on 28 January 2013
The three movies to thus far feature Daniel Craig as James Bond 007 are collected here as a DVD triple bill. And as many will already know, it's certainly a case of `two out of three isn't bad'...
2006's Casino Royale was the finest James Bond movie in years; in this film Craig gave us (and I know this is a cliché) arguably the most striking Bond since Sean Connery's early days, erasing the cheesy pong of Pierce Brosnan's tenure as 007 and investing the character with an emotional depth not seen since On Her Majesty's Secret Service back in 1969; and unlike the stiff George Lazenby, Craig is an actor with the skill to pull off his more dramatic scenes convincingly. Just about everything else about the movie hit the bullseye too; it certainly deserves a score of 8 out of 10, only losing a few minor points for the bland theme song, the opening credits sequence (which was a bit too `Casino Royale 1967' for my taste), the last-minute `excuse' for Vesper Lynd's treachery, and of course Judi Dench's continuing on in her role as the `headmistress' M; she may have a lot of support from mainstream critics and was clearly regarded as an asset by the producers, but here, her presence is an unnecessary holdover from the Brosnan movies, and the one jarringly anachronistic note in this `Year One' outing.
Following on directly from the final scene of Casino Royale, Craig and Bond returned in 2008's Quantum of Solace, a very unsatisfying movie that retains the style and feel of its forerunner but carries none of its emotional weight or resonance. The plot of this direct sequel is weak, contrived, and almost incomprehensible. The musical score is dire, the action scenes (whilst competent) lack logic, the villains are useless (a stereotypically sleazy, corrupt Latin American General, and Mathieu Amalric's sub-Blofeld `mastermind', who is so ineffectual it is impossible to believe he could be a big wheel in the organisation that Casino Royale's Le Chiffre was so afraid of), and the Bond girls are dull and uninteresting. Craig is clearly trying to show how the character of Bond is growing `harder' as he gets older, but instead comes across merely as a swaggering, pouting, humourless bully, whilst Dench is yet again given far too much to do (`I'm going to send you out on your own into hostile territory 007...but I'll still show up with a gang of agents in tow every ten minutes to stick my oar in'). With fudged revenge themes, pointless deaths of characters we are meant to care about (but don't), a silly climax, and a final scene that tries desperately to copy the chilly sang-froid of the ending to The Bourne Supremacy, and fails spectacularly, one's reaction to Quantum of Solace as the credits roll is `what was all that about?'.
Thankfully, 2012's Skyfall was a fine return to form. Clearly conceived as a genuine 50th Anniversary tribute to Bond's status as a pop culture icon, the film manages to homage just about every other movie in the series as well as delivering a hard-hitting thriller plot that updates (and arguably re-boots) the 007 formula. There is little to say about the film other than that it is lovingly crafted in every area, features a witty and emotionally resonant script, and features Craig's best movie performance thus far, not to mention having, in Adele's contribution, the very best Bond theme song since Carly Simon's `Nobody Does It Better' featured in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me. And if it received perhaps a little too much praise from critics (especially with regard to the contributions of Dench and of Javier Bardem as the villain), whilst the essentially derivative nature of its storyline was conveniently ignored (despite being considerably better than either film, the plot is essentially a mish-mash of elements from The Man with the Golden Gun and The World Is Not Enough), the only really distressing thing about it is that, like The Dark Knight Rises, it follows up two movies charting their iconic hero's `early days' with one that fast-forwards straight through to the `autumn' of his career; but unlike Christian Bale's Batman, there is little doubt that we haven't yet seen the last of Craig's James Bond...
