So what did Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale do for the Bond franchise? Well, I’m not a huge aficionado or scholar of these films like some so I tend to look at each one on its own as an action adventure piece rather than observe how it fits into the jigsaw legacy of this mammoth series, but there’s no denying that this one kind of broke several moulds before it. After the garish 90’s heyday of Pierce Brosnan (I *love* all four of those films to bits) I feel like they just wanted to bring Bond down to earth a bit, distill the aesthetic into something that cleanses too many gadgets and what have you, cast someone darker and more dangerous and blast out a new trajectory for the character. Good plan.
Casino Royale is not only a splendidly exciting film on its own but the best, most impactful and unique 007 film since 1989’s ruthless and underrated License To Kill. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is an angry warrior who fucks up just like the rest of us and is fallible, not some invincible deity in a tux that can’t get hurt, deceived, betrayed or killed without tangible consequences. An early mission sees him tasked by Judi Dench’s then immortal M to infiltrate a high stakes poker game in some swanky French locale and gain information on dangerous arms dealer and terrorist Le Chiffre, played by vicious, predatory Mads Mikkelsen in one of my favourite Bond baddie portrayals. As if he isn’t in enough over his head, he meets the beautiful but equally dangerous Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the most unique Bond girl since… who knows when. I love that she’s a self aware human being who has her reasons for falling into bed with him instead of just being a pair of tits with a voice as seen in countless entries before. Green has sex appeal for days but what makes her special is that way her eyes smoulder with a fierce independence and unpredictability, making her one of the most fascinating characters the whole franchise has to offer. Also supporting them is the great Giancarlo Giannini as a mentor of sorts for Bond, Jeffrey Wright as CIA operative Felix, Catarina Murino, Isaach De Bankolé, Jesper Christensen, Sebastian Foucan, Tobias Menzies, Richard Sammel, Tyrone the silly fat bastard from Snatch, Russian character actress Ivana Milicevic and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson of all people, if you look real close.
In terms of scope and staging, this is a kind of unique 007 film because it shirks the standards and ducks expectations. It opens with a spectacular chase like any other in the franchise, which is a monumental sequence in terms of stunt work. But much of the film is spent in the ornate casinos of France and a lot of the action is the casual intimidation and cerebral mind games that go alongside the poker match. There’s nothing quite like Craig and Mikkelsen sat opposite one another in tuxes, Mads bleeding out of his sinister looking dead eye and Daniel smirking at him like he wants to rip his head off, while Green looks on and let’s her ulterior motives simmer on the back burner for later. Cinematographer Phil Meheux takes full advantage of these rich, lushly production designed interior shots as well as the gorgeous outdoor rim of the Mediterranean that we get to see quite a bit of. My only real complaint is a third act that feels like it barrels in from another film; that’s not to say it’s bad or doesn’t work, it’s just a tad unwieldy with the landing and threw me off in terms of tone or climax but I suppose that could have been the intention. I’ll just say that this thing ends in the last possible way you’d expect from a 007, feeling fresh, raw and off the rails in a beautiful fashion that doesn’t tread the beaten path of so many before, but blazes out its own tragic, violent conclusion that will claim a piece of Bond’s soul but add much needed spirit to this series as a whole. Great film, and my second favourite Bond of all time after Skyfall.
