After watching Casino Royale, my wife and I exited Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater, and a guy outside (also Chinese, I think) asked me rather succinctly, “007! Good?”
“Good!” I responded. And entertaining as well, I thought, feeling secure in my recommendation–yet not entirely satisfying.
Later that night, as a comparison and to quell my curiosity regarding such, we rented the 1964 James Bond classic, Goldfinger, which my wife had never seen (and I last viewed…well, before she was born). The third film installment of the Ian Fleming-based James Bond series, Goldfinger could not hold a candle to the modern action and effects of Casino Royale. Filming Goldfinger probably consumed a fraction of the celluloid stock as well, with fewer (though impeccably chosen) camera angles and any rapid cutting saved for the occasional fistfight. Yet Goldfinger was still the more entertaining and satisfying of the two films. Forgive us if we are getting picky, but the comparison perfectly illuminates the difference between a good film and a great film.
Bond. James Bond.
Casting Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale was a departure from previous incarnations, in that he has the type of face that, on first impression, the word “handsome” doesn’t immediately pop to mind — though one quickly warms to Craig’s visage after observing the way his soul animates the flesh. A fine, pedigreed, British actor — charismatic, charming and chiseled, I personally prefer the grit Craig brings to the role over the slightly tongue-in-cheekiness found with Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore. But, however good, fresh, and original Daniel Craig is as James Bond, he comes up a bit short (both literally and figuratively) when placed side-by-side against the man who originally defined the role, Sean Connery; and we know this may seem unfair to any actor, but when playing a character others have played, one cannot help but compare differences.
Whereas Craig had obviously been pumping up in a gym (his swollen muscles literally bulging from various tight shirts), the young Sean Connery simply had a more natural grace and athleticism about him–big-framed and tough enough to knock a guy out, but no need or inclination to spend time in front of a body-builder’s mirror. While giving an otherwise excellent and convincing performance, Craig, at times, seemed to be stretching himself up, chest puffed out, trying to be as big and strong as he possibly could. The taller, leaner Connery, often voted the “sexiest man alive”, was just a tad more relaxed in the role, be it on the beach, bed or in a tuxedo. Craig’s Bond can certainly be considered cool. Connery’s Bond defines cool: suave, debonair, licensed to kill.
Whereas Craig apparently has done a lot of physical and professional work to form his character, one feels that Sean Connery was simply born to play the part. Craig was not trying to replicate any previous interpretations of the double-0 hero. And bravo for the new and fresh take. It works well, and Craig very much deserves the James Bond mantle, which he is apparently inked into for the next several episodes. But without taking anything away from Daniel Craig (except his barbells, perhaps), Sean Connery’s wry, sardonic smile, impossibly masculine good looks and, above all, that sense of absolute femme-melting confidence has yet to be beat as the defining persona of James Bond–which proves again the old maxim that half of what seems to be directing is really a matter of casting. (Or did the maxim refer to the writing?)
The Story [SPOILER ALERT]
Goldfinger and Casino Royale both reasonably follow their respective Ian Fleming novels of the same names:
Goldfinger has British agent 007 pitted against arch villain Auric Goldfinger (hefty, red-haired Gert Frobe), who plans to knock over Fort Knox with his team of Chinese agents and a killer-hat-throwing accomplice, Odd Job (Harold Sakata). Casino Royale pits 007 against arch villain Le Cheffre (well-played by Mads Mikkelson), where Bond must beat his rival in a high-stakes card game to prevent terrorist financing (in the novel, it was keeping the money from KGB types).
Both Bonds bed two women per film: Jill (Shirely Eaton) is goldfingered to death when her (quite sexy) body is covered in skin-suffocating gold paint; and Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), Auric’s evocatively-named, judo-chopping pilot, switches sides to become James’s main love interest.
Casino Royale provides Bond with hot, sultry Solange (Caterina Murino)–also obligatorily killed off in the first act; and, as his main love interest, it’s the stunningly beautiful Bank of England gal, Vesper Lynd (the excellent Eva Green). In an homage from the newer film to the elder, both Bonds get to drive the same actual 1964 Aston Martin DB5 (although the newer Bond also dashes about in an Aston Martin 2008 DBS).
Whereas Goldfinger has a classic, well-tuned story structure with a protagonist, antagonist and various dramatically correct plot turns which lead to an exciting climax, Casino Royale kills off the main protagonist midway into the movie — after which, perhaps by under-scripting or over-editing, it’s a confusing series of guys coming up from behind and shooting guys, then more guys coming up from behind and shooting them, leaving a final bad guy for Bond to dispel, at which point we aren’t certain who is killing who, or who the final “protagonist” really is. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but unless the filmmaker’s intent was to leave the audience in a state of enigma (which I don’t think was the case), I like to understand what happened.
