Thursday, 25 October 2012

Countdown To 007: Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace

James Bond 007 Daniel Craig

This Countdown comes to an end with Daniel Craig's two Bond movies under the microscope ahead of his third outing, Skyfall, released tomorrow in the UK and on November 9th in the US. The actor's powerhouse performance in Casino Royale was undermined by a big stumble in the under-developed, poorly shot Quantum Of Solace, and it will certainly be interesting to see whether the right lessons have been learnt. For all the untidness of the movie as a whole, there's real potential in some of Quantum's individual ideas and while Skyfall won't be taking them up, fingers crossed that future Bonds make the most of them.

My review of Bond's twenty-third outing will be going up tomorrow. Don't miss it.
  
CASINO ROYALE

James Bond 007 Casino Royale Vesper Eva Green Daniel Craig shower

Casino Royale is a great example of Bond being trapped between a rock and a hard place, but coming out victorious anyway. Many fans were dismayed by the series' dive into tired self-parody in Die Another Day and eager for a change, yet appalled when that change involved the loss of Pierce Brosnan, with his split from the series supposedly less than amicable. Wounded comments from the actor in the press shortly afterwards would certainly support this claim, although while the nature of his departure has never been officially disclosed (understandably), he seems to have made peace with it in the following years. His spirited appearance in the excellent documentary Everything Or Nothing shows a man not necessarily pleased, but accepting, of the producers' need to take drastic action to save the creatively ailing series.

Either way, neither the press nor fans were anticipating the role to go to Daniel Craig, a man until then best known for a slightly-Bondish lead role in Layer Cake and a handful of serious dramas. He didn't look like the typical Bond, or anything close to Ian Fleming's description from the books, and his blonde hair and muddled appearance at his first press conference were taken as omens of impending doom. The revelation that the series would finally adapt Fleming's first novel - Casino Royale - after finally acquiring the rights was greeted with great enthusiasm, but the prospect of a full series reboot, making Craig the first man to play a brand new Bond (got that, Tamahori?), was treated with suspicion by many - yours truly included - who remembered stories of Cubby Broccoli rejecting a Bond origin story out of hand on several occasions.

In other words, there was greater pressure than ever on the series to pull something spectacular out of the hat. With Die Another Day writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade still on scripting duty, doubters were out in droves as to whether they could succeed. A few months ahead of the movie's release, the script was leaked to a disheartening reception. I tracked it down at the time and was met by questionable dialogue, a slightly uncomfortable structural framework seemingly blending two plots into one, and several key scenes from the novel either weakened by unnecessary humour or completely rewritten for the sake of another action set-piece. It was unquestionably an improvement over Die Another Day, because a colonoscopy is a step up in enjoyment over Die Another Day, but didn't seem to do justice by Fleming's book or justify the casting of such an unusual Bond as Craig.

All the flaws described are present in the final movie. The dialogue is, at times, face-palmingly awful ('If the only thing left of you was your smile and your little finger...') and the torture scene's forced humour has the movie relent at the time it really could have gone seriously nasty, turning Bond into a bit of a caricature, even if director Martin Campbell kept the tone darker than it appeared on the page. The climactic set-piece in an abandoned Venice building also makes little logical sense and is too overblown to have the same gut-punch impact as Vesper's suicide in the novel. Fleming's powerhouse of a closing line ('Yes damnit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now.') is also completely thrown away, even if the alternative offers its own thrill in a decidedly showier way. For all the claims of the movie being grittier and tougher, it always backs down when Fleming was at his most sadistic. Given the mainstream reception to Licence To Kill, a movie which never pulled a single punch, that might have been a wise decision. From a fan perspective, it's a tad disappointing.

Nevertheless, the shortcomings of Casino's script are squashed into near insignificance by the inspired creative team of director Martin Campbell, who had revived Bond once before with Goldeneye, and star Daniel Craig, whose force of nature performance immediately established a more forceful, psychologically fractured Bond than had been presented on screen before. While Craig rightly attracted all the plaudits, Campbell's role in the movie's success should not be overlooked: the film is visually sumptuous, at once filled with bold colour but never losing a grounding earthy quality. From the black and white introduction to the limited, slightly saturated lighting in the torture scene, every section of the movie has a distinct visual identity formed around the mental state of Daniel Craig's Bond. When he's doing what he does best, firing guns and kicking arse, the movie beams around him. When he's in emotional or physical pain, Campbell pares back to a limited palette, unpredictable cutting and a harsher image quality. Editor Stuart Baird, who had plenty to atone for after helming Star Trek Nemesis (which did to that series precisely what Die Another Day did to Bond), cuts the movie together with stunning assurance, keeping the big action scenes moving at a frantic pace while showing no fear in taking the time to build tension around an elongated game of poker.