What are the key ingredients in a Bond film? Chase sequences. Gadgets. A sexy chick, maybe two or even three per film. A flamboyant, megalomaniac asshole bent on world domination or some other far flung quest for global chaos. Flashy cars. Admirable stunt work. Cringy one liners. What else? Not much, unfortunately, and it’s these formulas, mostly stuck to like a well worn blueprint throughout the franchise that have made me a self proclaimed Bond non-fan, aside from a few specific entries. That changed when the Daniel Craig iterations came along, thoughtful, self aware reworking that peaked with Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, which is arguably the best in the whole canon, and definitely my favourite. For the first time there’s thought put into 007’s arc, a personal backstory, connections to others that are rooted in emotion and a refreshingly intelligent script that both calls loving attention to and subtly sends up the franchise tropes. Craig’s Bond is an implosive, haunted warrior whose quips are never cavalier or cheeky, but feel rather sardonic with a touch of sadness. What made him this way? Well, a solid career of killing people and having extreme bodily harm inflicted upon him I’d imagine, the effects of which are readily apparent on his rough hewn frame and weary expression like never before in the franchise. The cryptic title of the film also calls back to his past, never thoroughly explored but hinted at just enough to accent the character. Then there’s the villain, a blond dye job piece of work named Silva, given the devilish, over pronounced charisma of Javier Bardem, who handles the dangerous monster, playful joker and petulant brat aspects of the character in harmonized synergy for a scene stealing and franchise best Bond baddie. Although admittedly a power-mad despot like any other, Silva’s ultimate endgame is something far more personal, which makes for a stronger character than some freak who just wants to blow up the moon with a laser. Most of the characters here shirk the standards and become something more than their allotted archetypes. Judi Dench’s hard-nosed M takes centre stage as not only the steely shot caller behind the desk but as a well rounded character whose choices behind said desk come back to haunt her. Ralph Fiennes’s salty aristocrat Gareth Mallory proves more resourceful and intuitive than that perfectly tailored suit n’ plummy accent would let on. Naomie Harris’s badass Eve is a cracking field agent with the wits and charisma to match Bond, and Ben Withshaw’s Q gets to intone more than simply the function of a few well placed, elaborate gadgets, of which there are indeed few, if any on display here. The only one who remains squarely in the imprint of past 007 films is Bérenicé Marlohe’s sultry but short lived Severine, who almost proves unimportant to the plot beyond obligatory eye candy and could have been left out. Pretty much everything works here, and better than it has for any prior Bond film, particularly the clever, wry dialogue, emotional element and iconoclastic trailblazing. Roger Deakins makes visual poetry yet again with his camera, from the neon soaked skyscrapers of Shanghai to the floating lantern casinos of Macau to the comfortably rain streaked brick of London, this is one flat out gorgeous film to look at. Couple the technical prowess with that oh so weighty, thoughtful script, Craig’s craggy and well worn warrior Bond and the fresh feeling rogues gallery of characters around him, not to mention Adele’s heart-stopping original song and you’ve got something truly special and elevated from any other 007 film out there. Oh, and the courtroom scene where M quotes Tennyson? Bloody time capsule worthy.
People rag on Lee Tamahori’s 007 effort Die Another Day quite a bit, but.. I really dig it. Look, the James Bond films were always meant to have a silly flair and air of camp to them, dating back to the original 1960’s spy romps with Connery and stretching forth to the cheesy 90’s entries starring Pierce Brosnan, who for my money is the second best Bond, following Daniel Craig’s gritty metamorphosis. Brosnan’s stint as Bond is the most whacked out the franchise has ever gotten, and this one is arguably the craziest of the four, but it’s a way unfairly panned. It’s got gadgets, exotic settings, two sexy Bond babes, a hilariously over the top bad guy, and enough cartoonish action scenes to fuel two movies. What more do you want? Well, obviously people wanted a more grounded, realistic take or the Craig films would never have been green-lit, but that’s besides the point. Every incarnation of 007, from the silliest to the most down to earth, has the right to frolic in a franchise with enough wiggle room for over two dozen entries, so let them have their fun. Brosnan has some picturesque arctic adventures here, and I love when Bond gets to go play in the snow. There’s a North Korean radical (Rick Yune) with a meteor shower of real diamonds embedded in his face, so how’s that for a