...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Day 2141: JAMES BOND: Royal Royale


What with having to learn all her BIG SPEECH for the annual state opening of the book of apologies for what Lord Blairimort will be doing before retiring to PRISON, Mrs The Queen was too busy to attend the GALA ROYAL PREMIERE of James Bond today.

So OBVIOUSLY I was asked to STAND IN for Her Britannic Majesty at the ceremony.

In some lights I am INDISTINGUISHABLE from Mrs The Queen. Besides, I look dead good in a TIARA.

Queen of England

Empress of India

Obviously my ROYAL IMPOSTURE passed off without incident, what with none of the newspapers feeling able to print stories about Her Maj bouncing up and down in her chair or running in the aisles of the cinema shouting

"Get Him, Get Him!";

"Don't Drink the Wine!"

and "Nooooooooooooooooo! Not the CAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The film itself was COMPLETELY BRILLIANT and VERY VERY COOL. I do not quite understand how James Bond manages to have his first adventure after he has done twenty others, but it is probably something you need to be Dr Who in order to explain. In fact, it would make sense if James Bond is a TIME LORD, what with him changing his face all the time. Except he drives an AUSTIN MARTIN and not a DELOREAN.

Anyway, I'm off back to the cinema. Apparently, being Queen is like having an UNLIMITED CINEMA PASS and I am jolly well going to make use of it until the real Mrs The Queen gets her crown back! I will let Daddy Richard tell you about the rest of the movie.

Every few years, the James Bond movies come to a point where the producers say that they are going to get back to the gritty original Fleming. Usually this is because the preceding movie has gone so far over the top in its efforts to be ever more spectacular that trying to go further would just be silly. Hence, spacecraft kidnapping volcano based ninja-fest “You Only Live Twice” is followed by low key Alpine eco-terrorism-cum-love-story “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”; space-shuttle-stealing star-wars-a-thon “Moonraker” is succeeded by return of the Russians cold-war-a-thon “For Your Eyes Only”; and Timothy Dalton manages to insist on swapping the quips and gadgets of “The Living Daylights” for the scowling and viciousness in “Licence to Kill the Franchise”.

Okay, that last time out was a disaster, but mostly it is a sensible move: if you can't get bigger any more then go sideways and slip back to the central idea that got people hooked in the first place.

So this time the space-lasers, ice-palaces and improbable escape by paragliding cartoonery are thankfully replaced by a Bond who might set records for superhuman endurance but at least pays a passing respect to the laws of physics.

And Daniel Craig and the scriptwriters bring us a Bond who is much more real. Piers Brosnan won us over with his charm and cheek, when correcting the jib of his tie was the only sign of passing through peril. But Craig plays a different Bond, harder in some ways but also more brittle. And it works. He bleeds, even if a stiff whisky and a swift change of shirt get rid of the physical evidence. Bond has an aura of emotional detachment – even M comments on it – but it is a cover and, as the story unfolds, Craig reveals more to us of Bond's inner fears and anger.

He’s been described as a thug, but actually he’s not a thug: the key to this is the opening chase in Madagascar. Bond pursues a terrorist bomb-maker through jungle, building site and embassy – the bomber is a supreme athlete and uses his speed and agility to fly around and over obstacles; Bond has stamina and bloody-mindedness but he can’t match that prowess, so instead he uses his brains. There are several moments where the bomber does something incredible and Bond keeps pace by being smart, whether it’s commandeering a bulldozer or shooting the hydraulics on a lift to make a swift descent. This is in fact in keeping with another of the film’s themes: Bond the bluffer. Daniel Craig fools the casual reviewer in just exactly the same way that Bond sets out to and succeeds in fooling his rival Le Chiffre: we are supposed to think of him as arrogant reckless violent and dumb. He is none of those things and that is why he wins, at cards and in the movie.

In a later moment, treasury agent Vesper Lynd criticises Bond when he checks into the casino hotel under his own name. Ah, but Le Chiffre already knows who I am so he gains nothing, says Bond; no, says Vesper now he knows you are reckless. But Vesper is wrong: Bond is posing as reckless so that Le Chiffre will be overconfident, and tellingly Bond finally wins with a high hand because Le Chiffre has assumed the reckless Bond will not resist the bluff.

Possibly the only person who really understands Bond is M (unnecessary to say the brilliant Judi Dench). She realises at once that Bond got more from Madagascar than one dead bomber and her dismissal is far more of an authority to go to the next stage. Look they are secret agents, of course they are talking in code! When she looks to her (still active) computer at the end of the scene is that really the first time she noticed, or is it that now Bond has been sent on his way the only moment she can allow herself to notice.

Alex, incidentally, advances the attractive theory that the title song is actually speaking the words on behalf of M rather than Bond. When it speaks of “I will replace you” it is the words of the ruthless queen of numbers, not the (new) agent. And as that scene shows, Bond does know her name.

So Bond develops over the movie: what starts as an uncaring fa├žade is first broken down by the gentle developing of the relationship with Vesper. Craig is genuinely charming in these scenes, enjoying the verbal interplay, without it becoming a battle to be the most witty. But then once disarmed, betrayal causes the cold Bond persona to settle into his real self, as it were, into his soul.