As one of the only 12 people who was genuinely delighted at Daniel Craig's casting when it was announced , I must admit I was more than a little worried about Casino Royale. Not the kind of paranoia that those newcomers who'd never experience the changing of the guard the series goes through every decade or the staggeringly venomous hate-mongering of the more fanatical Brosnan fans who felt compelled to start libellous hate-sites, though. After all those months of arguing that he was the perfect choice for the role (especially after some of the more moronic suggestions), was I setting myself up for a fall if he turned in a disappointing performance? Similarly there was the film itself. While the producers were making all the right noises about going back to basics, they'd done exactly the same with Licence To Kill and chickened out to deliver a sub-Roger Moore effort with Wayne Newton as a comedy relief villain, inept ninjas, pointless gadgets, laughable violence and monster truck stunts. Too often in the past the franchise had been over-reliant on the goodwill generated by the earlier films, rehashing earlier vehicles to decreasing returns secure in the knowledge that the audience would turn up anyway. Take away the Bond brand, and too many post-OHMSS entries simply wouldn't have stood up to scrutiny in the marketplace on their own merits: Bond had become a tradition, a ritual like going home for the holidays that you knew was never going to be as good as it was when you were a kid but which you still went through out of a mixture of hope and obligation.
I needn't have worried. Not only is it the best Bond film in 37 years, it's as if the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan years never happened. After Brosnan's surprisingly lazy and slightly seedy turn in Die Another Day, Craig delivers the most physical Bond since Lazenby, but this time matched by the acting chops to make the most of the best script the series has had in decades - at once plot and character led - as the rookie blunt instrument bulldozes his way through his mission until emotional awakening and betrayal starts to finesse him into the Bond we knew from the Connery days. Brosnan never could have delivered this kind of performance, either physically or emotionally, and, truth be told, neither could Connery in his prime: Craig is the first one to convince you that he's not a movie star or an actor but that he really IS James Bond.
The updating of the plot from the Cold War era to a post 9/11 world works surprisingly well, with the first act managing to provide a convincing motive for the high stakes poker game centrepiece while also providing a couple of superb action scenes that don't become too absurd and serve the plot in a series where in the past the plot was too often an excuse for the action. The much-criticised change from baccarat to poker is a smart one too. Where Baccarat is purely a game of luck (as Fleming himself found out when he went bust in three hands trying out the novel's premise on a Nazi spy), poker actually involves both strategy and psychology, making for more satisfying drama and tension.
There is, sadly, one concession to gadgetry that veers into the absurd - c'mon, who keeps a defibrillator in their glove compartment? - and is an unwelcome reminder of the days when old Roge would get out of a scrape with his buzz saw wristwatch or his projectile dart cufflinks thanks to lazy writing, but elsewhere it settles for using existing technology (most of it manufactured by Sony for some reason that escapes me) rather than veering into total fantasy. And it's good to see a Bond who needs hospitalisation after the villain goes Quasimodo on his nuts with a bell rope. The real James Bond is indeed back.
As per the edition included in the 50th anniversary Blu-ray boxed set, the version of Casino Royale in this triple pack is a strange hybrid of the two-disc special edition and first single-disc release, containing most of the special edition's extras but losing Martin Campbell's picture-in-picture commentary, two featurettes (The Art of the Freerun, Catching a Plane - From Storyboard to Screen), the revised documentary Bond Girls Are Forever, storyboard sequence and filmmaker profile featurettes (Martin Campbell, Chris Corbauld, Phil Méheux, Gary Powell, Alexander Witt and David Arnold).
I'll admit that I went into Quantum of Solace more or less dreading a repeat of the Licence To Kill debacle. All the danger signs were there - a rushed script because of a writers' strike, threats of Bond going rogue again plus the problem that great Bond films are usually followed by naff ones. The short running time wasn't encouraging, nor the bigger budget and promise of more action.
Well, this isn't one of the great Bond films, and Casino Royale set the bar far too high for it to compete. But it's certainly not a disappointment if you go in aware of that, and more gratifyingly, the similarities to Licence To Kill are superficial. Where Casino Royale was like making love all night long, this is more of a gratifyingly frenzied *beep* of a film. The running time isn't a problem because, like From Russia With Love, this is a pared down machine with no fat to trim away, throwing out all the overused touchstones to get down to business. From a plot point of view there's maybe a little too much one corpse leading to the next plot point in the first third, but the film wisely ditches that approach early.
