I could be sneaky and let you get halfway through the review before revealing this, but let’s get it out of the way first thing instead: I’ve never seen another James Bond movie all the way through paying attention. I was dragged to Tomorrow Never Dies ten years ago, but had no investment in it and just vaguely recall a large “stealth boat” and a shootout on it. Or something. The same people drug me into numerous Goldeneye gameplay sessions, and I once tried to watch Never Say Never Again and got very bored and stopped. So, if this shocks and outrages you…most likely you should stop reading this now. If this surprises you, well, read on for a different viewpoint as I imagine your experience must be different. And for those of you who have not seen even this one–read on for an opinion from a similar position.
James Bond (Daniel Craig, though I think almost no one doesn’t know that’s the case for this film) is an agent for MI6, the British Intelligence agency also known as SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) who shows up in the office of corrupt section chief Dryden, who sneers, knowing Bond cannot have the “double-0” status required for assassination until he has two kills. A quick flashback for the viewer and a sudden realization (though subtly played by Malcolm Sinclair) by Dryden establishes the death of his assistant Fisher (Daud Shah) as the first and the obvious one upcoming as the second. Thus, Bond’s 00 status (and so codename 007) are established, and he then takes a mission pursuing a bomb-maker named Mollaka (Sébastein Foucan) in Madagascar. When the agent assisting Bond makes their presence too obvious, Mollaka bolts and Bond chases him down (mostly using the sport/activity/thing called parkour, a sort of stepchild of which is free running, which Foucan founded) to an embassy, where a lose-lose situation leads him to shooting far more people than is necessary. He does gain Mollaka’s cellphone and finds an SMS from Alex Dmitrios (Simon Abkarian), but M (Dame Judi Dench) is highly critical of Bond’s lethal methodology–or at least its visibility on camera. Still, Bond’s lead from the phone takes them to Dmitrios, who enjoys poker a bit too much for his own good. Bond takes advantage of this, winning his Aston Martin and seducing his wife (he claims his type is “married”). Dmitrios, though, is an associate of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who orchestrates terrorist attacks to vary the value of stocks. When he attempts to take out the prototype Skyfleet plane to render their stock worthless, Bond catches on and defuses the situation. From here, Bond is set up with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) from the treasury as “the money” and René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, who seems to have a habit of playing law enforcement officials) as contact and ally in Montenegro, where Le Chiffre is holding a poker game with very high stakes. Soon double crosses, the appearance of a CIA agent with similar aims (Felix Leiter, played by Jeffrey Wright), a poisoning, and a surprise declaration of love and subsequent resignation all follow.
So, I guess the thing everyone’s wondering is–did I like it? Yes, actually. I did. Quite a bit, in fact. I felt like this Bond was an actual secret agent–slicked by presence in film, but not to that cartoon strip level. When this Bond kills someone, you are very aware that it was a death, and not that sort of, “Yeah, he got a bad guy!” feeling older films have (and I get the impression the old Bond films did, though I don’t know). It’s tougher, it’s more violent and Bond himself gets scratches and bruises. Craig’s body is muscled but not heavily toned, showing a greater emphasis on the utility of exercise than the asthetics. His pride and arrogance is a sharp twinkle in his eyes, not the easy, smiling charm of a Sean Connery. It’s not, admittedly, “suave,” but it’s effective all the same, and perhaps a more believable draw. I find these things, at least in this context, very engaging. The plot rockets along from lead to lead as Bond follows them, visibly using resources and mental processing to track them, always aware of what’s going on to a reasonable degree–never a feeling that he should have known better, unless it’s the kind of feeling we all get in retrospect.
Martin Campbell put together a very good film here, one that I think many have noted is a far cry from old Bonds, but many who actually have seen the others called the best, or one of the best. I certainly can’t make any accurate statements to this effect, but I was more interested in a character that doesn’t often wander around in suits and tuxedos with slicked back hair, and in one who has a clear history of SAS experience and the like, one I can accept has had the kind of training and experience that would make him good as a secret agent. I’m by no means claiming I have the “right” stance on this (certainly, the earlier films didn’t aim to portray this kind of character and fail, they tried to portray a different kind of character), but rather that this is the kinda that’s interesting to me. I’m often a little saddened or annoyed by the glossing of modern film, but this one managed a nice balance of its grit with the cleanness of it. The relationship between Vesper and Bond is acceptable, though it plays on that endless trope of immediate conflict that turns into romance, because there’s chemistry between them and because you can see where the mutual respect comes from between them. Le Chiffre is a solid villain as he is arrogant and self-interested, but also lethal enough to back up his threats and his reputation.
I don’t know whether my divergence will remain with the films upcoming (though I’ve already seen Quantum of Solace and quite liked it, and will see it again soon then actually review it, gasp, despite it still being a new release), but I think I’ll have even greater difficulty watching the older films now–I never could see Connery as a slick secret agent for some reason, or at least never found it interesting, and never really saw Moore, Brosnan, Lazenby or Dalton as interesting either. It’s sort of the stereotype that sets me away from action films rather than pulling me into them–though I actually have no immediate aversion to them. I’m just more interested in that steely glare mixed with a stylish taste and walled off emotions than the cartoonish omni-suited gadget-man. It’s, in my mind, sort of the difference between the sort of “loose” feeling of movies like Dirty Harry (as exemplified in my mind by the blood on Scorpio), that sort of feel of trying new things and not always having enough control over them, but at the same time throwing off boundaries left and right (hollow volcanoes? really?) and the contrasting feel of more modern action films like Collateral, a feeling I tend to be more interested in, though I usually find the former entertaining anyway.
Oh, and an excellent title sequence does not let down a great history of them (I do know that much!), and the theme was inspiringly, heart-poundingly brilliant, despite only appearing at the end, and when he said his name, finally, in that immortal line, Craig made it more Bond’s words than a ubiquitous catchphrase, quite an achievement, in my mind, when dealing with a line that ingrained in the public conscious. I like Craig’s Bond, and, from my admittedly strange viewpoint, I feel that it’s the best Bond, but more in the sense of treating the character in a realistic way than in a comparative one. It engages me and makes me want to see more–which clearly the other films never did for me.