Casino Royale (directed by Martin Campbell and written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis, no less) certainly works on a videogame level with its Mission Impossible action, swift pacing, clever dialogue and entertaining set pieces, but the story arc abortion by premature climax and a confusing third act deflate any chance of making a truly great film. Although the love/conflict between Bond and Vesper does resolve–all mysteries explained–fine supporting actors like Giancarlo Giannini are fairly wasted, as one can’t figure out exactly how they fit into the plot.
It’s ironic that a 1954 New York Times book review of Casino Royale (Fleming’s first James Bond novel), pointed out its main structural fault: “The first part of the book is a brilliant novelette in itself, dealing with the unlikely but imaginative plot to ruin a Communist agent by gambling against him for high stakes…But then he decides to pad out the book to novel length and leads the weary reader through a set of tough cliches…” B. Wright, New York Times, April 1954.
Directors are charged with delivering the best possible film, regardless of source material. In The Godfather – a case where the film clearly bests the book — Francis Ford Coppola took great liberties rearranging the time-line of Mario Puzo’s novel, focusing on certain elements while dropping others, like Luca Braca’s story. Stanley Kubrick made a great film from a great novel, Stephen King’s The Shining, but still didn’t hesitate to add or delete, like the dynamite scene at the typewriter, where Shelly Duvall discovers the true extent of Jack’s Nicholson’s madness (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”)–purely a Kubrick addition. Goldfinger took a reasonably okay Ian Fleming novel and brought it to life with a fine script, taut direction and everything else cinema had to offer.
In Casino Royale, the novel’s basic structural flaw was replicated then compounded by truncating the post-climactic events to the point of semi-comprehension. Goldfinger (despite some final illogic at Fort Knox) plays wonderfully 42 years after its release, which is the simple, shit-from-Shinola test of artistic greatness — it is burnished rather than diminished by time. Hollywood today may concoct the fastest, most exciting film roller-coasters, but it takes more than that to make a great and timeless movie. It boils down to telling a story — something the mighty moguls of Beverly Hills (no matter how large their mansions), still need to learn.
The Sound of Music
On a final note, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, madams et messieurs…a little drum roll: a good film needs at least good music, a great film needs truly great music. Singer/songwriter Chris Cornell, of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame, opens Casino Royale with an exciting vocal over the flashy credit sequence. Composer David Arnold takes over with a very good score that serves the picture well. Only at the very end, and just for moment, does Arnold touch upon the original James Bond theme (created by Monty Norman in 1962 for the first Bond movie, Dr. No). Although we personally preferred to hear that familiar Bond theme periodically throughout the pic, Casino Royale seemed to be making a point about Bond’s character development, starting with a first kill back-story, then the formation of one man into a full-fledged, battle scarred/love scarred Agent 007. The final transformation ostensibly takes place, hence the James Bond theme only at the very end–which, if we might digress, leads us to another question: Why is the original James Bond theme so totally familiar? Well, it’s been used in a lot of James Bond movies. Yes, that’s one reason, but not every film franchise, however many spin-offs, have created such memorable melodies. The main reason music is “catchy” is that great music simply sticks around longer in one’s mind. You hear it, you remember it, you recognize it, you like hearing it again. Voila!
Composed by John Barry, Goldfinger has one of the greatest movie soundtracks…ever. Starting with Shirley Bassey’s terrific vocal, Barry fleshes out his theme while masterfully using the original Bond theme at key moments. At times, the music works so damned well — Bond cruising around a gorgeous mountain lake in his Aston Martin as the strings well up — that it’s nothing short of ethereal, something to be savoured. We’re talking that classic shot of Al Pacino, Godfather I, dissolving back in time to the Sicilian countryside — Nino Rota’s music communicating so much about a land, a culture–augmenting an already magnificent visual by a thousand times (easy there, Mahatma…). You get my point. And Goldfinger, watching Sean Connery steeling himself for action, that Bond theme pulsing dangerously–cinema doesn’t get much better!
[As a side note, Sean Connery was robbed in his final James Bond reprise in the 1983 film, Never Say Never, when they failed to use the familiar Bond theme, which audiences had come to identify with the character and Sean Connery in particular. Whether this was an artistic choice by director Irving Kershner and/or composer Michel Legrand, or simply some cheap producer not wanting to pay for music rights (which happens, believe it or not), the audience was cheated and the film's power diminished greatly.]
Viva La Difference!
Good music versus great music — good films versus great films. Casino Royale is certainly well-shot, finely acted, and has all the high-budget trimmings — well worth the price of admission. But the 1964 Goldfinger brings us to a higher category altogether, for it is more than a good film. It is a classic –something the present Bond team definitely aspired to, and something we hope they achieve in future installments.
'Casino Royale' is in theaters now, and very much recommended.
'Goldfinger' is on DVD, Blu-Ray and every other format known to man. Because it simply is a classic.