Dan Bradley's action scenes are thankfully not as ineptly over-edited and incoherent as in Paul Greengrass' films, but aren't as impressive as Gary Powell's work on Casino Royale. There are moments of familiarity - a motorbike sequence borrows from the unimpressively shot harbour scene in Jackie Chan's The Protector, but without the lethargic pacing, while an aeriel dogfight owes a lot to a famously rejected stunt originally intended for the opening of GoldenEye - and the opening car chase through heavy traffic could have benefited from not trying quite so hard. But within them there are moments of stylisation that few other Bonds have attempted and failed at but which are far more successful here, most notably an impressive opera sequence that could have done with a few more shots to clarify the odd mechanical detail (something other parts of the film could benefit from). It's also surprisingly vicious - for perhaps the first time in a Bond film, innocent bystanders are deliberately killed. That said, the rationale for the explosions at the end is more than a little dubious.
The film isn't as humorless as some have complained: there's a lot of dry humor where appropriate and a delightfully playful game of cat-and-mouse with Bond and M in a hotel, but none of the outright slapstick comedy that dragged the series down before. Nor is Forster's direction or the editing as awkward as some found it: there's a pleasingly epic scale to the film allied with a non-nonsense straight-down-to-business attitude that works well for this particular story.
The most curious complaint is that it's just action with no character development, when nothing could be further from the truth. While there is more action, the characterisation is integrated into both plot and action. Bond is once again on an emotional journey - forgiveness, believe it or not, is ultimately the quantum of solace of the title - though this time the heart and soul of the film is Giancarlo Giannini's Rene Mathis, the kind of man Bond might be capable of becoming and one he learns something about himself from. One of their scenes is easily one of the very finest moments in the entire history of the series.
Craig still owns the role impressively and Jeffrey Wright starts to come in to his own as Felix Leiter this time round. Mathieu Amalric is one of the better villains of the past twenty years. He won't be among the greats, but he convinces and the scheme is genuinely ingenious in its simplicity. Olga Kurylenko manages to shake off the ineptness of her former performances to be a more than adequate but not especially memorable female lead, though Gemma Arterton lets the side down badly in a part that has unwelcome elements of Serena Gordon in GoldenEye and Rowan Atkinson in Never Say Never Again. Thankfully it's a small role so her weak and stilted straight-out-of-stage-school acting can't do too much damage.
Intriguingly, the film exists in a more convincing world of global politics than we've seen before in a Bond film: SPECTRE would have loved to be around in an era when governments eagerly step into bed with crime syndicates if it suits their ends and where corporations are able to play governments and intelligence agencies against each other. Here Bond works for a British government that tortures suspects on foreign soil and blindly goes along with foreign interests and crime syndicates alike in its desperation to snatch the scraps from the superpowers' tables. Initially, Bond is just as ruthless and morally flawed as his masters, the bullish arrogance gradually being smoothed away by emotional experience as he learns the importance of forgiveness to find the quantum of solace of the title that he needs to go on.
Yes, there are weaknesses - M's office is overdesigned, a few scenes could have played better with more time, the Goldfinger reference is unnecessary, the song is crap and the gunbarrel sequence is a big and unnecessary mistake - but it's not the crushing disappointment some are claiming. It may not be a great Bond movie, but it most definitely is a Bond movie, and a damn good night out at the pictures. And one that left me seriously thinking that even if the series never recaptures the high of Casino Royale,we may just be entering a genuine second golden age of Bond movies.
The extras package isn't quite as bad as some make out, but it still seems like a stopgap until the inevitable special edition set comes out shortly before some future Bond film makes its bow. There's certainly nothing to get too excited about - the half-hour On Location featurette aired on TV at least three times last winter, the 43-minutes of brief crew interviews were on the net while the five short featurettes fee like electronic press kit packages. The terrible music video for the terrible title song and two trailers for the film are also included.
