Friday, 16 May 2014

James Bond

James Bond, 007. I am so glad that Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond, has rescued the film series from the realm of formula, gimmickry, and action for its own sake.

His casting for Casino Royale in 2006 was not universally approved of. He was thought to be too ruthless, too physical, too far removed from the accustomed image of the super-smooth secret agent in a dinner jacket. And too unhumourous: the slick throwaway laugh-line had been a part of the Bond Thing from way back, ever since Sean Connery's debut performance in Dr No, and Daniel Craig did not seem capable of verbal levity in that Sean Connery manner; nor was he the sort of actor who could raise an eyebrow ironically, as Roger Moore had been able to.

And yet here was an actor who could play a convincing Bond; who could be very, very athletic; drive cars as if he meant it; use real weaponry; emerge from the sea flexing real muscles just like Vladimir Putin (and my goodness, doesn't President Putin resemble Daniel Craig? Odd, that); look as if he might be a whizz in bed; and carry off all the sophisticated hotel and casino scenes with aplomb. His own casting made it essential to cast proper, credible adversaries to match him. And a proper, credible boss to keep him under some kind of control: I thought the choice of Dame Judi Dench as M was equally inspired. And yet Daniel Craig was in many ways a return to Bond roots.

Craig has conveyed the book Bond's educated savoir-faire and good taste; and although he has not displayed the book Bond's quirks and fastidiousnesses, the same ruthlessness is there, the same will not to admit defeat, the same indifference to cuts and bruises and burns, the same belief in Queen and Country, and that same willingness to do whatever is necessary - and do it fast before the moment slips.

The Casino Royale film intro was a truly seductive way of letting the audience 'meet' Daniel Craig, who is seen in near-silhouette wearing impeccable evening wear, firing bullets, giving adversaries skilful and irresistible judo tripups and karate chops, and generally looking well in command of the situation; all against a stylised background based on twirling and disintegrating playing-card designs. The intro is a visual treat in itself. The accompanying song is jolly good too (and its themes echo in the film's ongoing soundtrack). And then, at the end of the intro, the silhouette moves forward into 3D, and Craig emerges sidelit as a real person. Very effective.

Thus far, standard film Bond fare. But then we get two sequences that instantly establish Daniel Craig as a different kind of Bond. He confronts a treacherous Head of Section in MI6, and when asked how that man's contact died, says simply 'not well' - but we see a vicious washroom fight that shows Craig drowning the contact in a washbasin, in a manner so ruthless, and so focussed - pursed lips and all - we cannot doubt that here is a professional killer, a man with the no-remorse traits of a psychopath. This is rapidly followed up by a building-site and embassy chase in Madagascar, Craig pursuing a bomber skilled in Parkour and displaying quick-thinking, superb fitness, fearlessness of heights, courage and relentless persistence. And to hell with The Rules. This is all very clever stuff, exactly calculated to push Daniel Craig at us as a credible Bond, one who cannot be stopped, and gets dirty. I for one was happy at that early point in the film to let him replace earlier images of James Bond in my mind.

A few more words on this particular film. Craig's Bond can make love with a cold, calculating passion (as the book Bond did). Here he is with lovely Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios, wife of one of the villains:

He has just won her husband's car playing cards at the 'Ocean Club' at Nassau, and is now seducing his beautifully red-dressed wife to get information. This scene is unconsummated: the husband phones her to say he is catching the late plane to Miami, and Craig is soon in hot pursuit. But he does order a champagne dinner for one from Room Service. Her last meal: she is soon dead after Craig thwarts an explosive act of aviation sabotage in Miami, and the angry villains turn to her for answers.

