Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by Martin Campbell
Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis
Distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment
Produced by Icon Productions and Touchstone
Directed by Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
Unlike the earlier techno-laden James Bond films, Casino Royale has nothing much in the way of gadgets except its new lead, Daniel Craig. But what an ingeniously sophisticated gizmo he is! This 007 is blond, blue-eyed, impressively athletic, and blessedly low-tech. Wait, I forgot to mention the defibrillator in the glove compartment of his Aston Martin. But, hey, who doesn’t travel with one nowadays?
Despite this Bond’s conspicuous lack of gadgetry, one thing stays true: his modus misoperandi. He is still a secret agent so improbably reckless that his identity is about as incognito as yesterday’s headlines. His notorious notoriety has always made him charmingly vulnerable to shooting, stabbing, and being thrown from high places. In Casino, he’s macheted and nail-gunned to boot. However, there is this difference, and it is the defining mark of the new Bond. He bleeds—bleeds and bruises and scars. He even vomits. I cannot recall his forerunners sustaining anything much worse than mussed hair after being tossed from a plane or grenaded in a tub. Casino, on the other hand, decorates Craig with an inexhaustible supply of red badges, each denoting his extreme, not to say insane, courage. In one scene, he emerges from a luxe Bahamian hotel, his face raked red from crown to chin as a result of his exertions the night before. No, not with an overenthusiastic trollop; for reasons too predictable to go into, he had been dangling upside down from a speeding airport fuel truck, and the tarmac got in the way.
Wow, you think. Realism. This Bond suffers consequences. Of course, he heals rather more quickly than your average mortal. His recuperative powers allow him to show up in Montenegro a couple of evenings later for a bout of multimillion-pound poker, taking his seat in the Salle Prive, his fresh face remarkably unscraped. No close-shave jokes at Mr. Bond’s expense, thank you.
Then there is the torture. The last movie I saw in which a torturer used a man’s testicles as the preferred route to his secrets was Fritz Lang’s M (1931). It was done in long shot, as I recall, for about 15 seconds. In Casino, Bond is stripped and given similar encouragement for what seems like 15 minutes. While the site of said encouragement remains just out of camera range, Craig twists his face in agony and screams like a banshee. In the multiplex where I saw this happen, the usually talkative audience went dead silent except for a faint rustling of trousered knees. And there was more pain to come—not only physical but emotional. This certainly isn’t the Bond we have come to laugh with in earlier times. Was he, I wondered, doing penance for his many, many sins?
The film’s pain and bloodletting derives directly from its source. When Casino Royale was published in 1953, few could have predicted that Ian Fleming was about to spawn a worldwide multibillion-dollar franchise in books, films, and comic strips, nor that he would make the world’s second-oldest profession seem glamorous. The narrative hasn’t the popular touch. Nearly 30 of its 187 pages are taken up with a game of baccarat, described card by card. Another 46 are devoted to Bond undergoing testicular torture and recovering painfully. So, for 40 percent of the novel, Bond is either sitting at a card table or passively receiving beatings, followed by medical care. Make further room for the necessary introduction of a new character, and there’s not much left for what Bond’s film fans have come to expect in the way of battering enemies and bedding lovelies. What the book does do, however, is establish Fleming’s weird mix of chivalry and sadomasochism, a concoction that would persist through the following 12 volumes.
Bond’s reputation as a heartless womanizer derives more from the films than from the novels. On the page, Bond’s amours may not be morally punctilious, but they are nevertheless marked by a chivalrous concern for what was once thought the weaker sex. He is forever protecting women, not infrequently offering them marriage. For a supposedly hard-bitten son of a bitch, he’s all too easily smitten.
In many of the stories, his need to save women impels him to make mistakes that drop him into the hands of his enemies who then abuse him hideously, not infrequently attacking his genitals, following the Casino template. In Goldfinger, a laser beam comes close to slicing him in half from his crotch up. In You Only Live Twice, his archenemy, Ernst Blofeld, strips him naked and sits him on the mouth of a volcanic fumarole scheduled to erupt within minutes. Was Fleming working out some psychodynamic whereby male arrogance had to be chastened before being deemed suitable for female acceptance? I’ll leave this mystery to the psychiatrists. One thing seems clear: The pain is part of the pattern of these novels. Bond is nothing if not a man of feeling.
Fleming always pits a villain of cold, reptilian intelligence against the willful, emotional, and very human Bond. Le Chiffre, the miscreant in Casino, sets the precedent. Left displaced and rootless after World War II, he has assumed a name that announces what he is. Chiffre is French for “number” or “cipher.” As a verb, it means “calculate.” Nothing could be more accurate. Chiffre is more computer than man. Even when he loses 14 million francs at cards, he “show[s] no trace of emotion” but “continue[s] to play like an automaton.” In the film, he looks up from his cards to intimidate an opponent. “You have a 17.4 percent chance of drawing a straight,” he murmurs with soft menace. Bond, on the other hand, plays by instinct, relying on his ability to read people’s emotions to decide whether to fold or bluff.