The foot chase across and over a construction site is where these talents come together in the most striking way. It's the rare action scene driven entirely by character, where Bond's ability to adapt to his surroundings on the fly is set against bomb-maker Mollaka's super-human levels of freerunning agility. (The character makes such an impact that star Sébastian Foucan, one of the founders of parkour, gets his own credit distinct from the rest of the cast). Where Mollaka dives gracefully through a narrow gap above a cardboard placeholder for a door, Bond smashes right through it. Where Mollaka escapes the building's upper floors by leaping from one lift to another, Bond smashes the controls of a nearby hydraulic platform to drop him to ground. As M notes, he's a one man path of destruction, albeit with a better understanding of the big picture than she gives him credit for. Is he Fleming's Bond? Yes and no. His lack of professionalism and self-control certainly push towards the latter, but his introspective streak offers a surprisingly effective representation of the literary Bond's sometimes self-doubting inner monologue.

Craig immediately owns the role, balancing brute force with a fragile psychology which finds a match in Eva Green's wonderfully fatale Vesper Lynd. There isn't a weak link among the cast, and the movie's biggest sign of confidence is in giving villain Le Chiffre (portrayed by the viper-like Mads Mikkelsen) an identifying physical defect which is sinister rather than silly. The welcome hints of a SPECTRE-like criminal organisation behind the scenes give the impression of a world of nastier, more cunning villains waiting to be torn apart in future movies, even if such tantalising promises now look destined to go unfulfilled. Is Casino Royale the best Bond ever? Nope. But it offers yet further proof of the Bond series' unmatched ability to successfully adapt to the demands of new times and new audiences, achieving success off the back of difficult and often controversial creative choices. Anyone who compares a movie this brave and immediately iconic to the one-note Bourne movies (which themselves stole plenty from Dalton-era Bond, albeit with a fraction of the substance) is a buffoon. At the time when the doubters were louder than ever, Casino Royale and Daniel Craig comprehensively proved that nobody plays the action game better than Bond.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

James Bond 007 Quantum Of Solace Mr White
 
There's a worthy sequel to Casino Royale somewhere in Quantum Of Solace, but it takes a lot of digging to find amid the clutter. One of the excuses given for its lack of focus was the Writers' Guild strike, which reared its head in the middle of script development. The movie subsequently went into production with what Daniel Craig later described as a 'barebones' script, requiring he and director Marc Forster to rewrite key scenes on the fly. That explains the ramshackle plot - completely unrelated to the Fleming short story, an curio from the For Your Eyes Only short story collection inspired by Somerset Maugham's tales of adultery and failing relationships - but doesn't excuse the shoddy editing or shaky-cam rendering the action sequences virtually incomprehensible. Guess who was on second unit direction duty? None other than Bourne's Dan Bradley, aka the man who murdered the art of action directing. Quantum's script may be a mess, but doesn't deserve to be the sole scapegoat for the movie's failings when the technical problems are far more serious. For a movie so dependent on its action, Quantum does a terrible job with them.

Once the movie settles down in its second half, it improves immeasurable. While I'm certainly not going to call it a classic, or even particularly good - it's about on a par with The World Is Not Enough for me - there are things to be enjoyed. First of all, once the plot finds a focus of sorts, Quantum's scheme to monopolise Bolivia's water supply may not send pulses racing in the manner expected from a Bond movie, but does present the organisation's devious nature in a realistic context. The exploitation of natural resources remains a serious debate in environmental discussion and Quantum going after the water supply of a third world country is consistent with their modus operandi of operating beneath the radar and taking power through the incremental acquisition of international influence. The movie wastes its opportunity to satirise the hypocrisies of the green movement, but is at least fuelled by some interesting, timely ideas.

Quantum's project in Casino isn't any grander in scope, concerning nothing more than the offering of financial services to an African militia. As that movie proves, a relatively low-stakes plot is far from a death knell if the story is told clearly enough and it is made sufficiently important for the characters to succeed. Bond's revenge mission should be the movie's main focus, but because Dominic Greene (the deliciously slimy Mathieu Amalric) is shown to be but another of the organisation's middle-men, there's no single figure for him to chase down for Vesper's death. Mr. White could have filled the role and is the movie's most fascinating villain - I like how he's the only one clever enough not to fall for Bond's trick at the opera - but is kept mostly on the sidelines. In the end, there's no link between Bond tracking down Vesper's Algerian 'boyfriend' (who was blackmailing her on Quantum's behalf) and the plot he's just foiled, rendering it essentially irrelevant to his character arc. Greene's plan isn't weak for concerning a South American water supply, but for having next to nothing to do with Bond's stated goal.

