Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Back in Action

I saw the new Bond over the Christmas break and it would be remiss of me not to remark upon it. So, I’ll just do that.

First, a general impression. Casino Royale is a pretty kickass movie, but not quite a genuine Bond film as I’ve come to expect one. After the success of the last one, Die Another Day, the producers took the unusual step of overhauling the whole franchise. Even though DAD had been the highest-grossing Bond film of all time (Each Brosnan Bond was more profitable than the last), they decided to change the Bond actor and the tone of the whole operation. Coming off a huge bomb, I could understand; but taking a chance on a property that was still pulling in ever-increasing amounts of cash? Quite the risk.

Casino Royale, I like. It’s got some kickass action sequences (most of which are concentrated in the first half of the film), a good baddie, decent enough plot. In spite of this, though, I find something lacking. I mean, where’s my space laser? What about Q? How come Bond’s car doesn’t shoot stuff out of it? Quite deliberately, these elements have been avoided and I can’t say that I’m particularly thrilled about it.

One of my favourite moments in the recent Bonds came at the start of The World is Not Enough. Bond is piloting a boat that turns into a submarine and, while avoiding some flaming debris, runs it underwater. Cut to a shot of a submerged Bond, straightening his tie. I mean, come on! That’s awesome, but if they’d tried it in Casino Royale Daniel Craig would have been laughed off the screen.

Much is being made of Craig being a “gritty” and “darker” Bond with the unstated implication being that this is a good thing. I don’t get it. First, who the fuck wants a gritty Bond? I want a goddamn Bond who wears a suit and tie and shoots people, and then says something clever that relates in some way to that person’s death (“Maybe he should have ordered the lobster” if he throws a guy into a tank of piranhas). I don’t care how realistic that is, damn it. Bond films have almost always tended towards outright fantasy, and I don’t see why all of a sudden people want them to be realistic. Go see the Jason Bourne movies if that’s what you want.

Holy Christ! Bond's hair is messy and he has dirt on him! Not since Eisenstein has the world of cinema been thrown for such a loop.

They also talk about making Bond more human. Well, Christ, the whole appeal is that Bond’s not human, he’s superhuman. Has anyone’s complaint been that they want a more average and relatable portrayal of Bond?

Related to this, I’m also not sold on Craig as Bond. Sure, he seems a competent sort of action hero, but… James Bond? Bond is supposed to have a more pronounced sense of humour, and he’s definitely not supposed to fall in love (once, and that is it). I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one though, since all the promotional material for the film stressed that this character was Bond “before he was Bond”. I take that to mean that he has learned from his experiences in this film and that, by the end of the movie and into the rest of them, he’ll be the same old guy we’ve always known. The final scene, in which he greets the Mr. White character with “the name’s Bond… James Bond” seems to indicate this might be the case.

Now, onto some random thoughts.

- They do a good job in this movie of making the nameless little henchmen in the movie seem like genuine physical threats to Bond. I’m thinking particularly of the bomber at the airport who gave Bond a pretty rough go while fighting in the tanker truck, but there are others.

- The foot chase in Madagascar at the start is really excellent. There will never be a better foot chase in any movie ever. Again, they do a good job of making the bad guy here seem pretty competent in the way he is able to jump and climb his way through the construction site while Bond is left busting through walls, climbing ladders and using his brain while he chases him.

- There sure the fuck were a lot of cell phones being used in this movie. They could really have cut down on that, but I guess some company had a new phone to sell. On that note, Bond actually says the brand name of his watch? Pretty tacky.

- Like I said, all the good action is crammed into the first 45 minutes or so. After that, it’s a good long while of poker playing. This I do not mind, but then they try to break it up by cramming in not one but two action scenes in between hands. Especially in the case of the poisoning, these seemed really tacked on.

- I like how they gave Le Chiffre that screwed up eye. It’s not in the book (evidently), so I like how they went the extra mile to give the baddie some sort of physical deformity. At least some of the old Bond is still kicking (prior examples include diamonds embedded in face, metal teeth, midget, bullet in brain, scar on face, prosthetic hands, really tall black lady).

- You know, I thought I would hate this, but I didn’t really mind the way the movie saves the gunbarrel bit till right at the end of the first scene. I look forward to a traditional one next film, but it works here.

- I can see how space lasers and volcano hideways are probably going to be out of the next couple Bond movies, but now I wonder if Q is going that way, too. I mean, certainly if he was to appear in the next one, he couldn’t be the jokey, cantankerous Q we’ve always known. If the next movie is to be anything like Casino Royale, Q will clash entirely with every other scene in the rest of the movie. Also, the idea of having a scene where some guy shows the main character all the gadgets he will be using is in itself pretty outdated and makes for some poor storytelling. I like it, of course, but I can see the arguments against. The obligatory banter between Moneypenny and Bond might also fall victim to the same reasoning.

- The Brosnan Bonds had a few recurring characters working alongside M at Mi6, none of whom make an appearance in this one. Given that they brought her back, I’m a tad disappointed to see them gone.

- The whole idea of Bond falling in love has been done to death, especially in the last 3 Brosnan movies (Paris Carver was supposed to have been an old flame; we were to believe that he was getting close to Elektra, moreso than usual; Halle Barry’s character was supposed to be his “equal” that he felt something for). I feel odd to say that I long for the days of Roger Moore where, clearly, Bond was in it for the sex. I’ll give this one a pass because, ostensibly, this is Bond before he’s Bond, and maybe he’ll learn from this encounter that he’s not supposed to fall in love? Time will tell.

