Casino Royale: Reinventing a Franchise

Hollywood loves a good franchise, but for the most part the chances of a franchise being consistently good are very slim. The Bond franchise is a prime example of this. From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, a period that saw a Scotsman in Sean Connery rise in the ranks and become one of the most recognizable faces around AND one of the highest grossing movie stars of all time, to a series of misfires and miscast names throughout the 70s and 80s, and finally to Pierce Brosnan stealing the show in GoldenEye just for his later entries in the Bond catalog to fail both critically and commercially; similarly to Batman, the James Bond franchise was on its last legs as it entered the new millennium. To everyone’s surprise Casino Royale turned out to be a major sensation. A new star was born in Daniel Craig and James Bond was alive and well, and perhaps truer to the Ian Fleming’s original character than ever before.

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The first time we see Craig as 007.

How Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, changed the way we perceive and sympathize with Bond as a fleshed out character instead of a cardboard cut-out is still to this day an incredible achievement in storytelling and action filmmaking.
The most obvious aspect of Casino Royale is, of course, how blatantly indifferent it is to all the previous franchise entries. The film opens in black and white, suggesting a flashback sequence from 007’s first mission for the agency, with Bond literally smashing a guy’s face into a sink and violently shoving his face into said sink full of water until the nameless bad guy stops breathing. The scene is brutal, grim and openly demonstrative about the movie’s further intentions in establishing Bond as a atypical character.
Unlike Casino Royale’s predecessors, where the movie usually opened with an intense set-up that ultimately ended in either a sarcastic comment made by the agent himself or a funny set of circumstances that would serve to fuel the movie’s plot, Campbell’s film never attempts to emphasize humor the same way. After all, this is 2006 we’re talking about; the era of clunky one-liners and testosterone-filled actioners à la True LiesSpeed or The Rock is over, and even the most generic actions films take themselves seriously both in style and execution. Humor in Casino Royale comes at an expense and this is where things start to get interesting.

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The gruesome, black-and-white opener sets the tone for the franchise’s re-birth.

I fail to recall the last time I had seen Bond truly suffer as a human. And I don’t only mean physical pain because we all remember the fair share of painful adversities that Bond has had to face throughout the years (spiders, lasers, waterboarding, gunshot wounds, etc), I mean real, psychological pain, pain that exposes the character’s (up until then) few weaknesses. In Die Another Day, Brosnan’s last catastrophic outing as 007, Bond was indeed held prisoner by North Koreans and tortured numerous times, but the pain the character underwent was never given enough weight and was soon dismissed with Bond ultimately walking away a free man in a prisoner exchange.
In Casino Royale, however, our protagonist feels, just like anyone of us. Craig’s Bond is made of flesh and bone and is aware of his own physical limitations. M labels him a blunt instrument, a cold, calculated weapon executing the agency’s orders. But we soon learn that our protagonist, despite his best efforts to fight them, is a prisoner of his own feelings. And that is, I think, Casino Royale’s main strength: the movie is driven by our and everyone else’s preconceived idea that Bond is an emotionless machine working against the movie’s own initiative to mix things up and shape Bond into a more human version of the world famous agent with a license to kill.

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Mads Mikkelsen perfectly encapsulates a Bond villain.

Casino Royale knows what it is up against, namely a whole catalog of movies and fans of these movies that value Bond for his cartoonish appearance. And when the movie’s main plot kicks in, Royale does everything in its power to build a fun, engaging storyline that serves to de-construct and re-shape James Bond as we know him.
Rewatching the film with a friend who had not seen the movie, I noticed how she kept waiting for the eventual one night-stand or (as we like to call them) Bond girl, to come in, have sex with our protagonist and leave him in matter of nano seconds, only to be swept away by the franchise’s most real and heartbreaking romance. Because even though there is a scene where Bond, tied up and naked, gets his testicles crushed with the swing of a heavy rope (and the pain is both visible and audible) by the movie’s main antagonist, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, the definition of a Bond villain), the hurt that our protagonist turns out to suffer most is the feeling of pure grief, and the hopeless realization that he is forever bound to the memory of Vesper, a woman he tragically lost and who sacrificed her own life for him. Yes, him. The worthless machine serving the agency’s interests. A stone-cold killer with no sense of remorse. The blunt instrument meant to be used to bash someone’s head in.

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007 naked and exposed.

Reinventing the Bond franchise was a necessary step for mainstream, crowd-pleasing cinema and resulted in Hollywood re-establishing the importance of high quality action movies familiar with the definition of ”character development.” The Bond franchise finally moved away from conservative studio shoots and CGI effects and decided to make fight scenes practical, aggressive and turn our protagonist into an underdog with real weaknesses to be exploited by stronger enemies. Too often had we seen Bond go through enemies like papier-mâché, sometimes not even bothered to look their way before killing them. Casino Royale changed the way Bond inflicts violence upon others and the way others inflict violence upon him. All of a sudden we are watching a character whose prime interest is not getting laid, but embracing the love of a woman and considering the possibility of early retirement.
Of course, nothing is perfect and the underwhelming follow-up to Casino Royale, 2008’s Quantum of Solace proved once again how hard it is to be consistently good as a franchise. But at least we now know that Bond breathes, sweats and bleeds like any other man. He is touchable.

