Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Casino Royale

Once a week, whether it's good for me or not, John and I go to the movies.

There are poorly articulated rules surrounding this ritual observance. We try not to go to anything which might be improving of our characters, or which might, if it were a book, get the Booker Prize. John is in fact positively drawn to the kind of films which make you go oh my good gravy I can't believe they let adults have the money to make that. I don't take quite the same visceral pleasure in absolute schlock, so things tend to average out at films somewhat better than unredeemable. Films, in fact, rather like Casino Royale.

John - it almost goes without saying - has a twisted affection for the David Niven travesty, but having noted that, we will pass on in silence to the one that isn't a travesty.

Three quibbles have to be got out of the way. The song is just awful. There have been bad Bond songs which were bathetic and unbearable, and worst of all had killer hooks which meant you couldn't get the awful tune out of your head. Yes, I mean you, Paul McCartney. But the song for Casino Royale - an hour after hearing it I couldn't give you any sense at all of what it sounded like, other than awful. It sounded like the B side for a wannabe punk band's concession to their deaf drummer's delusions of being able to write sheet music in crayon. Or very slow Morrissey, if you told him he couldn't actually use a melody.

And while you listen to the song and pray for it to end, you have to watch the opening titles. Good news - no silhouetted dollybirds. Bad news - ironic use of playing card suits as bullets and knives and weapons in general. As long as they were getting the franchise to grow up, I kind of hoped they'd leave childish things from the 1970s in the bin where they belong.

And the last time I saw product placement this jarring, it was in Wayne's World and they were making a point. Bad Sony. No supper.

That's pretty much all I have to complain about. Daniel Craig may not look like everyone's dream idea of Bond (if I'd been doing it purely as physical casting I'd have chosen Clive Owen) but it really doesn't matter - for the first time I can remember they have a Bond who you want to hear more from. When Craig talks, it isn't something you're waiting through so that they can do another stunt - quite the reverse, I found myself hoping he'd do a bit more talking.

The action is mostly straightforward and by action movie standards almost plausible. Bond's still superhumanly resilient to brusing and bashing but at least the bruises and bashes show, and as they accumulate they slow him down.

Speaking of slowing down, that's one of the more interesting things that the film does. The action's fast and furious at the outset and as the movie unfolds things slow down more and more. It's the exact opposite of the pacing in most films of this kind, which set up the drama and then play it out in increasing frantic scenes that are supposed to give a sense of catharsis and usually at least manage to distract you from the fact that the hero's actions make almost less sense than the villain's (a standout which occurs to me just as I write this - in Cliffhanger, how on earth did John Lithgow manage to run his criminal empire up to now when he keeps shooting the help for minor mistakes? - but the examples are legion and belong in their own post).

In Casino Royale, the writers have been gutsy enough and good enough at their job to turn this logic on its head; first they use all kinds of drama to set up the situation and then they play it out quietly to the climax - which is noisy, but instead of blowing up the villain's secret hideaway, a random dwelling in Venice falls down because an impromptu gunfight gets out of control. I'm being a little indulgent here - at the time that I was watching the film my feeling was that the final act was dragging a little and that it almost reeked of that old standby, "it's all been a dream". But thinking about it afterwards I'm rather pleased with the way they went about it. Since the centrepiece of the movie was going to have to be a card game, which is to action as macrame is to waterproofing, they always had a pacing problem to overcome. So they got the stakes sorted out early with lots of loud bangs, and then let the fact that they had hired an actual actor for Bond do the job of suggesting the tension of the card game. And since they were going to be running quietly in the middle of the movie, they got a lot of emotional work done as well. That way, then the climax does come along, you're watching what happens to the people, and it's a whole lot more important than whether the lair deep in the volcano falls down in a welter of styrofoam and gibbering extras. All in all, rather well thought out.

The question is, will they run with this logic in two years' time, or was this a one off and next time we go back to John Cleese playing Q and loads of stupid gadgets (another thing which deserves a post all of its own).

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