Unlike Roger Moore, who combed his hair, straightened his tie, shot his cuffs, and raised an eyebrow for each and all his screen ladies, this Bond is inside a shell and is careful to expose no more than a carefully controlled version of himself to the female persons he meets. Eva Green plays Vesper Lynd, the major love-interest in Casino Royale (as in the book), and when he first meets her on a luxury express train in Montenegro we are treated to a verbal fencing-match that reveals both as wary hermit crabs with past secrets and vulnerabilities. She represents the UK Treasury, funding Bond's entry in a high-stakes poker game organised by Le Chiffre, global banker to terrorists, who has lost zillions of clients' dollars in that Miami fiasco, and now aims to recoup the money before his murderous depositors call for their cash. On the train Green is cool, self-confident, and easily able to put Craig in his place:

But she crumples after witnessing the bloody realities of a hotel stairwell fight between Craig and two terrorists who were after Le Chiffre's blood, and thought Craig was his ally. Afterwards Craig finds her crying in the shower, and gently comforts her, completely ignoring how wet his dinner clothes are getting. So we now see a softer, empathetic side to this hard man. He can reach out; he does care.

Back at the gaming table, we have a smiling villain par excellence, Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre:

But he doesn't always smile, especially when Bond's skill at Poker ('you play the man, not the cards') gets too much.

Le Chiffre does his best to kill Bond (during in an interval from play) with a poisoned dry Martini cocktail, and there is an amazing scene where Bond, realising he has been fatally drugged, staggers out to his Aston Martin, and scrabbles at the emergency medical kit - which includes an antidote to be injected straight into his neck, and a powerful electronic defibrillator to prevent his heart stopping while the antidote takes effect. Unfortunately his scrabbling has hoicked out a lead, and the thing won't work. Luckily, Vesper witnessed his unexpected departure from the gaming table, followed him, and now connects up the lead and presses the button that jerks Craig convulsively back into life. He coolly returns to the table and cleans Le Chiffre out, signing the banker's death warrant. Craig and Green eat a late supper in style. She is completely won over by now.

Shortly afterwards both fall into Le Chiffre's desperate hands, then escape (though Craig himself has to endure torture at the banker's hands that hospitalises him). To complete Craig's convalescence, they reunite, and you can see that the Old Bond Charm is back. She's lost: he's relaxed, and is showing his inner self, though there's still something cold and professional about it:

Alas, she is playing - under duress, let it be said - a double game. She dies honourably, as the price of atonement, refusing to be saved from a sinking building in Venice. Which is very moral. Craig goes back into his shell - was he ever really out of it? - and gets on with the unfinished job in hand, using Vesper's mobile phone to pinpoint the arch villain behind the now-dead Le Chiffre. Successful ending. And a super film.

I was at first less impressed with the two follow-up films, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. In Quantum, the plot (which was an immediate follow-on from Casino Royale) seemed much less obvious, and certainly it was harder to determine what the film was all about. I 'got it' on the second viewing, although I still feel the villains were less memorable, and that the film a little less worthy of Daniel Craig's talents. It did however reveal more of the very interesting screen interplay between Craig and Dench - something even more apparent in Skyfall, an overlong outing in which Craig nearly dies at the beginning, and Dench dies at the end, and a perfectly good vintage gold Aston Martin DB5 gets destroyed. I was sorry to see Dench go; but the new M in waiting (it's almost like saying 'the new Dr Who'), should prove a more comfortable (though less well-loved) boss for Craig in his next film. I bet Craig has to kill him. He's licensed to, you know.

All right. I've extolled the latest Bond actor, placing greatest emphasis on his ruthless but vulnerable character, and how this new insistence on a believable Bond (and three-dimensional villains to match) is keeping the genre fresh. Can it all go on forever?

Well, I think it probably can. The book Bond was a Cold War character. Organised crime and international terrorism have replaced the Soviet Menace, but the scope for films on similar lines is there much the same. And it's obvious that (a) Bond is Britain at her most glamorous and sophisticated; (b) Bond is tough and effective, very watchable, absolutely a role model for many; (c) Bond - and the British Secret Service behind him - is admired in every country of the world; and (d) Bond is a cultural icon that can be re-invented to suit the times. Bond is a modern myth, the flawed hero with a heart.

He is also, as Craig plays him, a maverick lone wolf. For me, that is the attraction of the character.

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