Day By Day

Monday, November 20, 2006

Bond Is Back

Many years ago at the Highway Drive-In theatre I saw three blind men dance across the screen to the tune “Three Blind Mice”. “That’s strange,” I thought, and I watched on, dividing my attention between the screen and my date. Then something interesting happened on the screen. There was a brutal assassination [of a beautiful woman – unusual for those times], then Sean Connery appeared and the Bond theme blared and I said to myself “hmmm… this is something different!” My date was equally entranced and for the next hour and a half we sat, our attention fully focused on the screen. “Dr. No” was my introduction to the James Bond series and today it still compels my attention. The girl I was dating at the time has long faded from my memory – I suppose she’s a grandma by now -- but I know that I will carry the image of Ursula Andress rising from the sea with me to the end of my days.

“She Who Must Not Be Named” and I took a female friend of ours to see the new James Bond flick, “Casino Royale”, recently. I wonder if they were similarly struck by the sight of Daniel Craig rising from the sea, an obvious reference to the divine Ursula’s entrance in “Dr. No” [which of course, referenced Botticelli’s “Venus on the Half Shell”]. Probably not. {Hey, I just made an obscure reference to Kilgore Trout, a fictional author who was Kurt Vonnegut’s obscure reference to Ted Sturgeon…, I could go on, but infinite regression gives me headaches.}

The basic Bond template, with its chases, explosions, beautiful babes, exotic villains and locales, etc. is absolutely rigid, but within that structure it can accommodate such a wide diversity of types as Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Vin Diesel, Ice Cube, Pierce Brosnan, even George Lazenby. You can make of him an educated thug, or a fop; you can even blacken him, change his name to a roman numeral, and give him hip-hop arrogance, but he is still recognizably Bond. And so he is in this latest attempt to re-imagine the franchise.

“Casino Royale” takes Bond back to his roots – even before he had acquired his “license to kill” [although to get it he has to kill people, which sort of undermines the specialness of the double-oh designation, doesn’t it?] He’s a thug – an educated thug – but not yet the sophisticate he appears to be in other incarnations. The familiar elements are all there, but with variations – there’s the car [but he starts with a Ford and only later gets the super-machine that he immediately turns into a hunk of junk]; there’s the girl [but her heart really belongs to another and, to her, Bond is not quite irresistible]; there’s the exotic villain [but he’s relatively small scale and doesn’t have a secret lair]. I have heard that the producers want to redo the entire Bond canon, and if that is true they’ve made a good start. Daniel Craig has given us a proto-Bond as interesting in its own way as that Sean Connery brought to the screen back when I was young.

Like its predecessors the new Bond film has accommodated changing fashion, and does so with style. In this age of fitness fantasies, when the physicality of films like “Ong Bak” and “District 13” is considered cutting edge, “Casino” eschews the excesses of special effects and over-the-top stunts and focuses more on sheer athleticism. An early chase sequence, featuring free-running legend Sebastien Foucan, is easily as spectacular as anything the CGI engineers could imagine and it provides a perfect opportunity to showcase the new knockabout style of Craig’s Bond. The cinematography, by Phil Méheux, is impeccable. The scripting, fairly faithful to the source, is adequate. Martin Campbell’s direction is better than most, starting well with crisp and efficient integration of complex action scenes, but lags a bit at the end. But what really counts here is Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the main character.

Craig’s Bond seems to be a winner. I had read that his physique was “ripped”. “She” and her friend agreed enthusiastically. They liked what they saw, and in this film they saw a lot. Yes, folks, he does get nekkid. That evening, at home, I was flipping around the dial and ran across an earlier Craig effort, “Layer Cake.” “She” stood transfixed in the kitchen for an hour and a half watching it on a small-screen TV. Later “Apocalypse Now: Redux” was on and “She” commented on how “scrawny” Martin Sheen was compared to Daniel Craig. Her reaction tells me that the new Bond is as riveting a screen presence as the one I saw at the Highway Drive-In long ago and that Craig stands on the brink of success not unlike that enjoyed by Sir Sean.

There’s more than just physical draw here. Craig’s Bond has personality. He’s a rough character – a thug really -- but behind his pugilist’s mask and demeanor lies a complicated, insecure individual who reacts in complex ways to the rituals of the genre. He surprised me several times.

The supporting cast was good, but of little consequence. I doubt that Judi Dench will last much longer as “M” -- she’s showing her age. Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny was conspicuous by her absence. The latest Bond girl – Eva Green – was formidable, easily a match for Craig’s character, but like all such women turned out to be disposable, just like the villain du jour, well played by Mads Mikkelson. He didn’t even make it to the last third of the film.

What remains? -- just the powerhouse formula and the actor who fills the title role. There’s a lot of juice left in the old formula, and with Craig the producers seem to have found an actor up to the task of taking Bond forward well into the new century.

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