Friday, December 27, 2013

Bond Becoming Bond

[SPOILER ALERT: In the following post I refer to events in Skyfall, which if you have not yet seen the film could significantly affect your viewing experience]

Hip, hip hooray!  We’ve finished watching all 23 official films in the Bond oeuvre (so far).  I’m finishing this in the car as we drive home from family Christmas (started on the car ride there); we watched Skyfall about a week ago.  The final three are by far the best of the bunch.  In the special features for Casino Royale Daniel Craig makes a comment: “make the best movie you can and all the Bond stuff will sort itself out.”  And he is absolutely correct.  With Casino Royale, it was the first time in 20+ films that I thought I had just watched a good movie not just a good James Bond movie. 

Granted, Casino Royale was a smidge too long and lost my attention when it got somewhat tedious and disjointed at the end, but I managed to both follow and enjoy the plot for the entire first half of the film.  As my boyfriend put it, they kind of lost me with “all the spy stuff.”  It’s true, I have a hard time with double agent plotlines.  I think because I have this lazy streak that just wants to take everyone and everything at face value, and I can’t be bothered to get into the mindset or think through the betrayal of one agent by another or figure out who’s working for whom and what their role is.  Why can’t these villains just do their own dirty work; why do they all need to have slimy foot soldiers to do it for them?

But what Casino Royale did really well was present a kind of at-the-edge-of-my-seat suspense even when the only action was at the poker table (there was a time when I literally found myself sitting at the edge of the couch leaning toward the TV).  And there was more than one moment when an audible “WHOAH” came out of my mouth in response to some of the action sequences.  I will never forget the image of Vesper showing up in Bond’s headlights tied up in the middle of the road as Bond is speeding through the countryside to find her.

When people say that with the Daniel Craig era Bond has been rebooted for a new generation they are completely correct.  Not only is the tone grittier and more serious and the look darker but flashier at the same time; by starting Casino Royale with Bond only just being promoted to “00” status we get three films that show us James Bond becoming James Bond, secret agent.  There is a depth to his character that is nonexistent in all the previous films - even the Dalton films that people are trying to defend as precursors to Craig’s darker portrayal.  Craig is grittier and angrier to an extent that Dalton doesn’t even begin to approach. 

Initially, I had a hard time adjusting to this switch back in “time” -- essentially being re-introduced to James Bond for the first time.  It totally messed up my chronology.  Bringing Vesper into the mix really confused me.  I took the Bond - Vesper story arc over Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as some sort of explanation as to why Bond is a womanizer.  True love betrays him or dies for him (honestly, I never quite figured out how sincere Vesper’s feelings for Bond were) - either way that could seriously mess a man up when it comes to women: make him not want to love ever again, I mean, with his line of work and all.  But then what do we do with Teresa?   The woman Bond would marry appeared in only one film, but was referenced to in at least two others.  I thought it was her who proved that Bond could love.  And who establishes vengeance as a motivating factor for Bond.  While I appreciate Vesper because she establishes these character traits in our newly rebooted Bond right away, I also feel like she negates the significance of Teresa.  In the previous films, Teresa was something of a moral compass when it came to understanding Bond’s psyche.  Are we meant to replace that compass with Vesper or throw out Teresa completely or expect her to reappear in a future film? 

I also found myself confused because I initially refused to accept Bond getting his “00” status in the 21st century.  The fact that the opening scene of Casino Royale is black and white totally threw me.  I couldn’t tell if it was a flashback to the sixties or what.  Once it was established that the film was actually about a new 007 in the present day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the producers had missed an opportunity for a period piece -- tell James Bond’s origin story set in the fabulous fashions and atmosphere of the 1950s and ‘60s when his origin actually occurred.  I clung to the desire to see a James Bond period piece until we got to Skyfall, when I finally accepted that it wasn’t about reverting back to the historical origins of James Bond but actually recreating the James Bond character in the present day -- to refresh him and tell a new James Bond story for a new generation of movie watchers.  And with the way Skyfall successfully re-introduced so many classic characters I was converted to the idea and generally approve. 