This gradual trade off between humanity and superhuman spy is marked up musically. Each time he becomes a bit more Bond, a bit more of the Bond theme is added to the score in another beautiful work from David Arnold (who, it must be said, tipped us off to this particularly clever device, when interviewed in the pre-publicity). Only at the end of the film, when Bond has fully turned to Bond, is he rewarded with “the line” and the full Monty Norman.

It is quite possible to see that M ruthlessly uses this entire developing situation, the risk, the love, the betrayal, all to hone Bond into the weapon that she wants him to be. Watch the way she changes how she acts towards Bond throughout the course of the film, dismissive and scornful, then graciously forgiving, then authoritative, then finally consoling, and you will realise that it is an act. In the end, M does not seem so worried about the lost millions as she is that Bond is now tempered to her cause.

The movie takes the Ian Fleming novel almost intact for a rare change. There are the odd updates for the new millennium: in a post-Cold War world, Le Chiffre works for terrorists, not Russian counter-intelligence outfit SMERSH; the Casino is in the “lawless” Balkans not post-war France; the high-stakes game is Poker instead of Baccarat but these are superficial.

What the film does do though, as it uses the book as the backbone of the plot, is to extend it backwards and a little forwards.

Prequelling the book's plot, Bond's mission to track down a terrorist group ties more to Le Chiffre’s business and Bond’s actions, first in Madagascar and then in Miami are the cause of Le Chiffre losing the millions that belong to his terrorist clients with which he has been gambling on the stock market, and hence his need to set up the big poker game at Casino Royale.

Where the book ends with Bond recuperating, the film continues the plot in order to engineer a thrilling final action climax in Venice reminiscent of the film of “From Russia With Love” where the main action takes place in then Yugoslavia but the coda sees Bond facing Rosa Klebb’s notorious poison-bladed boot only after reaching seeming safety in, yes, Venice. (In fact, this is Bond’s third trip to Venice, Roger Moore having also passed through in “Moonraker”, but this time there are no “Bondulas” or double-taking pigeons in St Marks Square. To the relief of all, no doubt.)

A final clue leads Bond to the mysterious Mr White who is the key link to the terrorists that they were looking for, which also suggests a starting point for the next movie (apparently already rushing into production).

What these extensions do is to increase the scope and excitement and essentially marry the James Bond novel that Fleming wrote into the kind of film that the James Bond franchise is expected, after forty years, to be.

Nevertheless, the central idea of the film is the same as the book: that by bankrupting Le Chiffre the West’s intelligence agencies can turn him and gain invaluable insider knowledge on their enemies’ networks.

Oh and of course the other thing that the book is notorious for – Bond being tortured by Le Chiffre in that particular and humiliating way that being a man offers – is kept in. And the film is all the better for it. Even if it is very painful to watch. (Daniel Craig says even he winces to see it, and he knows that it was only acting!)

“Casino Royale” has had a long history in the law courts too, as part of the extraordinarily tangled issues of the rights to various bits of the Bond franchise. Almost all of these were eventually pretty much tied up by Sony simply buying everyone with an interest: MGM, Columbia and even Kevin McClory (he of “Thunderball”, the remarkably similar for obvious reasons “Never Say Never Again”, and proposed third identical movie “Warhead 2000”). The interminable McClory legal wranglings are of course also the reason that one Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE abruptly disappears from the franchise after “Diamonds Are Forever”. The super-villain is left either dangling in an unresolved ending in his bath-o-sub or summarily dumped down a chimney should you understand the bald cat-fancying character in the “For Your Eyes Only” pre-title sequence to be the same person.

I mention this merely because both Alex and I had (incorrectly) anticipated the word SPECTRE to be revealed in the final scene of the film.

One of the things I most enjoy about the early Bond films is that (thirty years ahead of Babylon Five) they actually have a developing story arc, as Bond first uncovers and then pretty much brings down Blofeld’s terror network. It would be good to see such a mini-arc emerging again in the Bond franchise, and the current “War on Terror” background seems just the time for a return of SPECTRE or its ilk.

One regret – and it isn’t the absence of SPECTRE – is that Daniel Craig’s character is referred to by the name Bond early in the (extremely stylish black and white) pre-title sequence. Clearly he is a man called James Bond who is promoted to 007 at a point during the titles. Which is a shame, because it scuppers my theory that “James Bond” is the code name that goes with being 007 (a theory that would handily explain for Millennium how this is Bond’s first adventure but M is Judi Dench).

The final judgement of this Bond may have to wait. Like Fleming’s novel, much of its greatness is in the potential of all the things it sets up. Daniel Craig has certainly proved the doubters wrong, and indeed very silly for judging him by his hair not his acting, but what we want to see is where he takes Bond from here. And likewise, will this film springboard a new world of adventures.

Alex and I have spent a lot of the last few weeks trying to come up with “James Bond Titles”. It is actually incredibly hard. Fleming had a genius for it (as demonstrated by the generally daft titles that his literary successors John Gardener and Raymond Benson end up saddling their novels with). The best I could manage was (with a nod to the Tenth Doctor) “No Second Chances”.

Good luck to the Broccolis and Daniel Craig with their second chance, whatever it ends up being called.

And a Happy 2nd Day of Advent to everyone at home!

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

Mr. Craig was just great as the "new" Bond, so I hope he's now taking some well-deserved time out to gloat to all the haters who doubted he could pull this off