villain. Halle Berry smokes it up as one of the hottest Bond vixens to date, Jinx Johnson, the image of her emerging from the water in a bikini now burned into the minds and bedsheets of countless viewers who saw this before the dawn of internet porn and broke the rewind button on their remote. Rosamund Pike is the other, an ice queen named Miranda Frost, whose surname accents her initial attitude towards 007 nicely. Judi Dench and John Cleese return as M and Q, at the height of their dry and droll mannerisms. There’s a cool new character played by Michael Madsen too, some CIA bigwig called Damian Falco, who I imagine we would have seen a lot more of had the Brosnan universe continued, which sadly was not to be. Anywho, the reason I picked this one to review today is because it was the most ridiculed 007 film I could think of in the canon, an area that always fascinates me in any franchise. Sure, it’s a laugh in places and so far over the top it soars above the satellite used by the villain to threaten the planet below. But people should really take a step back and examine the art their bandwagon jeers are pointed at, and look for the positives. Visually, this is probably one of, if not the most good looking 007 film ever, thanks to the sweeping Icelandic locations captured by cinematographer David Tattersall. The sight of Brosnan wind surfing down the face of a glacier that’s being melted by a giant space laser beam from aforementioned satellite is inspired, and taken to a whole new level because the guy does all that *in his fucking tuxedo*. Re-read the previous sentence and try and tell me that’s not one of the coolest Bond scenarios you’ve ever pictured. It looks even better in film than it does on paper, too. Give this one another shot, because it’s not even close to being the weakest of the bunch, and I try and discourage such witch hunts in any franchise to begin with. The films are all there to enjoy, so why not leave the negativity fuelled nitpicking stowed in your suitcase and do just that. Die Another Day is a blast.
GoldenEye is the very finest hour that Pierce Brosnan had as James Bond, both as a film and in terms of what he gets to do as the character. It’s my third favourite Bond film of all time and stands as one of the most exciting ventures the series has seen to this day. It definitely falls into a campy style, but one that’s removed from that of the original Bond films from way back when, one that’s all its own and decidedly 90’s. It’s also got one of the strongest and classiest villains of the series, a man who is in fact an ex agent himself which was a neat switch up. Brosnan is so photogenic it’s ridiculous, whether dolled up in the tux or careening through a valley in a fighter jet. He just looks so damn good as Bond, and I sometimes wish he’d gotten a fifth crack at the character. Here we join up with 007 on a mission gone wrong, where he is ambushed and his partner Agent Alec Trevelyan a.k.a. 006 (Sean Bean) is killed, or so he thinks. 006 is in fact alive and well, with a few gnarly facial scars and a new nasty attitude. He puts Bond through a wringer with a diabolical scheme to hijack a Russian nuclear space weapon and do all kinds of lovely things with it. Bond teams up with the survivor of a decimated Russian research centre, a beautiful scientist named Natalya (Isabella Scorupco) who inevitably ends up in his bed. It’s slick, it’s stylish, it’s sexy and everything a Bond flick needs to be. 006 has a dangerous asset in Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a lethal assassin whose weapon of choice are her thighs which she employs with the crushing power of two Amazonian pythons. Janssen plays the role with ferocious relish and the kind of enthusiasm that hadn’t been seen in a Bond villainess since Barbara Carrera in Never Say Never Again. Bean plays it ice cold, letting restraint and calculated malice steal the scenes as opposed to flagrant mustache twirling. I always thought he would have made a cracking good 007 as he has so much residual danger to his vibe from playing many heartless bastards in his career, but perhaps in another life. One of my favourite characters to ever hang out in a Bond flick shows up here, a cranky but lovable russian general named Valentin Zukofsky, played by the awesome Robbie Coltrane, an actor who really, really needs to be in more stuff. His few short scenes are the stuff that makes a piece timeless, and I wish we’d gotten to see more Valentin and more Hagrid elsewhere in the franchise. There’s the usual suspects like Judi Dench as M and Desmond Llewellyn as a crusty Q, and a host of other actors including Joe Don Baker, Tchecky Karyo, Minnie Driver and the irritating Alan Cumming who singlehandedly ruins scenes with his hammy preening. The film thunders along with furious energy and nicely paced action sequences, including a chaotic tank chase through the streets of Moscow and a stunner of a climax set atop a giant satellite dish. As Bond films go, you can never go wrong with this one.