Friday, March 07, 2008

Casino After All

Ayn Rand loved James Bond the hero, but hated the self-mocking tone of some Bond movies. So, what's the deal with Casino Royale, the first ever Bond novel, and at long last an official Bond movie? Let the cards speak for themselves.

First off, it's true that Daniel Craig is a counterintuitive choice as Bond. His rugged looks would better fit Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt than suave Mr. Eton James Bond. Above all, for Ian's sake, it's not James Blond. OK, so both Bond girls in Casino Royale are brunette (where are the cool blondes?), but why the toupee is Bond suddenly blond? Technicolor advisor!

Yet the biggest problem with Casino Royale may be that it's a reboot of the Bond franchise. Esthetically, reboots are inherently questionable. By wiping the canvas clean, the viewer is brutally reminded that it is, well, a canvas. After all, reality cannot be wiped clean. Fans are tacitly expected to sweep under the rug of oblivion all of Bond's earlier adventures. That may to some degree backfire on producers when the most devoted Connery and Moore fans decide to watch the old Bond continuum on DVD and boycott his newspeak incarnation.

Unfortunately, the only holdover from the Brosnan days is what was Brosnan's worst liability: Judi Dench. Having Bond encounter a feminist, macho-hating boss once would have been a fine joke. Having her stick around emasculates the whole series.

Part of Bond's appeal is that he's larger than life. Posh hotels with all expenses paid, exotic locales, fast cars to wreck at the taxpayer's expense, private jets, a license to kill — and any woman he wants, he'll get. True, Connery and Moore too had to get along with an authoritarian M, and a Q furious due to the wreckage Bond wrought. Yet, back then Bond used to get his own back by dumbfounding M on the spot with his superior knowledge, and in the end by having saved the world.

However, Ms. M heaping politically correct abuse on a morally defenseless Bond for his larger than life style is something that could drive the calmest soul from a view to a kill.

As Bond co-producer Michael G. Wilson once observed, "We always start out trying to make another From Russia with Love and end up with another Thunderball." Accordingly, gadgets and visual effects were out this time and character and plot were supposed to be in.

Well, I sorely missed the funny gadgets. It doesn't help matters that the gadgets have been replaced by pointless stunts. That they were done by real stuntmen instead of computer graphics doesn't make much of a difference. The best I can say about the long stunt sequence at a construction site is that some of the stunts at least succeed at one-upping those they imitate.

The nadir of the movie comes when Bond chases a terrorist trying to bomb the world's largest jetliner at rollout. First the hijacked tanker drives through a train of baggage carts — then through an articulated bus. Yes, I said an articulated bus. Right, that's more like The Naked Gun than like James Bond. We've gone through a train of baggage carts and a bus. Hey, what's next? The Great Wall?

In a movie already known for its goofs, an empty pistol going click with the slide not locked open is probably par for the course. A source of involuntary humor, however, comes courtesy of veteran Bond production designer Peter Lamont, who really should know better.

"The plane had no engines, but it was in fairly good condition, and we could use the body of the 747 to save us the huge expense of building something of that bulk. I looked at many references of airplane construction and decided our Skyfleet should look like the B-52s, with pairs of tandem engines, and an altered cockpit profile. I don't know if my design would fly, but the B-52s managed!"

Sure she might fly in the sky — but she would never fly with the FAA. More importantly, frequent flyers wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot pole, as such a tandem engine arrangement obviously means a shockwave, fire, or explosion from one failing engine will take its neighbor along. The B-52 can afford that — she's got twice as many engines and isn't a passenger jet.

There's a cautionary tale "for make benefit" artists here: Details can destroy the whole picture. One look at those engines makes that would-be super jumbo look smallish and antiquated, upper deck or no upper deck. On the bright side, Lamont manages to redeem himself with an impressive scene of a slowly collapsing Venetian palace late in the movie.

The action-heavy terrorist plot (excuse the pun) grafted onto the original story of Casino Royale is like Die Another Day and other Brosnan Bonds. Brosnan, an actor perfect for the role, got buried under tons of golden eye candy forgotten once outside the multiplex, never to be watched another day.

Only when Bond arrives in Montenegro does Casino Royale come into its own. First a Bond ally teaches Bond and the audience a witty way to get rid of a corrupt police chief with Photoshop. But then, is that ally really an ally? Or is he as much of a phony as his photos? As the movie moves on, the newly-minted 00 Agent may have to learn the hard way that in his line of business he often can neither trust partners nor lovers.

It looks like reusing locales out of From Russia with Love, the Balkans and Venice, proved a charm. In the casino sequence, the classic Connery and Lazenby atmosphere finally comes to life: Continental casino charm (does it exist in casinos outside the Bond universe?) laced with intrigue and lurking assassins. Get up from the card table, get poisoned, get involved in a deadly brawl, wash off the blood, change your shirt, and be back before the cards are cold.

Of course, in the novel Casino Royale baccarat was Bond's game of choice, like in so many Bond novels and movies. That it has been replaced by high-stakes poker detracts surprisingly little from the Connery atmosphere. The substitution is probably a wise one, as most viewers will be more familiar with poker than with baccarat rules. Anyway, from Maverick with love works as a movie.

In 1954, The New York Times recommended regarding the novel, "You should certainly begin this book; but you might as well stop when the baccarat game is over." I'd recommend the same, only in the opposite order: Unless you're a die-hard action fan, you might as well spend the first half-hour necking — but the casino in Casino Royale will turn your movie ticket into a winning ticket.

And what about Mr. Craig? He manages to become a credible, if bleached, Bond over the course of the casino sequence. May he live to play Bond another day.

Originally published on December 22, 2006, on The Atlasphere.

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