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Casino Royale gives Bond a reason to exist.

Real Lonely: Michael Mann’s relationships

Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.

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A filmmaker who is definitely not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.

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Frank desperately fighting the system for the sake of his family.

Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the LambsSe7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.”  It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.

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At the end of the day, it is all about coming back home.

In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined.  What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on.  After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.

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Two young lovers trying to make it work…

On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.

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…two older lovers failing to make it work.

The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…

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Toying with the enemy.

…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring,  life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.

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Bye, bye, blackbird.

Bond Flop

There is something that I cannot stop thinking about and that is:

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH SPECTRE?

The anticipation for this one was huge.  At first, it was announced as the last Bond film of the epic saga that started all the way back in the 60s with Sean Connery.  After having revolutionized the franchise with a more serious approach to the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, Bond was supposedly reborn.  Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and finally Spectre are the films that all gave a new feeling to the name, Bond.  Big time directors like Sam Mendes stepped up to the task and delivered. But not this time. Something about Spectre is incredibly off. It feels cartoonish, tired, pointless and utterly uninspired.

Some main points from my part;

  1. NO CHARACTER ARCH
    – what made Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (in its mediocrity) and Skyfall special is that with the ‘reinvention’ of James Bond as a meaty, grown character was his development. Casino Royale made Bond lose everything he had, everything he loved. Quantum of Solace made him gain his strengths, while Skyfall made him come back to life, fight for what’s his and yes, lose something too.  People became fans of these ‘serious’ Bond films precisely because Bond developed and wasn’t the usual handsome ladies man that cracks a joke and kills the bad guys.  He was vulnerable, he experienced pain and loss. He was one of us.  In Spectre, yes, Bond loves, has memories, has a past, but you don’t feel it pulsating in every frame. In Casino Royale you could feel the threat of losing Vesper at all times.  In Skyfall you could sense the slow passing of M. Here, you have nothing. It’s just Bond solving what should be considered as ‘the ultimate case’, the last riddle, the last piece of the puzzle. It’s what we’ve seen a thousand times before. Same formula, over and over and over.
  2. WOODEN ACTING
    – when James Bond was getting his balls crushed with a rope in Casino Royale we suffered. When M was bleeding to death, we suffered. When Silva was aiming a flintlock pistol at an innocent woman in Skyfall, we felt the tension. What about Spectre? You can feel the actors just not giving a single crap about the movie.  It feels like a side project. You have Craig who publicly announced that he wanted to stop playing Bond after Skyfall was wrapped up, you have Monica Bellucci who probably had nothing better to do, since she is in the movie for what, 6-7 minutes? There is also Ralph Fiennes, who plays the new M this time around. After giving some great, great performances in Grand Budapest Hotel, Hail, Casesar! and A Bigger Splash I don’t blame the man for taking some time off and playing this over-used role of the boss who at first doesn’t trust his agent and then discovers that he should have trusted him from the very beginning. Then you have Christoph Waltz, who as of late has me feeling very unimpressed. It’s always the same sarcastic, sneaky character just with a different name. The only bright spot is the always reliable Léa Seydoux, who is a gem of an actress, who unfortunately is forced to play the cliché character of a Bond chick.  At least she tries to give it some depth, which leads me to….
  3. THE ATROCIOUS SCREENPLAY
    – do I really need to go over this? Look, even the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies had better screen-writing than this movie. At least they had some really funny, sarcastic lines that worked whenever they were given a try, but here… you have FOUR screenwriters working on this project. FOUR. There is no sense of time, there is no link between certain key characters, questions are left unanswered, ending is predictable and uneventful, the whole story is quite simply forced out in order to presumably end this series. It feels like it all leads up to what the writers probably considered the apex of their writing capabilities and that is: “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.”
  4. NO ARTISTIC FREEDOM
      – I give a big thumbs up to Sam Mendes and Hoyte van Hoytema (the cinematographer) for making that first opening sequence in Mexico City work like it does. It looks absolutely brilliant; a tracking shot that pans across a mass of people, follows characters around into elevators, passes through doorways, exits through balconies and finally reveals to us what Bond is up to.  It’s great. It’s ambitious and I wish it set the tone for the rest of the movie. It shows who is in charge of the movie. Unfortunately the directorial and cinematographic brilliance doesn’t last very long and you can almost feel the studio’s influence crawling into every frame of it.  No wonder that Mendes announced he won’t be coming back to direct Bond25, if there will ever be one. Mendes’ experimental direction and van Hoytema’s clean, neat images seem too big of a gamble for such a massive Hollywood project that cost around $250 mln. The viewer can easily see when the director is in charge and when the producers are.  Mendes directs from various interesting angles. He moves the camera step by step, he likes silences instead of cheesy soundtracks, he prefers panning rather than cutting. But then again, it’s not his movie. And we know it. The way the story is visually told is the same procedural crap we see on a daily basis.
  5. THE MOST UNUSED BOND VILLAIN
      – Okay, you cast Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain, who is supposed to incarnate the ultimate evil of the franchise. He is the man who’s taken everything from Bond. He’s the one responsible for every tragedy in Bond’s life; M, Vesper, his childhood. He is the devil in a man’s skin. He is the reason for Bond’s thirst to kill. HE IS EVIL. And what do we get? We get this guy who has no real reason for doing all the things he’s done. He had a bad childhood, that’s it. That’s his big motif. The screenwriters think that’s what they can offer us to wrap up this series. Waltz, as I said before, doesn’t do anything special. He is just Waltz playing Waltz, but come on, give this villain something to hang on. We see him for a couple of minutes at the beginning and for another few minutes at the very end. He is supposed to be this ghost who has always loomed over Bond’s life but his presence is incredibly shallow and all in all, he’s extremely uninteresting. Not that Silva in Skyfall was great, or Greene in Quantum of Solace had a haunting presence, but a guy like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale had indeed some backbone. Here, the big antagonist is nothing special. It’s just another guy who wishes to blow everything to hell. Wow.

