Sunday, November 18, 2012

Casino Royale (2006)

This entry resets the Ian Fleming franchise and shows us how a legend was created. Although, Daniel Craig is not especially young, his James Bond is so green that when asked whether he wants his vodka Martini shaken or stirred, he doesn't see why it even makes a difference.

Before the opening credits, he's not a double 0 agent yet, because he hasn't gotten enough kills under his belt. He only has one, but that's about to change. When his next victim assures him that the second murder is easier, Bond readily agrees, before shooting him.

We next see him on the run after terrorists. But he blows up a gang of henchmen when he was supposed to bring and informant back alive. The government needed someone to lead the to the bigger fish and Bond has ruined that plan and not discreetly. They get unwanted publicity because he is said to have shot an unarmed prisoner. M is not pleased. She roundly scolcs him and concludes she gave him his "licence to kill" prematurely. This film sets up a tie between M and Bond. One wouldn't exactly say her feelings towards him are maternal, but she's a proud governess, at the very least.

Though she criticizes him for it, she counts on his rashness to achieve things MI6 needs done, though she can't formally approve them. She can predict Bond's unauthorized actions by just depending on, she tells him, "you being you." So, even when he breaks into her home and steals her security password to gain entry to classified information, both of them know she's not exactly surprised or reproachful. The relationship built here will, I assume, serve us all well as the foundation of Skyfall.

Though M takes James off the terrorist case, he persists and stops a plane from being blown up by using his charms to extract information from the bomber's wife. She ends up dead and when M notes that James has no remorse he says, of course not. The very fact that has to be mentioned tells us, if not M, that his response is a lie.

MI6 has discovered that someone aligned with the terrorists, villain Le Chiffre, shorted airlines on the stock market, just like terrorists did before September 11, 2001. He counted big on airline stock going down due to the terrorist crash that Bond averted. Since the disaster never occurred, Le Chiffre lost over $100 million and his backers are coming after him for repayment or revenge. Le Chiffre is participating in a high stakes poker gain to win back the money he owes. M says he can't win, because the money will be used to fund terrorism. If Bond, the best poker player in the agency, enters the game and wins instead, then Le Chiffre's life will be threatened and he will come to the MI6 for protection, giving them everything he knows in exchange for security.

For whatever reason, MI6 can't fund his poker pot, and the money is coming from an outside company. Vesper Lynd is the beautiful representative who approves the cash transfer. She promises Bond only $10 million now, but has the discretion to give him $5 million more, if, in her estimation, he can actually win the game. Vesper and Bond are both good at profiling and size each other up immediately. He thinks she overcompensates, hardens herself, to try to fit in in a man’s world, but she doesn’t understand that her shell actually alienates her male colleagues. He would guess she was an only child, but since she didn’t respond when he teased about her parents giving her the name Vesper, he concludes that she’s an orphan instead. She doesn’t confirm his assessment, but offers one of her own.

Since he quickly assumed she was an orphan, that’s probably what he is. He went to a good school, maybe Oxford, but based on the disdain with which he wears his clothes, he wasn’t born into money. So, he must have gotten into school on someone else’s dime. He is beholden to a benefactor. He wasn’t rich like his classmates and they never let him forget it. Bond declares that he has been skewered, just like the lamb he’s just eaten. When Vesper turns to leave, he smiles, having been impressed by her deductions.

Since she has to be around to watch the poker game, in order to determine if he is going to be lent the additional funds, Bond says that they should play a couple. He suggests that she use an entendre'd nom de plume like Stephanie Broadchest. She flatly refuses. They will share a hotel room and pretend to be in love. Soon after, Bond figures that if Le Chiffre’s contacts are really any good, he knows that Bond is getting the money from Vesper’s firm anyway, so they might as well play themselves, rather than aliases. If Le Chiffre knows that Bond is with MI6, but still wants to play him, he must really need the cash.

Rene Mathis is a local liaison working with MI6 and pulling the strings necessary to get Bond into the poker game in the first place.

As the charade begins, Bond brings Vesper an evening gown and tells her to walk into the casino and kiss him in it. All the other players will be so distracted by her presence that they won’t be able to concentrate on their hands (I really don’t think that high stakes poker players are that susceptible to beauty, while a game is in progress). Vesper has beat him to the punch and has already picked out a tuxedo for him to wear, perfectly tailored to fit (because she sized him up within seconds of meeting him) and chic, showing everyone that he belongs in that poker game, as opposed to the rags that he had picked out himself. So we see that Vesper’s early influence him shaped the style leader that Bond was later to become.

After the games begin, Bond loses big. Vesper complains that he will have spent the entire $10 million that she staked him by midnight at this rate. He disagrees. He learned something valuable. Le Chiffre has a tell. His left eye twitches when he is bluffing and he puts up a hand to cover it. Mathis and Vesper are intrigued by this observation.

