To the cinematorium, yesterday, the better to watch Daniel Craig‘s Bond debut in Casino Royale. I have some thoughts on the matter – naturally – but, first, a few Bond factoids. Casino Royale was the name of the first Bond novel, penned by Ian Fleming back in 1953. I haven’t read that book, but rumour has it that the film is quite faithful in tone and style. Craig is the first under-forty Bond since George Lazenby (who starred in one of my favourite Bond outings, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Craig is also the first Bond to have his testicles thumped with a length of rope. To be sure, this is a story that chimes with the observation of Alistair MacLean, who suggested that Fleming’s novels were based on ‘sex, snobbery and sadism’.
What’s wrong with this picture?
There were some great moments and well-worked set pieces. The tensile strength of the upper lip was maintained despite an excruciating on a rickety chair – and that was before the film started.
Oh, behave, Ian. Behave.
An immortal hero
OK, so the audience knows that – for the soundest of financial reasons – the hero cannot die. What does the storyteller of a thriller do in this circumstance? You’ve got to provide a proxy; something must be at stake that the hero values as much as, or more than, his life. In Casino Royale, we have the love interest Vesper Lynd, played by French actress Eva Green. I think that Daniel Craig – a terrific actor – manages to ‘sell’ the connection between himself and Vesper Lynd, but this doesn’t really bite until two-thirds through the film. By this point, we’ve sat through several action set pieces where there is really no jeopardy whatsoever. We have to be entertained by our anticipation of ‘how Bond will get out of this one’. That’s not really sufficient.
That’s right. With a K. Consider the movies The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, and I would wager that you’ll not see two finer films for sheer hooplah, mojo and welly. What’s more, they have a depth that, sadly, Casino Royale can only sniff at. But in terms of kinematics: A good director will get competent people to arrange the stunts and their effect will be equally competent…but there will be constant niggles like trucks skidding in an unnatural way, explosions that should kill people but don’t, and, crucially: the action set pieces only develop the story at their completion, not during the piece itself. Into this category falls Martin Campbell (cf. his Goldeneye, which suffers from the same problem; mind you, Campbell directed the pretty good The Mask of Zorro). A great director gets the kinetics right; keeps it real. Into this category falls Spielberg (pick any Indiana Jones set-piece), James Cameron (Terminator franchise, ALIENS), and Paul Greengrass (director of The Bourne Supremacy; just watch the final car chase and check your pants afterwards).
Gods from various machines
I’m sorry, but even Bond-James-Bond lacks the psychic power to predict the future. Why, then, does he have gadgets that are so specific they can only be useful in improbable situations – which duly come to pass? In another film, this would be labelled sloppiness. In a Bond film, it’s laughed off; but I think a certain uneasiness underlies that laughter. Let’s show the scriptwriters the V: verisimilitude. And, by the way, a defibrillator in a glove box? What-now?
Not to bang the Bourne drum too often, but why is a spy thriller like The Bourne Supremacy head and shoulders above Casino Royale? One of the key reasons lies in verisimilitude: keeping it real, man. Keep it real. Bourne works within a reality very close to ours – when he goes on a car chase, he needs to look at a map; his advantage in competitive situations comes from cleverness and preparation and tradecraft. Bond works in a rarified reality: when he goes on a car chase, he knows exactly where he’s going; he’s got the best kit; he’s always luckier than his opponent. The pre-title (or was it post title?) sequence when Bond chases the parkour guy over a construction site filled me with dread. Those feats were superhuman. Bond has not been rendered ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ in this movie; he’s the same comic book hero he always was. Why can’t be occasionally screw up, like Bourne? OK, so Bond does not violate the verisimilitude of the Bond universe, but in that universe Bond is God, and is there anything more boring than seeing a flawless hero strut his stuff in very tight bathing trunks? I know; depends on the trunks.
The ending was quite abrupt, and did not sail to the heights of myth intended by the creators. As I heard that final line (which I won’t repeat here), I thought, Wow, that must have looked fantastic in the script. But, overall, it didn’t work. The ending lacked closure and its abruptness had not been foreshadowed well.
I liked this film. I had a good time. Some of the stunts were fun and laughed like a donkey at the testicular torture seen (trust me, it is indeed funny). Any given scene was reasonably well constructed, and Daniel Craig’s performance was superb. But, seeing this film, I have the feeling that we’re in the last few films of the franchise. I just don’t think you can maintain a franchise on pyrotechnics and catchphrases alone. You need to tell a compelling story. This ain’t it.
Oh, can we please grow up and stop using disfigurement as a shorthand for villainy? ‘Crikey, that guy has got a massive scar running through his eye! Must have ‘evil’ runnin’ through him like a stick of rock!’ Ugly/disfigured = bad. Handsome = good. Jaysus. (Let’s not forget that Fleming described Bond as having a conspicuous facial scar.)