Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Emergence of the New (Old) Bond

If one were to approach the somewhat limited career of Daniel Craig on rational terms, his ascension into the role of James Bond would've been obvious. Did any one of the 25 million people who showed up over "Casino Royale's" opening weekend even see his performance as a British crime boss in the accomplished "Layer Cake" from 2 years ago??? That performance alone sold me as a fan of Craig's. His steely-eyed determinism, coupled with a fierce sense of intelligence, elevated what should've been a routine Brit crime pic into a marvelously energetic and surprising documentation of the London underworld. Without Craig holding down the fort, I don't know if "Layer Cake" would've been as affecting. And then there was a pair of films from director Roger Michell, "Enduring Love" and "The Mother" both from 2004. Neither presented Craig as the torch bearer to a legacy of great spy films, but instead represented, at opposite ends of the spectrum, his range and precision as an actor. In "Enduring Love", Craig played a mild mannered professor whose life becomes the obsessive focal point of a man whose life he saves from a hot air balloon accident. As the stalker increasingly nears closer to the things Craig holds dear (namely his wife), his character turns into a panicked and desperate every-man, suddenly looking to violence as a resolution. It's an interesting performance because Craig reveals the perversity beneath someone who has to act out in a way that's totally disassociated with his normal means of life. Then, in "The Mother" (perhaps his finest role to date) Craig plays the fixation of yet another person's unrealistic obsession, but this time with much more empathy and restraint. Craig, while renovating the house of his married lover, falls in a sexual relationship with his lover's mother, who is in her 60's. I know... sounds morbid right? But it works, and Craig pulls off the performance of his small career, precariously balancing more mixed emotions as he struggles being the father of an autistic child and the masculine playtoy for two very different women. It's one of those performances that could've easily fallen apart at the seams, but Craig's temperament holds a steady tone.

So, here we are in 2006. We have a blue-eyed and blond haired James Bond and the die hards are crying about it. Get over yourself. "Casino Royale" is a very good film, made even better due to the control of Daniel Craig as an actor. Two things work well for this film (and I really want this entry to be more about the progression of the actor Daniel Craig and James Bond than a review for the film... after so many, that would be boring!): 1- the series is given a starting point... a point where one can mold and embellish a character in any way they wish because we all know that we're one form in youth and certainly something else as we grow older, gain life experience and have the shit routinely kicked out of us. In "Casino Royale", we're given a lean and mean James Bond, not yet jaded by the evil empire of adversaries and certainly still interested in love rather than disposable sex. In Daniel Craig's world, the possibility of true love still exists in the (of course) eye-appealing visage of Eva Green. Unlike every other Bond film, Craig doesn't seduce and destroy for the pleasure or because women throw themselves at him, but he seduces (partially) only to advance the narrative of the chase. 2) for the first time, a Bond hero feels like he's not invincible. Perhaps that was part of the attraction to so many James Bond fans- basically every film up until now was a wish fulfillment fantasy concerning a hero with cheesy gadgets who ran out of exploding buildings carrying the girl on his arm without a wrinkle in his styled hair. Hopefully with the franchise now, those days are over and we're given a more realistic view of Bond's world. And without going deeply into politic-speak, I imagine there are very few films nowadays that won't have some sort of political or social overtone towards post 9-11 tensions and government unrest. "Casino Royale" directly presents the villians as financiers of terrorists. Goodbye cold war ruskies and hello poverty-striken freedom fighters and terrorists! And where did this rejuventaion of style come from? I'd love to say it was due to the one-two punch of Matt Damon's "The Bourne Identity" and "The Bourne Supremacy", two films within a series about a globe-trotting secret agent that challenged the traditional thinking of the spy genre. For the first time in a long while, Damon's Jason Bourne was a protaganist who did get beaten sometimes, suffered a cut lip and bruised ribs and, certainly, was given emotion through disorientation, betrayal and lost love. Additionally, the Bourne series featured two diverse directors (Doug Liman for the first and Paul Greengrass for the second) who gave each frame of the film a kinetic charge. I can't imagine "The Bourne Identity" without that masterful scene in a well light apartment as Liman cut out all excess during a vicious fight between Damon and a knife-wielding assasin, emphasizing the sounds of violence and underscoring the scene with a persistent phone ring. In Greengrass' version, it's all pretty damn good including the you-are-there immediacy of his cinematography, but its especially the car chase scene towards the end of that film where you feel the hits. What these 2 films did (and did well) was unmask the invincibility of the hero while slowly inserting gestures of political malignance, making one of the second film's worst villains a member of our US Government. I really don't know if the success of these 2 films spurned the maturation of the 2006 Bond in "Casino Royale", but the bottom line is that it doesn't matter. We finally have a James Bond to match the harsh realities of our modern times.

So if there's one defining moment that defines my appreciation for Daniel Craig as James Bond it's this- after a relatively brutal fight down the spiraling steps of a casino hallway, Bond sends Vesp (Eva Green) back to her hotel room. Once he arrives in her room later, she's till outfitted in her cocktail dress and sitting on the floor of her shower, crying. Bond slowly crawls in with her and sits next to her. She's upset about just witnessing the death of Bond's assailant by his hands, and she whispers that she can't wash the blood off her own hands. Craig, as Bond, gently puts his arm around her and lightly sucks two of her fingers. It's a moment that's both gentle and telling- gentle because it wouldn't be found anywhere else in the Bond catalog before this and telling because, hopefully, it marks a profound shift in the icy facade of James Bond.

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