    After finally having seen Spectre, I can honestly say: this franchise should end right now. There is nothing more to offer other than an assured box office hit. But again, you people want this, right? You’ll pay for whatever has loud explosions and characters getting their heads split wide open. Okay, then. have it your way.

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    Cuckoo.

God is Gonna Cut You Down

Remember that post I wrote a while back about Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary Western that goes by the title The Wild Bunch? In that post right there, I talked about how Peckinpah wanted to express his anger and frustration with the world he found himself living in (late 60s, Vietnam War casualties and the whole country going crazy) by painting his film of 1969 with an excess of bloody violence. He refused to accept the old Western style. He directed one of the most hard ass movies of the century and showing who he really was as a filmmaker.
However, I have some thoughts about another one of his movies (they’re all brilliant in their own ways: Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the KidThe GetawayCross of Iron and many more), one of his later ones and the last one starring his dear friend Warren Oates. The movie I’m talking about is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia released in 1974, a brutal story of a man being paid to retrieve another wanted man’s head. The problem is, the wanted man is already dead. Warren Oates stars as Bennie, a lone rider, a barman and an ex con, who’ll do anything for the right amount of money.

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Warren Oates stars as Bennie the desperado.

Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s meditation on the sacred and profane. You might wonder if this is true, since his movies are usually very violent and were almost always X-rated by the distributors at the time. Well, I’ll tell you what; to hell with those distributors. Peckinpah was a troubled man and during the shooting of this movie he was influenced by Warren Oates to start abusing cocaine (which later lead to his premature death). His mind wasn’t in the right places, but his heart surely was because in the midst of all the bloody chaos that engulfs the main characters of Alfredo Garcia, there is always a theme of love, regret, betrayal, motherhood and devotion hiding underneath the layers of foul language and extreme violence. Why? Because Peckinpah refused to label himself as a B-movie director. Critics hated him, the material he adapted and the stories he tried to tell. Screw them, he kept on going and his movies are still relevant today just as they were back in the day.

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There is love in this movie. Lots of it. And it’s beautiful.

In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah has no mercy. His characters are still filthy, sweaty and violent. Bennie is a mercenary, an angry dog looking for something that isn’t there. Bennie, if you will, in some kind of twisted way represents the director himself. Warren Oates admitted that he tried to copy Peckinpah’s walk, way of dressing and all around behavior. Bennie IS Peckinpah. He is a man forced by the higher laws, squeezed to a pulp in order to find a dead man’s head. He sacrifices everything he has just for a stupid dead man’s head. Peckinpah was known at the time as the number one enemy of Hollywood producers since he once claimed that making movies in Hollywood was a torture and preferred to move to Mexico and continue his career over there. Bennie’s story is Sam Peckinpah’s story. Digging up a grave, opening a coffin and finding a useless, lifeless body was Peckinpah’s trade. Nothing in movies is sacred. Just like a dead man’s grave. Everything ends in blood, casualties and if you’re lucky, a newborn baby. Not all masterpieces carry Oscar nominations and this movie is one of them.

So, yeah. That’s Peckinpah for you. A director who had balls made of steel and a talent that so many people tried to deny him. Good for you, Sam. Good for you.

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The man himself, Sam Peckinpah.