The Craig Bond films manage the surprising feat of being true to both the novels' and the movies' legacies, and at the heart of John Logan's script for Skyfall is a good idea (apparently a leftover from Peter Morgan's abandoned treatment that was put on hold when MGM/UA went into bankruptcy, delaying the film by two years): everything we associate with Bond and his past is reintroduced and taken from him or destroyed before the classic Bond is resurrected in a way that's true to both the novels and the films. Where Casino Royale went back to the very beginning, Skyfall uses a lot of both the darker plot of the novel The Man with the Golden Gun (a washed out Bond returns from the dead and is sent on a mission that will either redeem him or conveniently see him killed off) and the siege finale of Fleming's (rather than EON's) Spy Who Loved Me and reworks them for the present day.
In many ways the film is a journey into the past, starting out as an epic globe-trotting adventure before scaling down to Bond's childhood Scottish roots and finally bringing the series full circle with Moneypenny back in the same blue dress she wore in Dr No and M no longer in a hi-tech office but the old wood-panelled one with the same padded door and the same naval painting on the wall from the Bernard Lee days, rewinding the series to the Connery era. If hats were still in fashion, Craig would have made his entrance throwing his onto the hat stand. It's a deliciously understated scene that goes uncommented on - thankfully the film never feels the need to knowingly wink at the audience - that will have Bond fans of old feeling like a puppy dog with two tails. And the new faces as the old regulars (Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw) may be very different from their predecessors, but they fit very nicely with this new/old Bond.
Unfortunately, on the minor debit side Logan has always had a bit of a problem with his villains. He can do plot or milieu or character, but he can't really pull off any combination of the three with his bad guys, and while this is a bit of an improvement he does fall back on the tried and trusted. In Gladiator he offered a mad lisping Emperor with a chip on his shoulder betraying the people who put him in a position of trust to pursue a vendetta with a brother figure. In Star Trek: Nemesis he offered a petulant lisping mastermind with a chip on his shoulder betraying the people who put him in a position of trust to pursue a vendetta with a father figure. In Skyfall he offers us a devious lisping mastermind with a chip on his shoulder betraying the people who put him in a position of trust to pursue a vendetta with a mother figure. All he needs now is someone with a lisp pursuing a vendetta with a sister figure and he'll have the full set of immediate family adversaries.
On the plus side, this villain is intelligent and actually has a masterplan instead of just talking about one, even if it is one that at times suggests he's a bit of a fan of The Dark Knight, and he's played by a much better actor, though that is something of a double-edged sword. Despite being given a great build up - the slight physical trembling and almost-disguised weakening of the voice Severine gets even thinking about him is a wonderfully underplayed appetiser - he's a rather thin character, leaving Javier Bardem trying too hard to make a memorable impression with the kind of quirks that great actors who are persuaded to make more commercial fodder than they're at home in throw into the mix to keep themselves from getting bored (think Brando on his off days).
It's a bit of a letdown considering what Bardem is capable of, but for some reason every time an Oscar winning actor who can do menace gets a sniff of a Bond villain they dye their hair blonde and camp it up. Thankfully he doesn't go the full John Inman, but the film is strong enough not to need the theatricality or the absurdly bit of obvious CGI thrown in to his Hannibal Lector scene. While he doesn't ruin the film, I think the performance is why the film hasn't grabbed my affections the way Quantum did even though they improved the problem areas from that: I found Mathieu Almaric a far more intriguing villain because he wasn't playing the villain, he was playing the good guy (or at least ecologically aware businessman), and his scheme less reliant on an almost supernatural ability to predict the good guys' every move years in advance. And while I liked the exploration of M's ruthlessness, her departure didn't have the same impact as that of Mathis in Quantum.
While it's pleasing to have Stuart Baird, quite possibly the greatest editor of action scenes alive today, back in the editing suite after the often misjudged editing in Quantum it's a shame that composer David Arnold was replaced with Thomas Newman, who astonishingly became the first in the series' history to be nominated for best score despite a truly anonymous temp track-style score with no personality, themes or development (although it works much better on the film than as an album where it's derivative general shapelessness is much more exposed).