During a break in cards, Le Chiffre retreats to his hotel room and is waylaid by violent thugs sent by his creditors. When they prepare to cut off his girlfriend’s arm, Le Chiffre doesn’t even protest. However, anxious to preserve his own life, Le Chiffre promises he will have their money by the next day. Bond is listening in on the confrontation and is caught by the thugs as they exit Le Chiffre’s room. He and Vesper fight them in a stairwell. She grabs one of the men’s gun but is paralyzed by fear. She can’t use it. Bond soaked in their blood, kills with his bare hands, snapping one of the thug’s neck and throwing the other over the stairwell. He tells Vesper to have Mathis clear away the bodies. He has to get back to the poker table. When she stalls, he speaks sharply, breaking through her shock and ordering her to hurry.

Back in his hotel room, we see that Bond is stunned himself. He takes time to collect, before changing his bloody shirt, but rather than jumping in for a quick shower, he just uses a basin to wash his face and chest. The basin is tinged with the blood, which he splashes onto his face. Rather than making him clean, it seems to baptize him in the lives he’s just taken, christened by the sin. When Vesper asks if what he’s just done doesn’t bother him, he brushes off the question, saying he wouldn’t be much of an agent if it did!

When the poker hand finishes for the night, he returns to the hotel room. The shower is running, but he sees a broken glass on the counter. Thinking Vesper may have been attacked, he treads carefully into the bathroom. She is fully clothed in her evening gown, sitting on the shower floor, letting the water flow over her, while she trembles. Still dressed himself, Bond gets into the shower. She stammers that she felt she had blood on her hands and it won’t come off. Bond says to let him help. He takes her fingers and puts them into his mouth, sucking them clean: tender and intimate, but ick! I don’t see how that makes her hands clean, but since he committed the murders, not her, I guess it is a symbolic way to remove the guilt from her hands and transfer it back to him. Is that better, he asks. She nods numbly. Is she cold, another silent yes. He pulls her close, as the water trickles over them.

The next day, she’s asleep. In her own room, as he comes out of his. The comfort he gave her last night was not sexual.

Back at the poker table, Bond is losing badly. Based on Le Chiffre’s hand movements, he thought he was bluffing, but Le Chiffre had the cards. Did Bond read the tell wrong or did Le Chiffre fool him into thinking there was one? Le Chiffre smirks. Bond needs another $5 million to stay in the game. Vesper refuses to give it to him. She says he has lost this much because he is reckless. It’s ego that makes him want to win, not the need to stop terrorism. He tells her to look in his eyes and know he can win. She does look, but must not see a victor, because her answer is still “no.” This seems like a huge lapse of trust on her part to me. But maybe Bond sees it as a sign of her independence and it gives him faith that her judgment can’t be swayed by emotion. Hard to say.

If MI6 is not going to get Le Chiffre as an informant, Bond refuses to let him live. He heads off with a knife he swipes from a restaurant table (are steak knives really that sharp and lethal?) to nab the man, but is stopped by a fellow poker player. Turns out it’s a CIA agent. He’ll stake Bond in the poker game if MI6 lets the United States bring Le Chiffre in. Bond agrees.

He wins the poker game and later celebrates with Vesper. I would have said, “I told you so,” and given her the cold shoulder, but he seems smitten. He notices the love knot she wears as a necklace. What does it mean? She says that she just thought it was something pretty. “No she didn’t.” He knows that someone gave it to her. She leaves the table when she gets a text from Mathis. It’s a second after she departs that a light bulb goes off in Bond’s head. Mathis! That must have been how Le Chiffre knew that Bond had recognized his tell and used it against Bond. Mathis must be a double agent. Bond runs off after Vesper, but she’s already been caught. Bond gives chase and when his car rolls, Le Chiffre grabs both of them. His men drag Vesper into a closed room and her screams cause Bond agony.

Meanwhile, Le Chiffre strips Bond naked, his testicles and penis hanging from the open bottom of a chair. Le Chiffre doesn’t know why people even bother with other forms of torture when this is all they need. He puts a heavy stone boulder on a rope and swings it hard into Bond’s genitals. He wants the password for the Casino Royale account where Bond’s poker winnings are stored. Bond screams in pain, but won’t give it to Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre keeps pounding Bond’s crotch and says that there won’t be much of his manhood left to heal, assuming he does heal. Bond responses by telling him he has jock itch. Le Chiffre hits him again and Bond laughs at having made Le Chiffre “scratch” Bond’s testicles, before dying. Le Chiffre says that he won’t die because even if he doesn’t get the money back and kills Bond and Vesper, the British government will still give him shelter from his would-be assassin, because they need his information so badly. He prepares to test this theory and kill Bond (while Vesper screams in the other room) when the thugs walk in and take Le Chiffre out, then leave.

Bond wakes up in a hospital. We don’t know how badly he is injured. But he tells Vesper that whatever he has left is hers and she declares he is the best person she’s ever known. I’m not sure why she’s so enamored of him. He didn’t give the bad guy’s his password, but he not only risked his own life in doing so, he consigned her to death too. But I suppose she thinks this is honorable, because it was done for the greater good. He didn’t let his $100 million in poker winnings fund terrorism, no matter what the personal costs.

