino Royale has going for it is Craig.

Now, if you're a Bond fan, if you actually like the character and whole conception behind the movies, your opinion of what Bond should be like is probably based on how seriously you take the whole license to kill thing.

If you think the fact that defines Bond is that he's an assassin and therefore basically a cold-hearted killer, a paid thug who happens to know how to tie a bowtie and which fork to use, then of course Connery is your Bond and Craig will appeal to you because he has a good degree of thugishness about him. Craig looks like he could be a British football hooligan. He looks more like he could be a soccer star, the kind of player though who makes soccer into a contact sport more brutal than rugby. And he can do cold. Not cold as in ice. Brosnan did that. Cold as in stone. A stone that has hurled itself off a cliff face aiming itself right at your head.

He's brutal, but he's also clearly intelligent and educated.

Connery's Bond was smart too, but there was something of the unfinished auto-didact about him, a scholarship boy who had to drop out of school when the money ran out, possibly even before he reached university. Craig looks like he made it all the way to his final semester at Cambridge before he got kicked out for seducing his tutor's wife and beating up four or five star players on the cricket team.

That makes his Bond a bridge between Connery's and Brosnan's and Moore's Bonds, both of whom got firsts at Oxford and were well liked and popular despite having seduced their tutors' wives and beaten up four or five star players on the cricket team.

Bond's license to kill doesn't mean as much to me as a sign of his innate brutality as it does as a sign of his intelligence and judgment. Hired thugs don't have to be discerning. Being given the power to decide whom and when to kill means being given the power to decide this person doesn't need killing at this particular time. Bond is a spy before he's an assassin. We only see him on missions when things are so out of control or have gone so wrong that the bad guys must die. But there are plenty of suggestions in all the movies that Bond routinely goes on missions in which he slips in somewhere, extracts the information he needs, and slips out without anybody getting their hair mussed.

The women we often see him with at the beginning of a movie are there to reward him for his good behavior.

Brosnan and Moore were able to suggest that, while they didn't have a problem with the killing, they thought more highly of themselves for pulling off a job without pulling out their gun, because that meant they'd been really clever. Good spies shouldn't leave any traces behind and dead bodies are hard not to notice.

So it's not Craig's toughness that I liked as much as the fact that his toughness never gets in the way of his letting us see him thinking.

What Craig adds to Bond is blood. And sweat. Craig's Bond is the first who looks like the work he does is physically demanding. When his Bond jumps from a steel girder to a swinging I-beam he feels the force of it in his chest and arms. He gets hurt. He bruises. He gets the wind knocked out of him. He gets tired. The payoff of the chase through the embassy depends not on Bond being cornered but on his being too exhausted to run anymore or think his way out of the situation.

Craig isn't the first Bond since Connery who looks like he can do the stunts Bond is required to do. Brosnan was in great shape in his first two Bonds and he moved like a panther. But Craig is the first one who looks like he is really taking the punishment. What's more, he looks like he could survive them despite the toll they take on him.

This new and realistic physicality isn't all Craig's doing, though. It is a result of filmmakers having learned since Roger Moore's hey-day how to stage and shoot and edit fights in a way that makes them appear more real and physical.

I was watching The Spy Who Loved Me last week and I was struck by how the director didn't even bother to try to make Moore's fight scenes look like hard work for Bond. Moore was fifty years old at the time. He was in fine shape for an old guy but it was clear that he'd lost a step or two, that he wasn't as limber as he once was---and Moore even when he was playing Simon Templer never gave the impression he was much of an athlete---and yet a number of his fight scenes and chases were filmed in long shot with very little cross and jump cutting so that we could see either that we were watching a stunt man or that Moore and the stuntman he was fighting were being very careful with each other.

But then nothing about Moore's Bond movies was supposed to be taken seriously. It was all a game, a fun fantasy. Moore's job was to make us simultaneously see the game and the fun while getting caught up in the excitement. He was good at that.

By the way, despite his age, he was the only Bond who was persuasive as the kind of man who didn't have to rely on damsels in distress throwing themselves into his arms and villainesses scheming their way into his bed to get laid.

