Friday, December 29, 2006

Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006)

Hailed almost unanimously as a welcome reinvention of the James Bond character, Casino Royale gives us a secret agent that is superior to his predecessors presumably for the same reasons that Christian Bale’s Batman was deemed by many comic book fans to be superior to Michael Keaton’s: he is dark and emotionally distant. Director Martin Campbell hammers home this point early on with an opening scene that shows Bond earning his ‘double-0’ status by killing two targets. In what passes for style in this wholly unengaging and downright depressing action film, the sequence in shot in black-and-white. We watch Bond pummel the first man in a public restroom, bashing his face ruthlessly into walls and sinks (*sigh*, our hero!) and then swiftly execute a second man mid-sentence with the mere twitch of his finger. It is the contrast that Bond feels between the two incidents that not only earns him his place as our protagonist, but also provides the dark undercurrent to what presumably is intended to be a pleasurable movie-going experience. In a scene that comes perilously close to self-parody, Bond is put in a situation where he must resuscitate himself with a defibrillator – a sequence apparently written to establish definitively that this Bond does indeed have a heart.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is not charismatic in way that his dashing forerunners have been – unless you are the sort that finds arrogance and robotic masculinity charismatic. He is undeniably, to use the popular phrase, a ‘bad-ass’, but is that really all we should ask from our action heroes? That they be able to inflict a great deal of pain quickly and without conscience? Apart from the fact that he seems to be on reasonably friendly terms with the reputable Judi Dench, there is little that distinguishes him from the film’s villains. Emotional detachment not only serves as a defining trait of Bond’s personality, but also as a bedrock theme that the film returns to with its banter, double-crosses and casino setting where poker players attempt to stifle their emotions in order to best their opponents. The connection is so clear as to be artlessly blunt – the life of a secret agent involves bluffing, calculated risks and the ability to read other people’s tells. By the time we have spent over two hours with Bond, he has learned the hard lesson that no one in his life is to be trusted. We can say to ourselves that this is just an action movie and these observations should not be important; however, I think that it is no coincidence that both Bale’s Batman and Craig’s Bond have been hailed as heroes for our time. I do not wish to belabor the point by making tenuous connections to the national zeitgeist; but, simply put, this is not the kind of protagonist that I personally enjoy seeing at the center of a popcorn film. I do not enjoy cheering on his thoughtless brutality uncritically. I do not enjoy seeing the reinforcement of the idea of a world devoid of meaningful connection and trust.

I accept the fact that the opinions I have offered above are in the minority. Casino Royale will no doubt spawn highly popular sequels that make loads of money offering viewers more of the same. This does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that this film has received a pass for its awful pacing and bizarre narrative structure. After early action sequences that, while not exactly thrilling, are undeniably frenzied and loud, Campbell sits his audience down for the better part of the film’s second hour as a witness to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. Not only do the screenwriters have their major players exchange banalities lifted directly from Poker for Dummies (“everybody has a tell”), they have a secondary character offer up ridiculous commentary because they are concerned audience members will be too dim to understand that Bond has all his chips at stake. Following the resolution of the gambling, Casino Royale indulges in at least two false endings and sets off on a couple more action sequences that feel not so much like integral parts of the film, but rather encores that we never wanted. After what seems like an eternity, the filmmakers finally, mercifully, decide to roll the closing credits rather than offering up a brand new plot twist in which Judi Dench steals the millions of dollars in poker winnings at gunpoint and then sets off swimming across the English Channel. Thus ends the latest installment of Bond – and, most likely, my interaction with the franchise.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"this is an action film, and such observations shouldn't be important."

That's a little silly, don't you think?

12:50 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Yes, when you take a fragment of a sentence out of context, it does seem silly. This is why I write in full sentences and provide a full context for the reader to follow my train of thought.

12:57 PM  

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