At the hospital, Mathis wonders why Le Chiffre’s killers let Bond and Vesper go free. It was almost as if . . . before he can finish his sentence, Bond has MI6 agents take Mathis, the traitor away.

He and Vesper prepare to live happily ever after. He says that he will quit his job with MI6 and emails off a resignation to M. He says that Vesper was right. If he kept killing, he would lose his humanity. There wouldn’t be any soul left to salvage. So, he’ll let Vesper be their breadwinner. He notices that she has stopped wearing her love knot necklace. She says yes, she has learned that sometimes you can forget the past. They prepare to travel for a month and, based on their bed romping, it looks like Bond has healed completely from his torture wounds. Vesper, still employed, gets a phone call and has to take care of business but she’ll meet with Bond in 30 minutes.

She leaves and M calls. She’ll talk about Bond’s resignation later. Right now, she wants to know where the $100 million he won from Casino Royale is. Bond, not letting his suspicions show, tells M he’ll check it out. He thought that the money had already been transferred to the MI6. After all, he gave the agent his password. Vesper was there. She put in the code herself and was touched that it turned out to have been V-E-S-P-E-R. Bond calls the bank and finds the money had been deposited into an account for him, from which a withdrawal was just being made. Vesper has left her cell phone behind. Bond looks at it and learns that Vesper had a scheduled assignation in 30 minutes. Bond runs to the bank and sees Vesper departing with the cash. She hands it over to armed men. When Bond intercepts the exchange, one of the men grabs Vesper and threatens to kill her. Bond says he should be the one to do the honors.

He shoots at them and they run into a dilapidated building. When he shoots it up, it begins to flood and collapse. Vesper is trapped in a gated elevator. When Bond, having just voiced an intention to kill her, tries to free her instead, she takes the key out of the gate, choosing to stay locked in. She moves to the back of the elevator, so that Bond cannot rescue her. The cables break and the elevator falls into the ground, crashing into the water underneath. Bond swims down to Vesper, desperate to pry open the elevator cage. She won’t help. She tells him she’s sorry and kisses his hand. It harks back to the two of them on the shower floor together, submerged in water. Fingers to mouth. Her trying to wash herself clean of guilt. She’s doing it again now, letting herself be flung to the back of the elevator again, as far from him and from safety as possible. She gulps in the water, letting it drown her, while crying for him to leave. She loses consciousness. He finally gets in and pulls her to the surface. He tries CPR repeatedly, but she’s gone.

Later M explains on the phone. It turns out Vesper had a boyfriend. Le Chiffre’s creditors kidnapped and threatened to kill him unless Vesper gave him the money. But she must have only agreed to do it in exchange for Bond’s life, that’s why they didn’t murder him when they came to take out Le Chiffre. She must have known that they would kill her as soon as they got the money, but she was willing to take the risk. M says that since Vesper was the double crosser, Mathis must be clean. Bond says not necessarily, maybe they were both dirty (this seems like an unfounded and unnecessary conclusion. If Vesper is the one who told Le Chiffre about the tell, then what evidence is there that Mathis did anything wrong?) M says that she wants him back to work, but he can take time to get over Vesper. Who needs time, Bond says. He’s already over it. He’ll be back to work immediately.

The attitude he’s trying to don reminds me of Cary Grant in Notorious. As Devlin, Grant wanted to denounce Ingrid Bergman completely. If she was willing to compromise herself (her body) to apprehend the Nazis, that was the ultimate betrayal for him. He wanted nothing to do with Alicia and denied the love she espoused and he reciprocated, locking her out. Vesper accused Bond of locking her out as well, walling away his emotions, when he was recovering at the hospital, but he proved to her he had not. He again proved that his heart was still open when he fought to free her from the elevator, against her will. Now, that she’s dead, the impenetrable wall returns. It's rebuilding even as he speaks to M, but there’s just one more thing .. .

Bond still has Vesper’s cell phone. He knows that she left it behind on purpose. She knew he would look at it. M agrees, “she knew you would be you.” So, when the phone rings now, it’s a message from the grave, a text telling him that Vesper was transferring the money to a “Mr. White.”

We see Mr. White strolling his vast estate. The phone rings and White answers it. Somewhere a shot rings out and hits White in the leg. He falls, crippled and struggles to reach safety, bleeding across concrete over to his porch, where he tries to pull himself up with weak fingers. In agony, he shouts into the phone, “Who is this?!” Bond steps onto the porch and answers as he points a gun at White’s head: “Bond. James Bond.”

End credits. In Daniel Craig a new star is born. Excellent series reboot, especially for me, whose wits are quickly dulled by action sequences. The dramatic and human approach Martin Campbell and the new writers bring to their chapter in the Bond series is most welcome. The intrigue continues but it lies more in Bond's vulnerability than in Q's gadgets. That's fine by me.

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