Handsome and dashing as all the others including Craig are, none of them look like they'd be a lot of fun on a date or even in the sack, unless you like it fast, muscular, and without any cuddling afterwards and any chance you'll have company for breakfast.

Don't confuse the roguishly charming post-007 Connery with his gloomy misogynistic Bond, James "Let me call you a cab before I have to kill you" Bond.

So, for what it's worth, Craig is the first realistic Bond.

By the way, when this quality of the movie, its relative realism, was being touted back before its release, I was confused. I had thought that we'd already had a realistic Bond. Timothy Dalton. Turns out my memory was playing tricks on me.

Watched License to Kill recently too. It had been one of only two of the Bond films I'd never seen. (The other was and still is Moonraker.) I was shocked.

As Rob Farley says of both Dalton efforts, License to Kill doesn't even feel like a Bond film.

I remember liking The Living Daylights but if Dalton's work in License to Kill is a continuation of what he was doing in his first Bond the I must not be remembering it very well. I don't know what he was up to, but he wasn't playing James Bond. He was playing some British toff who'd gotten caught up in a spy game and thought the only way he could get through it was by acting like James Bond. His Bond is realistic in that Dalton acts out every emotion Bond might be feeling at a given moment. When Bond has reason to worry, he looks worried. When Bond is smitten with Cary Lowell's character---the first and so far only Bond girl I believe might have a realistic counterpart in this universe---Dalton looks smitten. When he's in pain, he looks like he hurts. But it doesn't add up to a character and all that emoting certainly isn't what anybody expects out of James Bond.

Craig suggests that his Bond has real feelings by showing us how he's hiding them.

Last thoughts: I liked Craig as Bond and I'm looking forward to his next outing. But as I said I don't think Casino Royale was exceptional. The actor playing Bond is finally only as good a Bond as the movies he's playing Bond in are good Bond movies. I think part of the reason a lot of Bond fans see Brosnan and Moore as so much weaker Bonds than Connery's is that they appeared in some bad movies. Two out of four of Brosnan's movies are not any good (Here's me on Die Another Day) and several of Moore's are just plain awful. A couple of Connery's Bond movies are pale efforts, particularly You Only Live Twice, and depending on my mood Thunderball is either a hoot or a bad joke, but the first three are well-made genre movies, each one almost able to stand on its own without your having to like or know anything about the Bond series.

We'll see if Craig's movies measure up, then we'll know if he's truly the rightful heir to the double O's.

But the basic appeal of the Bond movies is that they are the ultimate fantasies of male escape (which isn't to say that women don't share the same fantasies only that in the movie the fantasy is pitched at men): Bond is a truly free man. He doesn't need anybody or anything. He doesn't need the job. He doesn't need MI6. He doesn't need a family, friends, or relations. They need him, but Bond is free. He is free even of moral constraint.

And being free he doesn't have to care.

That he bothers to care is what makes him a hero and not a villain or a monster.

The difference between all the Bonds is in each actor's decisions about how much Bond does bother to care and how much he then shows it. Leaving Dalton out of it, Moore cares the most, although he is cool about showing it, while Connery cares least. Where Craig fits himself in between them will decide who his Bond is.

Licenses to Critique or A View to a Review:

Tom Watson hated, just hated Casino Royale. He didn't think much of Craig as Bond either. And did I mention that he hated Casino Royale?

He's outvoted though by Dennis Perrin who likes Craig's barely concealed "raw physical and psychological fury" and thinks his Bond could mop the floor with Connery's, by Rob Farley who says Casino Royale is the best Bond movie since On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and by Shakes who thinks Craig is to live and let die for.

Meanwhile, Moved by Michael Medved's politically correct misreading of Casino Royale, TBogg knocks on Medved's wooden head and asks if anybody's home and Jason Chervokas considers the question, Is a post-Cold War Bond possible?

Sir Roger Moore has a webpage through which you can help him continue to save the world, for real now, through his work for UNICEF.

Casino Royale. Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Mads Mikkelsen, and Jeffrey Wright. MGM. 2006.

Casino Royale available from my aStore.


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