Curiously the Blu-ray exaggerates what were many of the niggles about Roger Deakins' lazily overvalued cinematography (you do get the impression that had the identical images been created by a cinematographer who wasn't a name it would have attracted little attention), with many scenes like the Board of Inquiry or London street scenes suffering from the lack of depth, slightly bleached look and waxy loss of detail that are among the most commonplace drawbacks when you don't shoot on film. It's strange that Deakins got a free pass on this one when the move from film to digital has had such inconsistent results both in terms of quality and creativity: it's a mixture of a few strikingly good looking scenes (the Chris Doyle/Blade Runnerish fight against a neon background) and a lot of very drab or visually clichéd ones (seriously, that relentlessly dreary rainy London look has been done to death for years by television) while there are some real problems with focus and colour balance in the opening to the Macau casino scene and parts of the siege suffer badly from digital's ongoing inability to handle shadows and low light levels very well. It's a long way from his best work, and to claim, as some have done, that it's the best looking Bond film is doing a great disservice to the work of Freddie Young and Ted Moore on earlier, much better looking films. It doesn't help that there's some very noticeable edge enhancement in places - the doorframe to M's office and his picture frames look like a straining rope or teeming with termites from one frame to the next.
Yet while its flaws keep it from reaching the heights of Casino Royale, there's so much to enjoy and so much it gets right and strikes such a good balance between exciting action scenes and a real look at what makes Bond Bond that it's still a worthy addition to the franchise - not top tier, but certainly no middling effort either.
The extras package looks substantial - two audio commentaries, some 15 featurettes and trailer - but at times there's more puff than substance.
on 1 January 2013
Daniel Craig has one facial expression, many guns and women and a reasonably popular stance as James Bond. He is very much the closest to the Ian Flemming character of the books, a cold, heartless and efficient killer with women problems, gambling addiction and other flaws. He's not so much the dashing bravado with the punchlines but he does resonate well in the context of his character's work. The three Bond movies he's been in (2005-2012) vary in quality, one is great, one is good and one is awful / shaky. Not in that order mind you.
Casino Royale is a very good start and the film which rejuvenated Bond in the 21st century. It's a glamorous, gritty story with not much in terms of gadgets, plenty of women and fights, as well as Bond being rammed in the nuts several times with a chain. It's the good one, stylistic, good use of locations, relatively interesting characters and it builds up nicely to a suitable climax. The film takes a kind of origin stance in that James is new to the game, a brutal loose cannon just elevated to 00' status. The movie is essentially good and showed promise for both Craig and the Bond movies he would follow.
Then there's Quantum of Solace. Taking perhaps too many lessons in camera work from the Bourne movies this s basically a low stakes, incoherent mess of a movie where the camera shakes a lot, the conflict is low key and there's not a single ounce of charm. Now on one hand this works as it follows immediately from the tragedy of Casino Royale and the gritty, angry nature of Bond is quite an effective drama source. But it's not well done, not well filmed and the movie is bland. It lacks charm, visual interest, camera steadiness or interest. Water control is what we're fighting over when vengeance is off the table and being honest, it's not quite James Bond level of stakes. So overall, Bond looked quite sunk with this one, a bad, bland movie.
The best of the three however is Skyfall. Skyfall is engaging on all levels, its got charm, its exotic, it has good engaging characters, a great villain with great lines, an engaging and highly dramatic conflict, a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, hints at the past of our elusive protagonist and the action is some of Bond's best. Combining engaging performances from all (OK Craig's one facial expression and lack of interest is something of a problem here but it somehow balances against everything else as our anti-hero makes this journey). There's actual spying going on here, looks great, script is solid and overall, for me, this is the best Bond film, engaging and entertaining with the safety barriers broken in minutes and the stakes higher than ever on a personal level.