murder for hire

Casino Royale is a fantastic return-to-roots for James Bond, though it’s also frustrating and, ultimately, terribly conventional.

Sitting in the theater before the film started, I heard a young woman complaining loudly about her bad day at work. Just before the curtains withdrew and the previews started, she said, “Someone’s gonna die tonight…. I heard he takes a knife and basically guts someone in this…. That’s… yeah….”

I don’t think she was disappointed by the film’s violent opening, in which Bond, pre-“double oh,” kills one man after a brutal, face-smashing fight in a men’s room and then cold shoots another midsentence. Apparently, “two kills” is a kind of threshold for becoming a double oh, which makes them a lot less like intelligence agents and a lot more like assassins than Bond had previously seemed. (Also, isn’t there something weird about his earning the “licence to kill” by killing people? As if the secret service says, “Oh, well, since you’re killing them anyway….” But never mind.)

As usual, the credits sequence is the most visually exciting part of the film, but it may be the first such sequence since 1962’s Dr. No not to feature nude or semi-nude women writhing in silhouette. (And, indeed, even Dr. No features litho’ed female samba dancers, albeit disappointingly clothed.) The Bond credit sequences have always been a neat summary of what people like in the films — the seamless, almost pornographic mix of violent spycraft and guilt-free sexual encounters. But in this clever, boldly graphical piece, the credits fly by over cartoon acts of violence, almost all of which are perpetrated using card suit symbols, or pieces of them. The sexual element has been completely removed, which at first suggests an interesting new direction for the series — a chaster, more focused Bond, albeit one who may be a bit of a letdown to ten-year-olds for whom seeing an almost-naked woman is far more exciting than watching for obscure British brands of car and gun. (Allowing that such ten-year-olds still exist, some twenty-odd years after I saw my first Bond film.)

Following the opening credits is maybe the most spectacular stunt sequence ever in a James Bond film, an incredibly dynamic chase in which the wonderfully athletic Daniel Craig (Bond) attempts to keep up with freerunning champion Sebastiens Foucans. It’s not really a sensible part of the plot — why is a burn-scarred bomb-maker in Madagascar also a world-class leaper and hopper? — but it’s thrilling, a pure physical burn, dazzling in the manner of the late-Eighties Jackie Chan. It establishes Bond as a lithe, deadly, but undisciplined agent who thinks with his gun; he’s a little terrifying, in a way that Connery was only occasionally and the other Bonds not at all.

Like all Bond films, this one is interminable, 145 minutes of excessive plotting, so it takes a lot of time to come down from this peak. There’s a pretty exciting chase on a gasoline truck, and Bond sleeps with a woman, but she dies. Her entrance hardly even registers (we are a long way from Ursula Andress’s iconic swagger out of the sea), and her brief encounter with Bond seems perfunctory. He seems to have only a marginal, perhaps obligatory, interest in women until he meets Vesper Lynd. She flings herself down in his train car with the announcement, “I’m the money.” He replies, “Every penny,” which led me for a good ten or fifteen minutes down the fool’s path of hoping for a backstory to Miss Moneypenny — perhaps the one beautiful woman Bond finds to be his equal, and therefore the one he never sleeps with.

For a while, the unconsummated relationship with an equal seems to do Bond some good, allowing him to stop being the silly playboy of earlier films (especially the Roger Moore years) and get down to the most consistent pleasures of this film, which have to do with Craig’s icewater persona and the various interesting ways in which Bond fails, and fails gracefully. His killing of the superman bomb-maker in Madagascar attracts unwanted media attention; his actions, although saving the value of an aeronautics company’s stock, indirectly result in Solange’s death; he needs Ms. Lynd to tell him the “difference between a dinner jacket… and a dinner jacket“; he misreads Le Chiffre’s bluff at a key moment and almost blows the whole plan to ruin him in a card game; he obliviously drinks poison; he trusts Le Chiffre’s double agent; and, in the end, he misjudges Ms. Lynd — twice, as M later makes clear. Unlike the clever, smooth Bonds of the past, this Bond is athletic and cunning, but short on judgement. Still, he is so supremely self-confident that most of the time he accepts his mistakes with good humor and an unyielding optimism, as though a vast enough ego can somehow manifest itself as humility.

This Bond — the Bond who fails, who hasn’t ironed out the kinks yet — is so interesting to watch that when the film begins to stray into cliche (finally, Bond sleeps with the girl; she turns out to be up to something; there’s a shootout followed by a tragic death; Bond becomes the heartless cad we always knew, but not before extracting some Payback-ish revenge) we almost don’t notice. Still, it’s hard not to wish, by the end, for some of the re-tooling of Bond that seems promised by the plot up to a certain point. Despite the prequel setup, I found myself longing for an ending that left some of this tamed, humbled Bond intact, rather than one that seems to lead directly back to the cynicism and sexual detachment of earlier films.

Violence is taken much more seriously in Stranger than Fiction, the new film by Marc Forster, director of Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, which looked so awful I couldn’t bring myself to watch them. But this sensitive, gentle film, which features Will Ferrell’s best performance to date, has caused me to reconsider.

The film is unfortunately being sold as a wacky comedy, which could cause some audience backlash. There are very few laughs in this film, although the difference between comedy and tragedy, Dustin Hoffman’s literary theorist character is careful to point out, is not about funny or not — it’s about the recognition of the continuity of life versus the recognition of our own mortality. And on that level, this is absolutely a comedy.

Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an uptight and lonely IRS agent who also happens to be a character in someone else’s novel. Unfortunately for him, he starts hearing her narrating the tale, and quickly finds out that he’s going to die soon. He doesn’t know exactly how or when, because she hasn’t decided yet herself, but the realization of his own imminent mortality shakes him out of his narrow, stultifying routine and causes him to take up the guitar, stop wearing ties, and make a play for the affections of an adorable baker he happens to be auditing.

So far, of course, this is just a particularly clever twist on the familiar boring-guy-becomes-less-boring plot, but the film’s thoroughness in exploring the implications of each potentially banal situation keeps one’s attention. And then at the climax, the film suddenly takes a more serious turn, as it takes seriously its overall premise and holds the author (a bedraggled Emma Thompson) accountable for murdering her characters. At that point it becomes quite fascinating, but also ceases to be even mildly funny.

Still, I shouldn’t overstate the case; there is a great deal that’s enjoyable and joyful, if not exactly hilarious, in this comedy. The script, by relative unknown Zach Helm, pursues the same kind of idiosyncratic fantasy conceits Charlie Kaufman has become famous for, but Helm’s style is wryer, cooler, more laid back. One of his best gags is making Harold’s watch a major character in the film without ever giving it, say, dialogue, which a lesser writer might. And Maggie Gyllenhall, as the baker who teaches Harold how to enjoy chocolate chip cookies, is as warm and funny and natural and spiky as you could want.

But of course the film largely centers on Ferrell, and it’s nice to be able to say that he is surprising, underplaying almost to the point of blankness, and willing to go at odd little obliques from our expectations that make Harold much more interesting than a wacky accountant cliche.

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