The gradual revelation of the depth of Quantum's influence is another of the movie's strong suits, setting in motion all kinds of potentially enormous threats - we learn one of their moles is an advisor to the British Prime Minister - which could fuel countless Bond plots to come. Such a pity, then, that the producers appear to have flaked out on the prospect at the first sign of trouble, asserting that the 'story is told' and the series is likely to forget about the organisation hereafter. I hope that's not the case, because Quantum poses more questions than it answers and we're still yet to see a figure who could be described as Quantum's leader. True, it could be understandably argued that the meeting at the opera is effectively a board meeting and by identifying each of the members, Bond has gathered enough information for them to be taken down. A single man at the top is perhaps unrealistic, but isn't the prospect of a new Blofeld figure - not neccessarily the man himself, although I still think there's a very strong argument for the character's return - too irresistible to pass up? Besides, the idea that Bond took down a global criminal network with a fairly obvious ploy and a camera phone would be an anticlimax to end all anticlimaxes. I'm pretty sure Silva's scheme in Skyfall could have been linked back to Quantum somehow, and would certainly fit the organisation's fondness for collaborators with colourful names. I'm seeing the movie tomorrow, but given the fervent denials, am not holding out much hope for this to be a late twist, exciting though it would be.

One of Quantum Of Solace's biggest disappointments is Daniel Craig's Bond, who was ferocious but vulnerable in Casino but reduced to a one-dimensional mass murderer for much of Quantum. Licence To Kill showed Bond on a revenge mission but still maintaining a basic level of professionalism and morality, whereas the character more or less wantonly slaughters everyone he comes across here. The human side which levelled out his destructive streak in Casino is almost entirely absent, save one of two heavy-handed reminders of Vesper's death, and most tellingly, where Bond was visibly shown suffering and taking damage in the previous movie, here he barrels through proceedings with barely a scratch. Even Craig's performance is more a surface imitation of what worked last time than an extension, keeping a somber facial expression throughout and delivering all his lines in the same monotone. Olga Kurylenko's near-feral Camille is consequently much more interesting and sympathetic, with a clear target in her quest to avenge her parents' deaths (General Medrano) and her ferocious exterior hiding deep-set fears and self-doubt. Were it just her trapped in the burning hotel at the end of the movie, crippled by the arsonphobia embedded in her psyche as a child and ready to commit suicide, the moment would have real power. With the quasi-invincible Bond at her side, its bleakness is undeserved and meaningless.

The movie's use of its characters is a mixed bag throughout. Mathis' return offers nothing and requires the contrivance of his having been posted in Bolivia earlier in his career for whatever reason, while his death is horribly handled. (His involvement also shows up how pointless it was to have Bond send him off to be tortured at the end of Casino). On the other hand, Felix Leiter gets more screentime - if not enough with Bond - and while I'm not a supporter of 'colour blind' casting, there's no question that Jeffrey Wright's droll cynicism makes his every appearance one to look forward to. Gemma Arterton is marvellously prim and Strawberry Fields is a fun name for a Bond girl, despite the character only existing to be killed off in a Goldfinger homage that serves no purpose other than for its own sake. She's still not as irrelevant as Greene's ally Elvis though, who may be the most disposable character in any movie in the Bond series. Is he really only there for the sake of a toupée joke, which barely even registers?

That messiness drags Quantum down every step of the way. While the writers' strike undoubtedly had a serious impact on the uneven story structure and unfocused narrative, it doesn't excuse the incoherent action scenes comprising almost the entire first half of the movie. The elements are there for something special - well, ignoring Alicia Keys and Jack White's tuneless title track - but in too much of a jumble and surrounded with too much dead wood to create a satisfying experience. It will be a shame if the Quantum organisation never gets a proper payoff to their two movie build-up and the only thing carried from this movie to the next is the senseless displacement of the gunbarrel sequence. Still, if there's one thing looking back over the twenty two movies of this Countdown has established, it's never to bet against 007. Check back tomorrow to find out if Bond's fiftieth year will be marked with yet another miraculous resurrection.

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1 comment:

Silent Hunter said...

One big explanation (although it doesn't explain all of it) for QoS's lower script quality is the 2008-9 writers' strike; the first draft was turned in an hour before it started. Craig and the director had to work on it while filming; neither of them of being experts in this field.

You don't watch Castle at all do you?