Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale: Nobody Does it Better

In the immortal words of Carly Simon in the title track from The Spy who Loved Me, “Nobody does it better.” Quite lofty praise for Mr. Bond indeed. Is it deserved? Well, almost. Is it the best action/adventure movie of the year? Of course not, The Departed is. But that blend of popcorn entertainment, auteur cinema and quality storytelling is an anomaly. In any other year, Casino Royale would likely be the best popcorn action extravaganza. The climactic chase along the Venetian canals easily trumps the half-speed histrionics of Mission: Impossible III and the Bahaman locations that are nearly identical to former Bond Pierce Brosnan’s campy After the Sunset are nonetheless much more captivating and picturesque.

The debut of a new lead actor as the immortal James Bond character is a watershed moment for cinema and it doesn’t matter how many TV spots or production stills you’ve seen, it’s an undeniable thrill to see Daniel Craig pose for the trademark down-the-gun-barrel shot. Craig adopts a new approach to Bond and the filmmakers have complete faith in him. In the final frame of the opening credit sequence, Craig stands front and center and the camera lingers. Yes, he’s blond. Yes, he has blue eyes. No, he’s not conventionally handsome.

I’ve never been very good at comparing Bonds in terms of who’s “the best.” But I can say definitively, Craig is the most intimidating Bond to date. He follows through with what Timothy Dalton tried to achieve but ultimately couldn’t properly supply: a darker Bond with less quips and more introspectiveness. He also exhibits signs of misanthropy and masochism on top of it. For the first time in the series, we sense that if Bond wasn’t a OO-agent, he’d be a terrorist. (The blurred line between cop and criminal being a constant motif in 2006 cinema: from the aforementioned The Departed to the lackluster Miami Vice.)

Another likely first for the series is that Bond shows more skin than the Bond girls. Gender theorists will have a field day with Casino Royale. The lynchpin is the harrowing torture sequence in which a nude Bond is strapped to a chair and has his private parts mercilessly assaulted by the villain. After which, when Bond has been metaphorically neutered, he’s suddenly able to tell the female interest that he loves her. Wacky gender theories aside, the torture scene is pretty brutal, especially for a PG-13 movie. It’s an unforgettable scene and one of the crucial scenes in establishing the film as a unique entry to the series. It’s a scene that will leave audiences shaken, not stirred.

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