Monday, January 1, 2007

James Bond Will Return

GOLDENEYE (1995)
CASINO ROYALE (2006)

Famke Janssen is Xenia Onatopp in GOLDENEYE. Larger than life and played with enormous zeal, the scenes between her and Bond feature the type of double entrendres that were so much part of the Connery era.

JAMES Bond was born within the pages of Casino Royale (1953), and not even its author, Ian Fleming, could have predicted that this modestly promoted thriller would be the catalyst for an international literary and cinematic phenomenon. Fleming had many traits in common with the hero he created – not least a love of action, exotic travel and beautiful women – and in post-war Britain, Bond gave the public much-needed escapism as the Empire continued to shrink. At least in the pages of novels time stood still, and a lone Englishman could still be counted on to save the world. In the 1990s, with the Soviet Union now a democratic state, and the Cold War officially over, alterations were needed at the box office for this very mid-century secret agent. Yet Bond is ageless and indefatigable; the world needs a hero just as much now as it did in 1953. Subsequently, Pierce Brosnan was installed as the new 007 for GOLDENEYE, a fine re-introduction and a massive financial success. Brosnan’s Bond is a return to the roguishly charming days of Sean Connery; impeccably cool (he merely flicks his head as bullets ricochet around him), defiantly sexist and as destructive as ever, it is a dynamic action entry in its own right. It's clear that this revamp, which features many new hands both behind and in front of the camera, including director Martin Campbell, is intent on giving the character an invigorating transfusion. Everything, including the wild conceptualisation of the action sequences (the tank chase is fittingly breathless), the impudence, the sexual pugnaciousness and the willingness to have a little fun, is pushed a bit further.

Although GOLDENEYE strives to keep up with the modern blockbuster, it also plays to subtler undercurrents. The film tells the story of a powerful satellite system that falls into the hands of a former ally-turned-enemy. The most unusual touch is the motivation for 006 (Sean Bean)’s treachery: treatment of Cossacks returned to Stalin after WWII, including his parents, an episode Bond freely admits was not "Britain’s finest hour." Such a reference to possible homegrown fallibility was previously unheard of in the series, as is reference to 007’s own parents dying in a climbing accident – this is taken from the novels, and the first time it’s been acknowledged on screen. Another welcome aberration is that women give him a hard time, and nearly all the exchanges are characterised by feisty sparring. GOLDENEYE neutralises any politically-incorrect feminist fallout - the female M (Judi Dench) condemning Bond in her famous "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" speech, and Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) knowingly parries sexual innuendo on an equal standing. And the film presents the franchise with an outstanding female foe, Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen). Deliciously sadistic, Xenia assumes an almost unique position in the pantheon as a potential Bond girl gone bad. Onatopp is a killing machine who crushes her lovers like a praying mantis, and orgasms every time she pulls a hot machine gun trigger. A wonderful pulp creation, one scene has her stepping from an armoured train in a black-leather wasp-waisted outfit brandishing a cigar and bad attitude. She’s the sort of adversary that takes a sexist, misogynist dinosaur to handle.

Daniel Craig is the most talented actor to be assigned the prestigious role of James Bond, and is a revelation in CASINO ROYALE. Craig’s Bond seems happiest, perversely enough, in the infamous torture scene, where vampiric villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) ties him naked to a chair and whips his testicles.

Brosnan’s final Bond DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002) – following TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997) and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999) - could have also been the last 007 movie. This quartet set financial high-water marks for the series that may not be matched again, but Pierce’s curtain call was packaged like a cynical, weary best-of concert, offering copious nods to the past without offering anything new. With CASINO ROYALE, also directed by Campbell, the casting of Daniel Craig comes closer to the author's original conception than anyone since early Connery. The film asks us to forget that there has ever been another Bond movie, while at the same time expecting the viewer to know its mythology. It's comparatively low-tech, with the intense fights mostly conducted up close and personal, and the killings accomplished by hand or gun. Bond is now more of a lone wolf, a deadpan executioner with a penchant for letting his guard down too quickly. "I have no armour left" he tells love interest Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), with whom he actually falls in love rather than merely into bed. And this Bond has little interest in living up to the legend: when a bartender asks him if he'd like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond shoots back, "Do I look like I care?" In that instant, it's as if the part had never been played by anyone else.