Yeah, cause I want to find out how Bond feels about this woman

- It was cool to see Felix Leiter for the first time in a while. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of him.

- I love the way the movie ends with the Bond theme. I mean, they don't even try to redo it for the 21st century; near as I can tell, it's the exact same arrangement (including bongos, for Christ's sake) as the original from 1962, only re-recorded. That's commendable.

- The opening titles over the song are fucking awesome. The whole card motif is just great; it makes silly things (Bond shooting his gun and then a heart flies out of it) seem kickass. Then you’ve got the whole spiral motif (like on the backs of cards) going nuts, and the weird little designs on face cards, roulette wheels, targets, etc. It’s brilliant. To top it off, the arrangement of the title song uses the orchestra a lot more than the radio versions you might have heard and really takes the song from “meh” to “huh” territory. I am still unsure if these ones beat the Goldeneye titles though, which I was floored by when I saw the movie as a kid.

- Then you have the score. Oh, I could go on at length about the score. And I will. The composer, David Arnold, is one of the few things that were retained from the Brosnan era. Listening to the music, though, there are very few stylistic elements that have carried over from his old work. You can really tell that Arnold stepped up to the plate and changed his whole game for this movie.

Die Another Day, the last Bond movie, was Arnold’s third. By that point he was going insane with the techno and the electronic manipulation. At certain points in that score, he wrote the music backwards, had the orchestra play it that way, and then reversed it all for the movie. It’s nuts, and I had the impression that if Brosnan had stuck around for a fifth, his stuff really woulda been interesting and off the wall.

Brosnan didn’t, of course, so Arnold was forced to abandon the style he’d been developing for a while and start all over again. Listening to the album it’s a bit sleepy, but it totally works in the movie. Part of the problem is that a huge portion of the movie is either talking (all romance-like between Bond and Vesper) or poker playing. I guess I could be wrong, but this sort of thing doesn’t exactly lend itself to the most dynamic and in-your-face music, so Arnold keeps a lot of his stuff pretty low-key. It’s serviceable, at best, and I can’t fault him for writing to what’s on the screen.

But then you have the action scenes, and that’s when things get more interesting. Starting with the track Backseat Driver in Tomorrow Never Dies (played over the car chase in the parking garage where Bond’s controlling the car with the remote in the backseat), Arnold began making this sort of… signature chase sequence music. You can definitely trace a line from that to the boat chase music in The World is Not Enough through to the hovercraft chase music in Die Another Day (with honourable mentions going to the bike chase in TND and the ice palace chase in DAD). These tracks are always the highlight of Arnold’s Bond scores, and I was eagerly awaiting the next iteration in Casnio Royale.

Regrettably, however, there are no vehicle chase sequences in this movie. Thus, the momentum Arnold had been building on the vehicle chase music has been stopped dead in its tracks (the closest we get is the stuff accompanying the foot chase, but that’s about that). This is especially a bummer because these parts are also where Arnold tends to let loose with homages to old Bond scores (which I particularly enjoy). Oh well. Maybe next time.

Submarine car. Suck on that, Aston Marin that is in the movie for 30 seconds.

One good thing to mention is that Arnold comes through with more plodding, protracted overlong action sequence music. These sound like negative adjectives, but I must say that this stuff has grown on me over the years. In the tradition of Submarine from TWINE and Antonov in DAD, Casino Royale brings us Miami International. Like the first two tracks, Miami International is ridiculously long (over 12 minutes). When you first listen to it, you hate it. Gradually, however, you begin to really warm to it and enjoy the way in which tension is built up over… well, a long time (and I suppose it’s not Arnold’s fault that the action sequence lasts 12 minutes). I’m no music-type person, but all of these tracks sound the same: they start slow, have a slow build (with the same descending three-note motif introduced in the pipeline scene in TWINE), and then gradually build to this massive climax in the final few seconds. You will also notice that the titles to all three of these tracks are rather prosaic, giving away no more than the location in which the action takes place (A submarine, an airport, etc.). I think the name Miami International is Arnold’s way of indicating that this track is placed firmly in the lineage established by Submarine and Antonov.

You can come up with your own caption for this one.

- I am curious about this evil organization alluded to towards the end of the movie. I am desperately hoping that it’s SPECTRE, but I don’t think the producers actually own the rights to that (or even Blofeld) anymore. Perhaps this is for the best, however, since Dr. Evil has pretty much ruined the character of Blofeld for the average moviegoer, so a bald guy heading an organization that fights Bond might just be laughed out of the theatre. For the record, though, I am rooting for SPECTRE.

- I am concerned about the precedent set by this bad guy. I mean, he’s just a lowly terrorist financier. Where’s the nuclear blackmail? I fear that the next guy might be some drug lord or some other bullshit.

Anyway, that’s it for me and Casino Royale. I’m sure you haven’t read this far, and, hey, no harm done. It’s good to get that out of the system either way. All in all, I would say that of the Daniel Craig Bonds, Casino Royale is definitely the best.


Blogger erin said...

you're pretty bored up there, huh? That's a LOOOONNNG one. I've never seen a Bond movie. Maybe I'll start with this one.

2:23 pm  

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