Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shaken and Stirred: A Closer Look at Casino Royale (Act III and Coda)

The name's Porlock. Man from Porlock. And welcome to Part Five, the final chapter of our series on Casino Royale.

Doing this mostly thematically has had its rewards, but it has also caused me to miss some elements in the film worth mentioning. So before we get to the final act, here are a few late additions:

The music: After the opening song, the music in Casino Royale consists of David Arnold's orchestrals, which employs different variations on an instantly recognizable score. Listen closely and you'll hear my favorite -- a beautifully lush version during the train sequence to Montenegro. Like everything else, the music in the movie is a beguiling mix of old and new, with the classic Bond theme used twice: first when Bond arrives in the Bahamas, then at the end. (More on this below.)

The humor: Casino Royale is a brutal movie, and both the film and Daniel Craig's performance would be intolerable if they weren't so funny. One line that got a big laugh in the theater is when a bartender asks a pissed-off Bond if he wants his drink shaken or stirred, and Bond replies, "Do I look like I give a damn?" It's a gag that relies on our prior knowledge of the character, yet it performs the miraculous feat of being self-referential without coming across as smirky. I'm not sure if Quentin Tarantino could have pulled that off, but Martin Campbell does it time and again.

The mother-figure: At the script level, one of the movie's weakest elements is the relationship between Bond and M. It seems a little unconvincing that Bond could go unpunished after shooting a suspect and destroying an embassy, only to then break into M's home and steal information off her computer. (This sort of thing gets even more implausible in Quantum of Solace. ) Yet this is often the difference between a movie that works and one that doesn't -- the former is so involving it makes you believe. It doesn't hurt that Dench sells a sense of maternalism, for the most part, on sheer force of personality alone; and I do like how M is wiley enough to use Bond for her own ends, yet also serves as a kind of moral compass. Ian Fleming's original novel closed with Bond saying, "The bitch is dead." This adaptation includes that line but also allows M a corrective.

Following the infamous torture scene, after Le Chiffre is killed by a shadowy figure, Casino Royale slows down for the love story between Bond and Vesper to bloom. This is the only stretch that drags a little, though it's clear enough that Campbell is subtly raising the emotional stakes before the climax. Even here, the rhythms of the film are unusual, lulling into a romantic interlude that typically occurs at the midway point. This creates an odd tension: We know we're near the end, and as the rapid pacing slows we're torn between what we're feeling by way of what's onscreen and our expectations for the genre. Something has to happen; but what, and when?

The movie also gets more confusing. As the couple sails to Venice and comes to face off against a new gang of thugs after Bond's winnings, we are introduced once again to Mr. White (who had had only one prior scene very early in the film) and encounter yet another villain with an eye problem. At first I thought this was somehow Le Chiffre again, but it's a brand new character -- never really a good idea to introduce near the end of a movie, but he's ultimately irrelevant.

What does matter at the climactic shoot-out -- which contains a doozy of an image: a building in Venice that collapses into the water -- is Vesper's death. The scene is vaguely similar to one in The Bourne Supremacy, which came out two years earlier; but the one in Bourne kicked off the hero's quest, whereas this one is Bond's culmination. It also recalls the tragic finale of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), which featured Diana Rigg as a Bond Girl to rival Eva Green. George Lazenby, alas, was no Daniel Craig. The latter invests this character with so many layers, he makes you feel his failure to save the woman he loves. (The Paulettes would call this scene De Palmaesque -- and so would I, if I admired De Palma.)

Which brings us to the final scene, at the oceanside estate of the enigmatic Mr. White, who will resurface only to submerge again in Quantum of Solace. (They should rename him Badpenny if there's not going to be a Moneypenny.) The details of the scene -- right down to the return of Arnold's classic score -- coalesce to form such a perfect capper, I will let you experience, or re-experience, them for yourself.

These days it seems almost quaint when a movie offers any sort of payoff. Many films are busy being ironic, upending expectations, and denying pleasure -- some of them are even quite good. But Casino Royale, right down to its final image and closing line, taps into something so vital, it's a reminder of why I came to love movies in the first place. It's why I love this film.

If you've stuck it out this far, thanks for reading. Happy New Year!


Jason Bellamy said...

This was a great series, and for me it only underlines how off-the-mark "Quantum Of Solace" is. Tremendous job!

Craig said...

Thanks for reading. It was more time-consuming than I thought it would be, but also a lot of fun. The comments from yourself and others kept me going!