Monday, January 9, 2017

Better In Your Head?--CASINO ROYALE

SPOILER ALERT, the bitch is dead.

Ian Fleming

"I did so want to be gay. And I am gay."

Ian Fleming had been threatening, for years, to pen the ultimate spy novel. As the personal assistant to Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral John Godfrey during the Second World War, Fleming dealt directly with such secret intelligence agencies as the OSS, MI6, and NKVD. He observed agents directly, served as a liaison, and had a hand in plots and plans. But, he was still a bureaucrat. Nothing sexy about bureaucracy. The spies in the field, however….

Seven years after demobilization, Fleming retreated to "Goldeneye," the Jamaican bungalow named after an unrealized operation he'd formed for the Allied forces in 1940. There, he began work on a Cold War espionage thriller/gambling tutorial. The protagonist/post-war-UK proxy was a Royal Naval Reserve Commander/intelligence agent in MI6's "00" section, an amalgam of several men he'd crossed paths while in service to Godfrey and country. Fleming needed a name, of course, something simple and plain and manly. Fleming found the perfect one not in a book, but rather on one: Birds of the West Indies.

Influenced by the likes of Chandler and Greene, and working at a clips of 2,000 words daily, he produced Casino Royale, the first of an eventual dozen adventures featuring James Bond, AKA "007."

"The scent and sweat and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

Bond has one job: go to France (the most intriguing spot on the planet), bankrupt Le Chiffre (a paymaster for a trade union controlled by SMERSH, a real-life Soviet counterintelligence organization) at high stakes baccarat. Attempts on his life? Just a day in the! Lose millions of your government's funds, seethen get back in the game with the help of the CIA? It is what is, and well, it happens. A female tag-along? Outrageous!

Kidnapping, torture and assassination ensue while the blissfully insensitive secret agent curses women's delusions, and while it's not as exciting as landing a dropkick to the chest of a nemesis, it's at least as thrilling as locking a lover's legs in a figure four. Bond goes from being bothered by MI6 assistant Vesper Lynd to being bothered by her, if you follow. After his balls are pulverized by Le Chiffre, though, Bond worries he will never be bothered again.

His recovery in the hospital is marked by profound worrying: good vs. evil, battles vs. wars, impotency vs. suicide. On the eighth day, God rested; on the eighth day, James Bond asked to see Vesper Lynd so he could determine if his chubby-popping capabilities were at all compromised.

She cries, he soothes. They agree to share fluids in the near-future. Funny thing, though. Before one stitch of clothing has been removed, Bond and Lynd get to know one another. Words, not actions, bring them closer. (He even calls her "my love" before they've boned.)

O grande amatrice!

A retreat to a peaceful guest house seems to be precisely what the doctor decreed, but Vesper is a muddle of paranoia and sorrow. At a loss to understand why the woman he's fallen for is driving a wedge between them after mere days together, Bond seeks solace in the cold comforts of the sea. And, still, of Vesper Lynd.

It's no great shock when Bond discovers his lover dead in her bed. She did not die alone--an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a "come clean" letter brimming with regret and resignation rest nearby. Turns out, the woman Bond was prepared to marry was doing double duty, serving MI6 as well as the Russian MVD. SMERSH had abducted her lover and blackmailed her in order to ensure his release.

Love. What doesn't it ruin? Although, to be real, Bond's mind had been clouded before he gave his heart away.

007 dreaded Lynd's presence on the Le Chiffre mission from day one, since a female in the field meant distraction at best, disaster at worst. So eager to dismiss what he perceives as Lynd's rookie errors, Bond missed what they truly were: signs of deceit.

Fleming's Bond, was not a static character. Dude got his two most vital organs smashed about, and is all the harder and colder for it. But wiser (as a spy and a lover)?

Casino Royale's flaws (porous characterization, the occasional irrationality--what was with the divergence into second-person near the beginning?) are forgiven by the strengths (establishing place, attention to detail), as well as the realization that the ride has only just begun.

Director-Martin Campbell
Writer-Paul Harris, Robert Wade & Neal Purvus

"Shaken or stirred?"
"Do I look like I give a damn?"

First Bond book, 21st Bond film? How'd they manage that, then?

Producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire, What's New, Pussycat?) acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming's debut novel in 1960, doing nothing with them until four years later, when Eon Productions released Goldfinger, the film that made James Bond a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Feldman's offer to collaborate with Eon was met with great interest, the latter tentatively agreeing to produce Casino Royale after On Her Majesty's Secret Service (intended to come after Goldfinger) but then Eon acquired the rights to Thunderball and those plans went the way of the war pigeon.

Not wanting to compete with the big boys, Feldman decided Casino Royale should be a spy spoof loosely based on the book. This version was released in 1967, its all-star cast topped off with David Niven as the James Bond (distinction required since there are six total "Bonds," one of them his daughter, who is kidnapped by SMERSH in a flying saucer). Zanier than a bourbon-burping meerkat, and I wouldn't review it if you paid me. Less than seven figures. After taxes.

