Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Double Shot of Double Oh Seven.

I've finally watched the two most recent James Bond films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

As many Bond films as I've seen (though I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan) I couldn't help but enter into viewing these with certain expectations. Expectations to be met by these being Bond films-- the traditions I guess-- and expectations about what this 'reboot' would contain considering the modern penchant for turning series' grim and gritty. Casting Daniel Craig as the new Bond only cemented my prognostication since Craig is NOT the go-to guy for a debonaire, classically handsome, gentleman-spy type. And leave it to trailers to even further establish these expectations. I had been expecting basically the English equivalent to the Bourne films that starred Matt Damon.

And none of that was too far off, now that I've seen them.

Now don't get me wrong. I like the Bourne films just fine. The first one was understandably influential in how the suspense/spy genre was going to be depicted from that point on. Almost revolutionary. The Bond films are not the only ones in the genre to wear the Bourne influence.

The Daniel Craig version's movies basically wind the clock back all the way to Bond's early adventures after just getting his double-oh license, the license to kill. The films have separate characters but essentially describe one large arc and I found the first film a lot stronger as a companion piece to the second. I actually felt the presence of the character of Vesper (Bond's girlfriend) to be quite strong in the second film despite Vesper not actually appearing there.

Negatives out of the way first: It was COMPLETELY what I expected. In addition to that, the big dramatic moment at the end was boldly telegraphed and was in fact a virtual blueprint for how love interests in spy films-- and Bond in particular-- are handled. The only thing that suprised me in the film was that they DID go to the cliched 'betrayal/she had to' plot device. I also found the editing and some of the dialogue left me confused. This is not a huge problem watching the films on DVD, but I had a few too many WTF moments that required a rewind to see what I missed. I'm thinking in a theatrical screening this would be problematic. And this is coming from a guy who watches all kinds of movies with weird accents and dialogue and is a veteran of Hong Kong's most spastic scene cutting practices. On a second viewing I'm sure it would all fall into place, but these films are pretty fast paced and even I found my focused attention missed some stuff. Probably the only plot detail I found totally unconvincing in a 'that's Hollywood' kind of way, was Bond's treatment and recovery from being poisoned in the first film.

Positives: Bond probably need a reboot. While I find it becoming tiresome that almost all 're-imagings' (and film adaptations in general) feel the need to go all grim and gritty, I think in Bond's case it was probably necessary. The series' was absolutely becoming formulaic. And Daniel Craig DOES do a passable job in the various elegant sections when necessary. That shit just doesn't last very long. It is only five minutes work to be playing cards or sipping Dom before he has to bury an elbow in some cronie's eye socket. And that's another positive. More even than the Bourne movies these two films have a hyperkinetic pace. Most movies with that pace really push the believability envelope even for their fantastic premises (Indiana in a fridge, anyone?). Bond only really did it (for me) with the poisoning scene mentioned above. While I want to complain about the fact that Bond has almost no 'regular' adventures so soon after getting his license to kill-- the movies have an intense sort of plot most series wouldn't get to for a few episodes-- it is still true that Bond as an idea really needs no introductions or setups. It struck me as odd that he is already at odds with M and having a serious love interest/betrayal plot in what amounts to his first double-oh adventure, but after viewing them both, I think it was probably the way to go. The movies cram a lot into the running times, but still manage to have some long almost Jackie-chan style chase setpieces. And I liked how Craig's Bond is more physical/visceral but no attempt was made to make him some kind of kung-fu acrobat fighter guy. The films show him calculate the quickest way to cut off his more nimble quarry, and when he gets to them, he just plows through them Krav Maga style with lots of locks, disarms, and short sharp blows to the vitals. Bond has always been on the ruthless side, but Craig's is pretty realistically cold. I was actually moved when he himself finally finds reasons to be emotional himself. This owes a lot to Craig's performance. I don't think any of it was much of a stretch, but he was nuanced in a way that former Bond actors have not been.

Would I recommend them? Yes. If you are a hardcore Bond fan it may be necessary to put some of your fanboy expectations on the back burner and be open-minded. I am not so married to a particular concept of Bond that this was difficult for me, but others might have some work there. The films are a pretty good example of really fast-pacing that is not exhausting in the same way as the Indiana Jones movies or anything starring Vin Diesel or Brendan Frasier.

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