Monday, December 29, 2008

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

Welcome to Part Four of our series, where we discuss Act II of Casino Royale -- the heart of the movie with plenty of goings-on.

The Poker Sequence
Gambling is a surprisingly cinematic activity. In classic films like The Sting, decent movies like Rounders and mediocrities like 21, card-playing scenes accomplish dual objectives: they generate suspense from the outcome of the games themselves; and they tell you something about the characters at the table. In Casino Royale, however, Campbell has his work cut out for him. The marathon poker game between James Bond, Le Chiffre and a handful of supporting players is the centerpiece of the film. To keep things from going static, Campbell has to build character, generate suspense, and, yes, raise the stakes.

All of these elements are deftly woven together, elevated by witty dialogue and broken up by tense action scenes. There's a brutal fight down a hotel staircase between Bond and the African thugs out to get the indebted Le Chiffre (whose scheme to make millions off the stock market by blowing up a new jumbo jet was thwarted by Bond in Act I). There is also a harrowing attempt by Le Chiffre's blonde bombshell to poison Bond during the game. A running gag develops every time Daniel Craig returns to the table, first with a new dress shirt (after his tux gets bloodied) then following his near-death escape.

We also meet a couple of important new characters, such as CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, capable of better things but always a welcome presence) and MI5's Montenegro operative Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, once again shaping a complete character in a few swift scenes). Then there is the game itself, which is so involving that we barely notice Mathis's nonsensical if essential exposition. (He's always telling Eva Green how much is in the pot.) Earlier in the movie, Bond explains that poker isn't about chance, that it's a game of skill. By the game's climax, we understand what he means.

The Torture Scene
When Casino Royale first came out, I was at a colleague's party where all everybody could talk about was the scene where Le Chiffre tortures Bond, and that the film should have been rated "R" because of this. Looking back, I think this reaction is a good example of the kind of resistance that occurs when a movie truly gets under the skin. (It happens so rarely these days that the reaction may even be more intense.) Even by Bond torture standards, the scene comes as a shock: instead of Sean Connery strapped down while a laser slowly makes its way up to his private parts (the Austin Powers series has spoofed this kind of scene where the villain inexplicably leaves the room, allowing time for the hero to escape), Casino Royale gives us a stark naked James Bond tied to a chair while Le Chiffre thumps his balls.

It's an unusually intimate moment between Bond and a Bond Villain. Le Chiffre's vulnerability was demonstrated earlier when Obanno and his goons come looking for their money, and here he is in a full sweaty panic. But here's the main reason why I think audiences respond so strongly to this scene: it's eroticized. Gone is the customary detached violence of the Bond series; in Casino Royale, violence takes a toll on its characters, and as Le Chiffre tortures Bond it becomes turbocharged with something more, a dark undercurrent cut short as Le Chiffre meets a surprising end.

The Bad Good Girl
Has there been a greater Bond Girl than Eva Green? I certainly can't think of a better introduction for one than the scene on the train headed for Montenegro, when Green's Vesper Lynd -- a.k.a. "The Bad Good Girl" -- sits across from Bond and says, "I'm the money." As the financier for M's risky plan to prevent Le Chiffre from making off with funds for terrorist activities, Vesper is presented immediately as a character who is at once familiar and unknown. Her edgy conversation with Bond -- where they size each other up as orphans -- throws off sparks, to be sure; it also establishes the pair as equals. We're an hour into the movie, and yet Green's arrival creates the sensation that the story has just begun.

Purvis, Wade and Haggis's script achieves some marvelous emotional shorthand in their ensuing scenes, a few almost playing as screwball comedy as they pretend to be lovers only to gradually become them. (It doesn't hurt that the actors have chemistry.) Bond uses his actual name at a hotel, to Vesper's irritation; he claims this will help him learn something about Le Chiffre, while she retorts that it also shows his own recklessness. But the best moment comes right before the big poker match, when Bond gives Vesper a dress. (He tells her he wants every eye in the room focused on her rather than their cards -- hilariously, it is Bond himself who gets distracted.) Bond's smug self-satisfaction is deflated when he returns to his room to find a tailored suit waiting for him. ("I sized you up the moment we met," Vesper says.) A tux is to James Bond as a costume is to a comic book superhero, and the image of Daniel Craig donning one for the first time is the moment when Bond is truly born.

Coming Soon: The Bad Good Girl shows her dark side -- and Bond flirts with his -- in Act III, our final chapter....


Jason Bellamy said...

It took me a while to read this post because I had a hard time scrolling past the picture of Eva Green. My, what a Bond woman. It's as if all this time we were waiting for Green to show us what a Bond woman really looks like.

As for the torture scene that 'should have made it R,' you're exactly right. Because it's effective it seems graphic. It reminds me of getting to see an advanced screening of "Hotel Rwanda" at which Terry George described having to lobby the MPAA to get his film to be PG-13 instead of R (he wanted school kids to be able to see it). There's a scene in the film where a car is forced to drive over dead bodies. We see the bodies. Then we see the car, which bumps around like it's going over speed bumps. But we never see tires on corpses. Anyway, the MPAA screeners were so disturbed by the scene that they more or less forgot that nothing actually graphic is shown. And that won George his PG-13. But I digress.

As for the poker scene: Great analysis, but I remember being irked at the constant sideline commentary (Poker for Dummies). But I understand it's probably essential. Oh well.

Craig said...

As for the torture scene that 'should have made it R,' you're exactly right. Because it's effective it seems graphic. .

Another example --perhaps the most notorious torture scene before Casino Royale's -- is the one from Reservoir Dogs. In that one too, people come away believing they saw something they actually didn't.

I keep coming back to Tarantino. It was well-publicized his disappointment that he wasn't asked to direct Casino Royale. Yet reviewing the movie again, I can't help but feel certain details -- the torture scene, the flashback prologue -- originally generated from his imagination. Did he write a draft, or sketch some ideas that wound up in the finished product? I'm not taking anything away from Martin Campbell and his team. Nobody could have made a better movie than they did.