Monday, November 20, 2006

"That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six."

I went to see "Casino Royale" over the weekend, and I recommend it, within its limits.

If you've never watched a Bond movie, much of this will be pointless insider baseball. If you've watched some Bond films, but the only thing about them you ever feel motivated to discuss is "Who's your favorite Bond," "Royale" will at least give you something new to talk about. If you swore off new Bond films (and most old ones) years ago because they'd become nothing but 50-foot meringues, there might be reason to fall off the wagon again this once.

And, if you're a guy, you'll never feel the same way about a cane-bottom chair again, ever.

In many ways, "Bond Rebooted," (as I've heard "Royale" described) gets back to the clean, stripped-down, no frills look and feel of the earliest Bond films: "Dr. No," "From Russia With Love," and "Goldfinger." Those three remain my favorite Bond films and I regard them in much the same way as I do the first three (released) "Star Wars" movies: Even though the flaws were starting to show by the third one, they hang together pretty well, and make the ones that would come later look overblown and silly.

No Moneypenny. No Q. Felix Leiter's there, but just for a few nonessential scenes. And the signature high-tech doo-dads are all but gone--talk about a hat tip to "Dr. No." In fact, the one scene where MI6 gadgetry plays a part sticks out like a sore thumb.

The too-familiar shape of the Bond movie has been done away with this time around, too. It has a very odd rhythm to it--odd but not off-putting--and seems to have three or four separate endings, one after the other. And the first reel has an extended free running chase sequence that will leave you exhausted like nothing in any previous Bond film you've seen.

Even those familiar touches of old that do re-appear--the tracking gun barrel that Bond always out-draws as the film opens, an Aston Martin sedan, the vodka martini, his trademark line "Bond--James Bond," and the classic Bond theme--all turn up in some unexpected way. Even the animations for the opening titles--surely a Bond film essential--are turned around: There's nary a mud-flap silhouette of a woman to be found. (Ever wonder why that gun barrel is tracking Bond, by the way? Now you'll know.)

And--good lord!--there's even character development, a luxury that the Bond series mostly dispensed with after "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

What's most important to this film--the return to old ways that's most significant--is the return of cool sadism to Bond's character. "Casino Royale" shows us Bond at the very beginning of his career and asks--asks him, asks M, asks us--if he can really be that cold? Cold enough to be a professional assassin? Forget being suave; forget being sophisticated; forget sartorial dandyism. Forget about "spying"--this is about murdering. Can he be that cold, knowing that it won't be just about his work, but must necessarily extend to everything in his life?

The calm killer we saw leisurely murdering Professor Dent in "Dr. No" knew the answer was yes. The man we see in "Casino Royale" doesn't quite know yet.

In fact, cool sadism is the tone for the entire film, not just the existential question for Bond. I imagine that it's been years since the last time a Bond film had to be edited significantly for content before it ran on basic cable. I'll bet this one will have to be toned down noticeably. Not that it's especially gruesome, although there are moments; any teen slasher film will be gorier. And it's not just that it's violent, although it is. It's because the film is full of people--Bond not least--who are enjoying the giving and getting of pain. Connoisseurs on the subject--not dispensers of laughable, Playboy-cartoon sadism like Xenia Onatopp. There's a torture scene late in the movie--we'd be kidding ourselves it to call it an interrogation scene--in which the varieties of excruciating pain are discussed by inquisitor and victim as if they were considering the relative merits of vintage wines. I'm not saying this scene disqualifies "Royale" as "date movie" material; I'm just saying that if it works for you and your date I don't want to know any more about your relationship than I already do.

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