Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The New and Future James Bond

My strongest memory of my maternal grandfather is of him reading. For years, whenever we visited, I'd come home with a huge box of paperback books he'd finished. Since his tastes ran to westerns and sci-fi, I was reading Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs at age ten, with a dictionary beside me.

One day, Grandpa wasn't as vigilant as usual, and I ended up with a copy of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale. I was probably fourteen by then, and Fleming was already dead after writing twelve novels featuring James Bond.

I'd never read anything like Casino Royale. I was immediately hooked, but knew I'd have to find a way to sneak more of the racy Fleming books into the house. Over the next year, I managed to read all the novels in the series by checking the books out of the library at peak hours, tucked between copies of more traditional teenage fare.

The Bond of those books was brutal, misogynistic and full of hubris. I had to look the word "hubris" up, having never seen it before reading Ian Fleming. The author used it to describe James Bond early on, and I've never forgotten the word.

All this, of course, is prelude to my review of the new film Casino Royale.

The reviews have said that the 21st Bond movie brings the series back to basics. This assessment is absolutely on target. This is not the Bond to whom film buffs have grow accustomed. While the movie is non-stop action, there are few, if any, of the over-the-top CGI special effects fans have come to expect.

The action begins quickly with a flashback to Bond's attaining his 007 (license to kill) status. Another early scene follows an eye-popping footrace through a construction site in Madagascar. I was so impressed with the actor/stuntman playing the terrorist Bond chases that I had to look him up. Turns out Sebastien Foucan is the founder of the sport of free running. Free running is an offshoot of the better known parkour, which originated in France. In both free running and parkour, a runner tries to cross a designated urban site in the fastest and most direct manner possible, using skills such as jumping, vaulting and climbing. Sebastien Foucan is remarkable. Both his scene and the earlier flashback set the tone for the movie--the action is up close and personal, not Olympic-sized and distant.

Much has been made of Daniel Craig as the first blond and blue-eyed Bond
--as well as the shortest. I was far more interested in the ruthless, dispassionate nature of Daniel Craig's portrayal. This was the Bond I'd first met in those long-ago novels, the man who both scared and thrilled my teenage self. While Sean Connery looked dangerous, his tongue-in-cheek jokes and urbane smoothness reassured movie fans. Daniel Craig looks and acts dangerous.

The plot is also far less contrived than earlier movies. Bond is after Le Chiffre (translates to "the figure, the number or the amount") a man who acts as banker to terrorist groups. Unknown to his clients, Le Chiffre is speculating with their money. After Bond interferes in Le Chiffre's attempt to manipulate an airline stock, the action moves to Montenegro where Le Chiffre attempts to win back the $100 million that Bond has cost him. Le Chiffre is a desperate man; if he cannot rebuild his clients' accounts, they will come after him.

M16 sends Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) from Her Majesty's Treasury with $15 million to bankroll Bond in the game--which has changed from the original Baccarat variation of Chermin de Fer to Texas Hold 'Em. My teenage self had to go to the large dictionary at school to find a definition of Chermin de Fer.

Bond is blunt with Vesper--she's not his type. She asks, "Too smart?" He responds, "Single." It's a personality reveal: He prefers his women married. It makes for less fuss later. The deepening of Vesper and James' relationship is an interesting variation on the usual Bond. So is Vesper's assessment of Bond as being from a less than aristocratic background.

There are sly winks and nods to the other movies. Bond wins a silver Aston Martin DBS from one of Le Chiffre's henchmen in a poker game early on. A second example comes when Vesper Lynd introduces herself to Bond on a train. She says, "I'm the money." He responds, "Every penny of it," a reference to the character of Moneypenny, M's secretary. Finally, he doesn't say the line, "Bond, James Bond" until the very end of the film.

The only problems I had with the film were the terrible-awful-horrible opening credits and the even more dreadful theme song. Talk about a clunker tune best forgotten. Yuck.

I'm a diehard Sean Connery fan. I never went to a film starring another Bond although I've probably seen most of them on television by now. Having said that, I must say Daniel Craig's performance is superb. I will look forward eagerly to more James Bond movies with Craig (he's signed a contract for a total of three). I'd grown tired of the over-the-top plots and scenes. This film really did feel like coming home--in more ways than one.


Marie Tuhart said...

A friend was just telling me about this Bond movie telling me I had to go see it, even if it was just see how the characterization was done. Even from you're review, it sounds like a good movie.

Maya said...

It was a GREAT movie. I enjoyed it every bit as much as I once enjoyed the Connery movies.