Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Casino Royale I: A survey of stunt-work

So I got out to see the new Bond before it disappeared, and I was thoroughly impressed. It's good to see such a strong franchise take a fresh direction, and I'm definitely feeling validated, because I was rooting for this permutation of the Bond legacy since the first trailers appeared. No, seriously, I totally was.

Anyway, it was good enough that it's going to take two blog posts to cover my thoughts about it. Next post, I'll look at a particular (really smart) structural device in Casino Royale, and about how it brought the storytelling together for me. Today, though, I'm not going to talk about why it was smart. I'm going to talk about why it was flippin' sweeet.

There's almost no such thing as believable action in movies any more. I loved The Rundown, but I have to admit, the physical trauma the characters went through made no damn sense. A five-minute fall down a thousand-foot cliff face? And you're ready to go as soon as you hit the bottom? "Camp" (i.e. campiness) has started excusing a lack of concern for reality, and the absurdity of the whole thing is disguised under the camera work: indistinguishable close-ups interspersed with long shots, making it as easy as possible for a mannequin to fulfill the physical demands of the stunt-man.

This isn't just a phenomenon in the American world of big-budget action stars, either. Martial Arts films are watering down their stunt work to a vast degree, replacing it with slow-motion effects, wire acrobatics, and jarring cuts that stimulate the eye without giving it anything to follow. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had beautiful effects design and concept work, with the weightless combat over stunning landscapes, but aren't these guys also champion martial artists? Why do new directors bury their physical capabilities beneath a wash of quick cuts and special effects?

The last few Bonds have been shameful examples of this kind of overdramatized action work, big pyrotechnics and wind machines and effects in place of any real physical exertion. Check out the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough and tell me if you think Brosnan ever had to break a sweat while making this film.

Now compare that to all the stunt work in Casino Royale, and I have faith that the latter will come out on top. Throughout the whole early stunt sequence, Daniel Craig and his stunt-men (I'm considering them as an aggregate for the purposes of this entry) appeared in extended medium shots, sometimes as long as five to ten seconds, balancing, perched in high places, making long jumps, and scrambling around scaffolding. As a nod to the realism of this chase scene, they hired Sebastien Foucan, world-renowned free runner, to play the terrorist being chased through the streets of Madagascar.

Daniel Craig and Sebastian Foucan and the stunt-people in Casino Royale brought me back to better times, when it was a matter of respect to perform real stunts, and in some cases, to perform them without the aid of a trained professional substitute. I'm not usually nostalgic, but it was nice to be reminded of Project A and the spirit of the old Jackie Chan, when combat and pursuit didn't look like a psychadelic trip through a bunch of set pieces.

I'm not here to say that Casino Royale's stunt-work is all firmly rooted in reality, but still... it's as close as any action movie has come in a long time. The tentative pauses, the struggles to find a foot-hold, the split decisions and the minor spills and collisions that would go along with this kind of physical competition... all these things are well-represented in Casino Royale, and it brings the physical trauma to a level that makes it relevant and engaging.

So that's it, the foot is going down. No action heroes allowed unless they can smash through drywall to catch up with extreme sports icons. That's my new criteria... if you're hanging from a wire, all you get from me is contempt. I won't be convinced until you take a hit so hard that I can feel it.


Kelly said...

Rock on. As you know from sitting beside me during the film, I loved the near-reality of the stunt work. That whole chase scene is so good because it's so visceral. We both flinched and cheered the whole time.

And on a totally unrelated note, I'll say it again, Daniel Craig looks just as hot in a sweaty shirt and cargos flipping from crane to building as he does in the dripping small swimsuit coming out of the ocean. yum. said...

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