Sunday, November 26, 2006

Casino Royale: A Bloody License, and the Logic of Bond-age

Casino Royale was the first James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming, and the last of his novels to be made into a serious feature film. The dubious 1967 comedy version hardly counts as a Bond film at all, even apart from its considerable deviation from the novel - rarely has such an illustrious cast (Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, Woody Allen and about a dozen other film greats) been employed with such tepid results. I saw it when it opened, and despite my growing appreciation for serious film and great acting, not to mention belly laughs, the only thing that made an imprint on my adolescent brain was Barbara Bouchet (Miss Moneypenny). If you want a great send-up of spy movies, see the film that is simultaneously one of the greatest spy films and the greatest satire on them, Our Man Flint. (Don't ask me how it does that; but in part it turns on the ingenius interplay between James Coburn and Lee J. Cobb.)

Casino Royale has been updated a bit - international terrorism is of course the enemy rather than Soviet communism, and instead of baccarat, Le Chiffre's game is Texas Hold 'Em! (Is that au courant or what?) A lot of the detective work centers on laptops and cellphones. But the film stays largely with the outline and many details of the novel.

Although my plan here is not to do a film review, I will say that some of the plot is none too clear in the film, especially towards the end. For example, in the book, Vesper Lynd is a Soviet double agent who ultimately commits suicide. It is not a problem that this outcome is slightly modified, but the status of Lynd becomes quite murky in the film after M explains to Bond that Lynd must have made a bargain with Bond's captors to save his life. If Lynd was a double agent then M is all wet here; for it is clear why Le Chiffre did not kill Bond (he never had a chance before getting the secret code to the bank account), so Lynd had no chance to make a deal with him; and she was actually reporting to Le Chiffre's masters, so why would she have to make a deal with them? (In fact she would presumably be the reason they hurried to Le Chiffre's dungeon.) Moreover, why is Lynd so tangibly upset when Bond takes out a couple of thugs who tried to bag Le Chiffre in the hotel? I thought double-agents were a little tougher than that. There are other rather cloudy connections in the film, though perhaps no more so than in any narrative with a plot that involves several layers. There are also some chase scenes long enough to make you wistful for the brief freeway sequence in The Matrix Reloaded (was it really half the movie or did it just seem like it?) I suppose these adrenalin pumps are intended to fill the gadgetry gap. Sorry, I'm a technology guy in my other life, I liked the gadgets. (Compare Cobb in OMF: "Flint, this briefcase contains 65 gadgets..." Coburn, holding up a lighter: "Sir, this has 81... 82 if you include the lighter.") On the other hand, From Russia With Love had very little gadgetry and was by far the best early Bond film from a purely dramatic point of view. I haven't seen enough of the later films to make that claim about this one, but it has some merits in the drama department. In spite of the length, I did not find myself wishing it would be over after a couple of hours.

It is common, if not exactly mandatory, that films which sport a lot of violence - most Westerns, crime films, horror films, war films, and espionage films, for instance - should venture to get beneath the violence to explore the characters and their relation to what is going on in the film. So Martin Campbell's Bond is a human Bond. He is, for example, a Bond who makes mistakes, badly misjudging Le Chiffre's poker tactics, the woman he falls in love with, and a few other things of some consequence. Moreover, this flaw is one of character, not just circumstance: Bond is frequently chastised for his egoism and recklessness, the dark side of his virtues of self- confidence and courage. (Every virtue has its excess, as Aristotle tells us.) The dramatic architecture of the film is to some extent based on Bond's struggle to overcome his negative side, a quest that seems to be fulfilled when he declares his love for Vesper Lynd and tenders his short-lived resignation from the service. Only after this re-centering of his identity does he recite his famous byline: "The name is Bond, James Bond."

Even as film technology helped make the depiction of violence ever more graphic, directors like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah and many others insisted on penetrating the souls of their violent characters and flushing out whatever it is that makes them tick. Scorsese's current film,
The Departed, in part explores a theme that had previously been handled quite well by Mike Newell in Donnie Brasco, the tendency of the mob infiltrator to become more and more like those he is supposed to destroy. This in turn harks back to a classic theme about imitation and personal identity - as with the Sean O'Casey character who asks, "What harm could there be in being the shadow of a gunman?" - the grim answer to which unfolds in the second act of the play. So it is hardly surprising that our new Bond (Daniel Craig), though not exactly the introspective type, has a few things to say about the human condition. Nothing, however, very salutory. Confronted by Lynd after the hotel killings, Bond admits that he doesn't have much feeling about the people he kills: "I wouldn't be very good at my job if I did." I see. Well, that is not exactly the kind of answer one would want to hear from your local cop on the beat, I suppose. Or even the guy at the dog pound who disposes of unclaimed pets. It is rather the kind of thing we might expect from a Mafia capo. Is that what the soul of James Bond amounts to?