My only wish is that they would have gone more into Bond’s backstory.  Perhaps they could have started Casino Royale just a few months or years earlier so we better understand the process of becoming a “00.”  I also would have appreciated a flashback or two in Skyfall, when they’re actually at Skyfall, to explain Bond’s family and how that estate helped shape who he is.  That would have been a better use of time than the overblown war scene and superfluous fall through the ice that the filmmakers gave us.  Because Skyfall felt like a multi-genre film to me, and the genres didn’t always meld well together.  At moments it felt like a super hero film starring James Bond as the indestructible man; at the climax it felt like a war film; and the rest felt like a spy film that also happened to be a character study of Bond, M, and their relationship.  And it is as a spy film and character study that it is at its best.  I wish they would have toned down some of the over-the-top action and spent even more time delving into the characters of Bond and M.  All of which just goes to show how different the Daniel Craig reboot era is from the previous films, when I sometimes felt like the only reason I kept watching was in hopes of seeing yet a bigger explosion.  That being said, I was glad I had taken the time to view all the previous films in the genre because it meant I could appreciate the full value of the many, many humorous callbacks in  Skyfall, which would have fallen completely flat had I watched Skyfall on its own.

And it was only after watching 23 entire films that I can declare the revelation of Moneypenny at the end of Skyfall as literally my favorite moment in nearly 50 hours of Bond film.  I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming, but I’m glad I didn’t because it allowed me to have a genuine reaction of delighted surprise.  I had managed to come across a spoiler about M’s death (which made watching the movie more suspenseful but my reaction to her death less anger-laden that it would have been otherwise) and went searching on IMDB to see when a new Q would appear in the final three films (searching in hopes of finding I would not be stuck with John Cleese for three more films).  I guess I saw Moneypenny as such a minor and uninteresting character in all the previous films that I did not even register the fact the while we were essentially meeting a new Bond and were introduced to a new Q (who is a total cutie.  I absolutely approve of him and hope he returns in future films) we had not seen Moneypenny for three entire films.  I was perfectly satisfied with no Moneypenny.  And the character they reveal as her in the end was so much cooler in her role in the rest of the movie that she didn’t equate with the image I already had of Moneypenny in my head.  I remain pleasantly surprised.  I like how the character’s role in the rest of the film helps us understand the tension between her and Bond so much better than in the previous films, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do with her in the future. 

Some final, random thoughts about the first three films starring Daniel Craig as Bond: 
  • It felt to me like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were actually written as one long movie that the producers ultimately decided to chop into two.  The second literally starts up where the first one let off, and it might help explain why Casino Royale was too long and Quantum of Solace surprisingly short.  I might have ended Casino Royale earlier and found a way to simplify the confusing, disjointed plotlines that defined the end of CS and all of QoS.  Doing so also might have helped to give some much needed depth to QoS, which really just felt like one extended chase sequence (there are literally three significant chase scenes in the first thirty minutes of a 106-minute film). 
  • I was so excitedly pleased with the complete lack of naked women in the title sequence for Casino Royale!  I only wish that re-imagining of what a Bond title sequence could look like had been adopted as a permanent feature of the Bond reboot.  That said, I appreciate that they still put the effort into creating a full and uniquely visual title sequence for each Bond film, even in this day and age when title sequences are basically nonexistent.
  • I also found that I liked the way the gun barrel shot was incorporated right into the action of the opening of the film with Casino Royale.  Waiting until the end of Quantum of Solace to show that shot kind of bothered me, but I accepted it by Skyfall.
  • Had I ever mentioned gambling in a previous post?  Bond seems to gamble in nearly every film, and I always would find myself wondering how his gambling was funded, especially if he was using it to cozy up to someone on a mission and get information.  I appreciated that Casino Royale directly addressed Bond’s talent in cards as well as openly acknowledging that, at least for this mission, he was directly funded by the British government.
  • I found Skyfall to be a fascinating look into the nearly impossible decisions that M is required to make as part of her job.
  • Javier Bardem played an amazing villain in Silva.  He was honestly intimidating and scary at moments, almost Hannibal-Lecter-like at times.
  • Daniel Craig can play emotionally detached, cold, and angry like nobody’s business.  He plays this version of Bond so genuinely, and he has completely created a character that at moments I find myself afraid of.  I like that his Bond is a complicated and ambiguous Bond -- that he can be charming and suave, even sweet and sensitive, when necessary, but it is not a character that the audience is automatically endeared to liking, as we were with previous Bonds.
  • And if I still find other Bonds (Brosnan, even Connery) to be more attractive, I think Craig plays the best Bond that is created for him.  I actually find it hard to compare his Bond to the previous versions because it really is so different, written with so much more depth that it’s almost an unfair comparison.

Well, that’s all folks.  Now I can watch a new Bond film whenever I want - and I probably will watch each new one as it comes out just so I can continue to say I’ve seen them all.   

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