Monday, September 03, 2007

Casino Royale - Blunt Instruments

I think that Casino Royale may be the first Bond film that I am not the least bit embarrassed to say that I enjoyed, possibly even loved. It could have been disastrous to abandon the Bond series' self-conscious wink-wink camp in favor of a more serious, somber tone, yet somehow Casino Royale manages to pull off a somber, not at all tongue-in-cheek James Bond without straining credulity. I like Casino Royale so much that I think I'm going to write two posts on it.

In this first post I want to examine one of the most exhilarating chase sequences in recent memory, when Bond chases bomb-maker Mollaka through the streets of Madagascar and into a construction site full of conveniently placed obstacles. Mollaka is played by Frenchman Sebastian Foucan, who co-founded the modern sport of "free-running," which is also known as "parkour" or "l'art du deplacément." In the footchase Mollaka demonstrates a breathtaking, almost superhuman agility. The limber Mollaka vaults over obstacles, kicks off of walls, and bounds through the construction site like a coiled spring. Daniel Craig's Bond, meanwhile, doesn't hold stock with any of this French "deplacément" nonsense. With substantially less grace Bond stumbles through obstacles and seems to keep up merely through a dogged persistence. When the chase leads to a sheer, three-story fall, Mollaka drops and executes a perfect tuck-and-roll. Bond takes the elevator. At one point Mollaka leaps through a small gap in a half-completed thin wooden wall, bending and touching his toes as he sails through in order to condense his flying form. Bond simply puts his head down and runs through the wall, breaking it apart.

It's a thrilling sequence, both in a holy-shit-did-he-just-do-that way as simple spectacle and in a more cerebral way as a study in contrasts. Indeed, in the chase Bond is so outclassed physically by Mollaka that it hardly seems possible for him to keep up, yet somehow, through sheer tenacity, he does. What Casino Royale seeks to do with the visual metaphors in this opening action sequence, of course, is establish the "new" Bond: more thuggish, less experienced, and without an arsenal of esoteric gadgets to fall back upon. As M puts it, he is a "blunt instrument," and smashing through walls is what he is good at.

Still, I think in this sequence Casino Royale may have stumbled across something more significant and meaningful, and it may be why this particular chase sequence has remained so memorable to me. For one thing, the sequence is an inversion of action-movie convention: typically, it is the bad guy's hapless henchmen who are the lumbering brutes, and our heroes defeat them through skill, finesse, and ingenuity. Previous Bond movies are particularly good examples of this: Bond always has a fancy gadget or death-defying stunt with which to get the upper hand on the adversary. But in Casino Royale, Bond is the one that lumbers and the bad guy is the one with all the skill and finesse. The mere novelty of a role reversal between hero and baddie is enough raise this chase sequence above stale action-movie clichés.

What gives this inversion a particular frisson, though, is that the Western audience - particularly the American audience - desperately wants to identify with the lumbering brutes, the blunt instruments of the world. As the global hegemon it is long past the time when America can conceive of itself as the scrappy underdog of the world stage, and in this current conflict against terrorism (which the Bond movie is at least tangentially about), it is the terrorists - whether operating as isolated cells in our homes, or as insurgent guerrillas using "asymmetric" tactics - that rely on agility, luck, and stealth to survive against the better-armed, better-equipped, better-trained US (and to some extent Western) military machine. The sources of Western military pride may be awe-inspiring, but they lack a certain finesse. What is a M1 Abrams tank, a 2000-pound bomb dropped from a $50 million strike fighter, a 100-thousand ton nuclear-powered supercarrier, if not a blunt instrument?

In this context then, the action-movie convention of a wily, clever, and graceful hero outfoxing the blundering bad-guy thugs becomes deeply unsatisfying, even unnerving. It would be an unwelcome reminder of the limitations and fallibility of sheer power. Small wonder, then, that the sight of James Bond putting his head down and running through a wall thrills us so. It's a comfort to be told that sometimes, when facing an enemy that confounds you at every turn, it is possible to say to hell with looking graceful and just smash through that wall.

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