Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale movie poster

 

Paradoxically for one of the freshest James Bond films ever made, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actually the third adaptation of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely forgotten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awkwardly Americanized, the same premise was parodied in a 1967 farce bearing the same name, a expensive all-star disaster featuring good sports David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Meanwhile, the parallel and ongoing flood of proper Bond films abandoned the tainted Casino Royale, leaving it never satisfactorily presented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruthless servant come from?

By 2006, the James Bond franchise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just counting the canonical installments), testament enough that it has been no stranger to innovation. The most recent overhaul was Goldeneye (1995), which introduced Pierce Brosnan alongside an incrementally more progressive attitude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dangerously sexy, but as adept with salty dialogue, grappling hooks, and AK-47s as the title character himself. Bond could no longer cheerfully ignore his stuffy bureaucratic boss M when played by the imperious Judy Dench, and Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) was no longer a frump longing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rocking the sexy secretary look. Significantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond himself. The many women in his life may have gained greater leeway to sass and kick ass, but he himself was still the same old sexist dinosaur. In retrospect, the Brosnan films now look like just more of the same.

Daniel Craig in Casino RoyaleSay hello to my little friend

Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the franchise was very nearly rendered obsolete by two very different spy trilogies: Austin Powers (whose satire was wholly redundant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Starting in 2002, the latter did Bond one better, permanently supercharging the secret-agent genre with visceral urgency, persistent action, moderately realistic psychology, and most crucially, granting the main character a capacity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of conscience, wracked by crippling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capable of spectacular feats of killing, but resented the circumstances that forced him to use those skills in order to survive, or more importantly, to protect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manipulate women for intelligence and sexual gratification as Bond routinely would, but rather formed an emotional attachment with one in particular that would motivate his actions for an entire trilogy.

Once the definition of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defensive. The time was right in 2006 for its most radical reboot yet. The producers retired Brosnan (The Man With the Golden Parachute?) and underwent an extensive retooling of not just the series’ visual style but its core characters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?

The traditional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale discards candy-coated Technicolor for a grainy, stylized black-and-white noir style. Starting chronologically at the beginning, we see Bond execute his first two kills, fulfilling his final qualification for “double-oh” MI-6 status. Longtime Bond fans were also mollified by another grand tradition that immediate followed: a motion graphics title sequence featuring a bevy of semi-nude female silhouettes. This particular animation, with its stark red and black vector graphics, may have provided inspiration for the opening titles of the 2007 television series Mad Men. Unfortunately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tuneless song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.

Eva Green in Casino RoyaleYou noticed…

Further comforting continuity with the previous installations comes via ridiculous amounts of high-end product placement (cars, watches, sunglasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of locations (Uganda, Madagascar, Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pudding in terms of its villain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asthmatic, with irritated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to signify evil in the old days that the baddie merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.

But that’s where the concessions to Bond tradition end. To discuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond himself. No matter how much testosterone fan-favorite Sean Connery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fussing over vanities and creature comforts like a well-prepared martini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gorgeous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implausible at best. The suave Brosnan was born to play the classic version of Bond, but he wasn’t getting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t comment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Connery remains fandom’s favorite, for good reason), but he is clearly the most brutish and masculine. Younger, furious, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilariously clever inversion of tradition, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female companions, especially in an instantly iconic shot of him striding out of the ocean just barely wearing a scanty swimsuit. This Bond is almost absurdly physically fit, a parkour expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walking away from fisticuffs and fireballs with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.

Caterina Murino in Casino RoyaleWait… there was another Bond girl besides Eva Green?

21st Century Bond Girls are smarter and more proactive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gorgeous and at least half the age of the current lead actor. In this Dork Reporter’s estimation, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd ought to go down in history as one of the greatest yet. She may not be as physically adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beautiful. Best of all, she’s enjoyably conceived by writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impression on me, that when rewatching the film on DVD, I realized I had forgotten all about the other Bond Girl, Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios. Her character provides for a quick throwback to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for information and then cruelly abandons her to certain death.

The thrilling film downshifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for anyone who doesn’t understand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a miscalibration however, during one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an oblivious Bond.

Dench is the only returning player from the Brosnan era, but her character is now part ruthless boss and part tough-love mother figure. The one convention of the classic, sillier Bond stories that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his wonderful inventions. The highlight of every Connery, Moore, or Brosnan film for me was always the customary stroll through Q’s lab as his latest prototypes malfunction in amusingly lethal manners. I would cheerfully recite along with Q’s scolding catchphrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”

Whenever I see any Bond film, I’m always surprised at how enthusiastically he lives up to his “license to kill” reputation. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more violent than most. What differentiates it is the time spent dwelling on the aftermath, including Bond having to hide bodies instead of simply strolling away from the carnage without repercussions. There’s also a fleeting dash of crude morality rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awkwardly comfort Vesper, traumatized by her culpability in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond villains would merely threaten bodily harm with laser beams and tarantulas, Bond must now must face ugly, raw torture (which is A-OK with the hypocritical MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, apparently – but that’s a rant for another time).


Official movie site: http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/casinoroyale/site/flash.html

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Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott

Kingdom of Heaven movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenGallic Goddess Eva Green

Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”

Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.

Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson in Kingdom of HeavenLiam Neeson teaches his young padawan Orlando Bloom the ways of the Force

Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.

Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenThis review can’t have enough pictures of Eva Green

The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.

Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.

Edward Norton in Kingdom of HeavenEdward Norton as the original man in the iron mask

Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.

On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.


Official movie site: www.kingdomofheavendvd.com

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