Eon Productions finally acquired the film rights to Casino Royale in 1999. Fortunately, Pierce Brosnan (still three years away from acting in the worst Bond film yet) didn't get a chance to fight ninjas atop an invisible train or whatever the hell would have happened. Barred from referencing either SMERSH or Spectre by a continuing copyright dispute, Eon decided to move on from Pierce Brosnan with a reboot.

The sixth Bond was finally announced in 2005: 37-year-old Englishman Daniel Craig, at the time best known for his role in the 2004 crime thriller Layer Cake. At 5'10" Craig would be the shortest actor to play 007, as well as the first blond. He prepped proper, packing on twenty pounds of muscle and reading all twelve Fleming novels. (Wonder if he chuckled at the title of Casino Royale's 18th chapter. Well, I did.)

The four year gap between Die Another Day and Casino Royale proved to be the break Bond desperately needed. The first 21st century entry was not simply the antithesis of its predecessor, it remains one of the best entries in the franchise: invigorating, enthralling, raw. (Why the hell did they let Martin Campbell get away after Goldeneye?)

No Moneypenny, no Q, no Cold War, no problem (never mind M). Casino Royale kicks off with an extended black-and-white sequence showing the audience how Bond earned his numbers. Chris Cornell's theme song is the only ho-hum thing across the entire 144 minutes.

The casino is now in Montenegro, and baccarat has been replaced with the trendier poker variant called Texas Hold 'em. Le Chiffre is part of the terrorist cell Quantum and in dire need of mad cash since Bond inadvertently bankrupted him. Also representing Quantum is the movies-only Mr. White, who proves a bigger badder than Le Chiffre.

Turning Le Chiffre from a fat ugly man of considerable menace to the lean mean sexiest man-machine in Denmark made sense, as did giving him an especially creepy physical anomaly, since honestly he's one of the least-interesting villains Bond's faced. At least in the book he gets a few great lines. "I am without mercy and there will be no relenting," he informs Bond mid-torture. That's awesome.

(Nitpick about the torture: I wasn't a fan of Bond's joking around even before I read the novel. It's just too goofy. Book 007 is just barely clinging on to dearest life. Movie Bond is buff and witty and the audience isn't allowed to just be scared for the guy.)

The love story between Lynd and Bond (Bynd?) is intact, and far more affecting (one scene is so tender as to make me feel ashamed for intruding). Heavy hitters such as Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron were considered, but the coveted role went to Eva Green. Her chemistry with Craig is practically visible, and nearly without precedent for the franchise. So great. Least, until her perfidy is revealed.

What of the new guy? Deepest of the freshest, really. Craig's Bond is seized by a maddening recklessness that earns him a fierce upbraiding from M (Judi Dench, ever-marvelous). He's a scrapper, a seducer, a killer, a thwarter of terrorist attacks in one of the two United States that could actually benefit from one…so what's the big deal over inches above ground or the hair color? He matches his papyrus counterpart in stony demeanor, while coming off as less cerebral and tormented.

And he gets to utter the best "Bond, James Bond" yet. 

The novel represents a good start. The film, a great re-start.

The decreased dependence on gadgets and CGI shifts the focus onto the performances (which are magnetic), the action (which is phenomenal), and the story (which honors the source without falling to its knees). The filmmakers' reverence for Fleming's universe is evident early on, in animated title credits which took inspiration from the first edition cover of Casino Royale. The torture scene and Bond's scathing dismissal of Lynd were not only taken from the book, the producers mandated to the scriptwriters they be included. Then there's M describing Bond as a "blunt instrument."

Still, the film gives us more. The plot is meatier and a twist salvages Vesper's character (somewhat). Gambling is certainly better watched than read about (unless we're talking about an oral history of Phil Hellmuth's greatest breakdowns at the poker table), and the drama with the poisoned martini is a heart-pounder. Of course you know how it ends, but it's actually a richer scene on further examination. How, exactly? Patience! Here is not the place!

Making a 213 page book fly on by is no great feat. But when a two and a half hour movie pulls if off? That's playing the game with antihistamine money. 

One of these things contains a man concerned that sex with a particular woman would ever after "have the sweet tang of rape." One of these things, well, does not!

Book Bond's brain room may lack width and depth, at least in a modern context, but the man does know how to decorate. I am forever tickled at how, on the eve of a mission, he goes over every possible scenario, working every angle, determined to eliminate the element of surprise. You just can't get that on a screen, of any size.

I'm also a fan of Bond's hospital-bound lamentations to Mathis (the world's gone gray, evil cannot be properly defeated since it has not been awarded the same respect by documentarians and fabulists as good), although they are replaced in the film by a tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte on a train with Vesper. Not only does this conversation (and every subsequent verbal exchange) blow away Fleming's dialogue, it reminds me of the considerable struggles that Mr. Bond's honorable creator had with female characters.

Re-imagined, reconstructed, whatever the word, the film did a number on Vesper Lynd. She's likable and lickable, sympathetic and detestable--a human being. (As opposed to the imminent collapse in a cute skirt in the book.) Her death is still dismally inevitable, but only the film imbued it with the warranted spectacle.

There's so much more I want to say on the matter of the Bond/Lynd union, so much more that I will say--in a later review.

Trapper Jenn MD will return in...Live and Let Die.

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