Consider the premise of the Bond role, the "00" number: the "license to kill". What exactly
is a "license to kill"? I guess it is like a fishing or hunting license, correct? Those are, after all, licenses to kill; you pay your $25 or whatever and get a license to kill. But get this: here is Bond, in the opening sequences of the film, "earning" his double-0 status by putting a couple of nogoodniks (we assume) out of their misery. It appears that according to the logic of Bond-age the way to earn a "license" to kill human beings is to kill a couple of them. I suppose that shows that you can do it. Now, why doesn't that work for fish and deer? Let's see, um... Yes, there's something just a little too self-fulfilling about it. It's kind of like a driver's license - first at your own risk, and if you manage to survive, you get a license. Hmmm. This "license to kill" is supposed to be a very serious thing, but it turns out to be more or less like someone dragging a couple of carcasses into the game warden's office and demanding a license to hunt. The warden with any sense will take this as a demented prank and have the perpetrator dragged to the local clink. When the guidelines of his service rest on such mediocre logic, how can we expect an agent to offer anything deeper than the thought that killing is his job?

But the problem with the violence in this movie - and there is plenty of it - does not end with this licensing scheme. The "license" idea merely reflects the much wider effort at making death and pain seem unremarkable. This we might call the dark side of the introspective tendency in films about violence, a side that Quentin Tarantino has indulged quite a bit: the exploration of character humanizes the perpetrator of violence so much that gratuitous bloodletting seems like an ordinary aspect of life, like eating eggs or washing your car. Worse yet, it is unremarkable only from a strictly moral point of view. From another side, it is positively uplifting. As one reviewer commented, "I left the theater with the distinct reaction that I wanted to be James Bond". And that's just the point, isn't it? To leave feeling the thrill of having that "license", that lack of feeling for one's enemies, that pureness of animal instinct. I do not think this is an unfair way to put it. For we are meant to identify with Bond, and the evil nature of the characters he knocks off gives us a right to identify with his liberal use of that "license" as well. We want that license to take matters into our own hands. We would love to be the one-man army that shoots and knifes its way through a squadron of Al Queda thugs to take out Bin Laden; all we need is a bit of Marine training, a wireless account that works anywhere from Afghanistan to the African steppes, and a license! Bush has a license - the Iraq war resolution. Now we can too, at least in our imaginations.

Back to the real world, for a moment. A former Russian spy is poisoned with an exotic isotope and every major newspaper in the world carries the story. People are horrified, if fascinated with the technique. But Bond, in the ordinary course of business, destroys embassies, buildings in Venice, numerous spys and their henchmen; and the only hint that anything is notable about this (a newspaper report on his shooting an unarmed man at an African embassy) quickly disappears. Finally, standing over one of his painfully wounded targets, he calmly announces he's "Bond, James Bond". Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" comes to mind, morphed into something like "the banality of violence in general". The point is, life constantly presents us with the reason why we should not be "Bond, James Bond", why pain and death matter, why one man must not substitute his "license to kill" for more social forms of justice, and why violence is not after all "banal", but exceptional and deplorable. So we may walk out of a Bond film wanting to be Bond, but by the next morning life has surrounded us and reminded us that this is not where it's at.

Perhaps that means that film violence can just be fun, and we should not worry about it much. I suppose that is the message of Bond in actual bondage, as he laughs ascetically while being tortured by Le Chiffre: this pain is not real anyway, so why not enjoy it? Well, I doubt that many of Pinochet's victims, or Sadam's, or Bush's, have seen it that way. But does film violence, served up with licenses and the charisma of a "secret agent", affect our behavior in the long run? Maybe there is some connection like this: as long as the violence is far enough away, it is no more real than those phantoms on the screen. So until I start seeing the body bags come home, why worry about it? Besides, you know what everyone carrying a military dog tag has: yes, that coveted certification, a license to kill.

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