The point is simple. Bond is meant to be the alternative to everything men like Le Chiffre stand for. The villains in these stories are what George Orwell called the “streamlined men.” They are peculiarly modern in their devotion to managerial organization achieved by a nerveless exercise of power aided by technology. Furthermore, they lack any passion other than the desire to control others. In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld reveals that he suffers from accidie, an inability to feel. “There has developed in me a certain mental lameness,” he confesses, “a disinterest in humanity and its future, an utter boredom with the affairs of mankind.” Emotionally numb to life’s other possibilities, these characters cultivate a monstrous need to control all they survey. It’s their way of taking revenge on those who exhibit a vital appetite for life’s pleasures. Bond, then, is their natural enemy, a man at once alive in all his senses and vulnerable to all his passions.
Director Martin Campbell understands this, and Craig makes it stick. In his scenes with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Craig makes us know how susceptible he is, not to lust merely, but to the entire spectrum of feminine charm. Lynd is the accountant MI 6 sends to accompany him on his mission. She oversees the 10- to 15-million pounds he’s been fronted to destroy Le Chiffre’s terrorist underwriting by wiping out his funds at the card table. Understandably miffed at her trespass on his autonomy, Bond is nevertheless taken with Vesper’s beauty. When he discovers she’s also smart as well as provokingly not complaisant, Craig’s gaze registers something more than desire. In the best repartee ever mustered in a Bond film, Vesper elegantly puts Bond in his place over dinner and then asks with assumed innocence, “How was your lamb?” Craig replies, “Skewered; one sympathizes,” smiling both at her and his own bedazzlement. It’s an unprecedented moment of tenderness in a series infamous for the crudity of its romantic pas de deux.
The film ends with an indication that the series will return to vulgar type in the next feature, which would be unfortunate. It’s past time we had a human Bond.
Speaking of blood, it pours by the kiloliter in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, perhaps the best savage chase movie since Cornel Wilde’s Naked Prey (1965). There is no need to get involved with the notorious Gibson controversy here. (Does he hate Jews? Do they hate him? Who cares?) Whatever the truth, Apocalypto remains a considerable achievement. It is not a great film. It doesn’t rank with Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but it has the distinction of being a daring, at times reckless, movie. Who but Mad Mel would have undertaken to dramatize 16th-century backforest Mayan tribesmen played by American, Canadian, Mexican, and Central American Indians speaking Yucatec with subtitles to help the untutored?
The performers, mostly nonprofessionals, almost look and act their parts. I say almost, because they are too clearly products of our time. Their movements and reactions speak of people who have spoken on telephones; watched film and television; seen themselves in mirrors, in photographs, and on video, if not film. Such experiences change consciousness. They make us self-aware to a degree impossible for a true primitive. This is why genuine primitives do not have nearly the expressive facial range of self-regarding moderns. Furthermore, their intensely communal life does not promote the kind of individual, focused attention we take as natural.
All this noted, the film must be granted its fictional license. It contains extraordinarily beautiful and exciting passages. It is also quite harrowing. The story concerns a simple tribe whose way of life is totally destroyed by their brutal big-city cousins in a single morning. After a few scenes establishing the peaceful life of these rainforest dwellers, a raiding party descends upon them, mercilessly killing children and the elderly and raping the women. They then round up the remaining able-bodied and march them off—the women to be sold into slavery, the men to be offered up to the sun god. One of the tribe, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, a riveting performer of Comanche and African ancestry who will doubtless return to the screen), however, manages to secret his wife and little boy down a deep hole. Upon reaching the Mayan city, he and his comrades are marched to the top of a pyramid where a high priest is sacrificing a seemingly endless supply of men, plunging his knife into their chests and pulling out their still-beating hearts. He then decapitates them and bounces their heads down the pyramid’s stone steps. All this is depicted in graphic, blood-soaked detail. We even get to see the astonished victims reacting to what is happening to them while the smiling priest holds their throbbing hearts aloft in honor of the gods.
Jaguar manages to escape this fate at the last possible moment. He takes off for his village chased by the raiding warriors. His flight is fiercely and wondrously heroic, as is his one goal, to save his wife and son.
Gibson has gone on record saying that his imagined Mayan civilization has parallels with ours. Its leaders use fear to control their people. They sacrifice the young to keep themselves in power. We are even to believe that, like us, they have been polluting their environment. A little girl shows up bearing the sores of some disease and prophesies the coming of a jaguar man who will blot out the sun. A monstrous tree falls in an already decimated forest, apparently from rot caused by the Maya. This seems to me a showman’s bunkum. How would the Maya have destroyed their natural environment? With emissions from their travois and canoes?
Nearly as improbable, Spanish conquistadores show up at one egregiously deus-ex-machina point. Some reviewers have sneered that this is Gibson’s way of suggesting that Europeans were to be saviors to the Mayan little guys. Nothing of the sort. The Spanish galleons off the Yucatan coast are clearly meant to be harbingers of yet another catastrophe. If Gibson has an apocalyptic point to make, it’s this: Man has always been given to fear, cruelty, and abuse. And we have always yearned for salvation from the world’s terrors, desperately trying to placate the gods for our transgressions. This is why Gibson made the Passion, in which he dramatized the one truly selfless and effective Sacrifice, all others—savage or civilized, bloody or bloodless—being merely shadows of the Real Thing.
But put aside the deep-dish analysis. Apocalypto is an amazing adventure story, and that is quite enough.