So... Skyfall opened this week and I'm placed in the uncomfortable, but familiar position of needing to see it even if I don't particularly want to. Each time a Bond movie comes along with its promise of escape into masculine fantasyland, oh boy, I'm ready. I'm ready for the mayhem, the intrigue and sure, the sexual supremacy waiting for me like a custom-built inadequacy-maker-up-for.
What a sap I am. The morning after most any 007 flick I feel so used and dirty. I feel, frankly, like Charlie Brown having fallen once more for the run-and-kick-the-football game. Having been lured by a sure thing, I get the tables turned on me - these damn movies are laughing at me (especially Die Another Day which starts off with a sweet premise - 007 fails and is captured and tortured for two years and when he's exchanged for another prisoner M is pissed at him for not committing suicide - love that opening, but by the end of the picture he's driving an invisible car through an ice castle while avoiding the melt-ray from the huge fucking magnifying lens in space - I am being mocked).
After most, I say. There've been a handful of Bond flicks that have done well for me, and those few (From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, even Tomorrow Never Dies and The Living Daylights - which I haven't seen in twenty-some years, so don't bust my chops) keep me returning to the franchise for damn near every outing. When Daniel Craig's go-round began with Casino Royale, I was fucking pumped. Loved the action sequences, the angry, un-sexy sex, loved the Bond-as-a-dead-eyed-thug angle, and loved the vulnerability and hurt his failed relationship brought out in the character. Quantum of Solace immediately squandered the buzz Casino had built, but Skyfall... I kinda need to give it a shot (and not just because Javier Bardem seems to be channeling Christopher Walken's View to a Kill hairdo).
Where the Mission Impossible franchise has gone in a far more exciting direction - making it a director's series, as in: here's our stock set-up, let's see what you, oh action/suspense auteur, can do with it, and the Bourne flicks have been an exploration of a national crisis of conscience, Matt Damon (and presumably Jeremy Renner, but I haven't seen Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy yet) was the US given a second chance - the super power with a blank slate and a chance to prove it can be badass and wear a white hat too, the Bond franchise has always been about making the talent submit. Hit these marks, say these lines, execute - don't play with - these tropes like a good boy/girl and we'll all get along just fine. Therefore, the most exciting moments in Bond flicks, for me, are when you have a star or a director, a writer or even a musician (how badass was the Jack White/Alicia Keys theme song for Quantum of Suckass?) trying to get away with something a little Bond-subversive - see everything I liked about Casino Royale. Which is admittedly weird considering that it was partially penned by the heavy hand of Paul Racism-is-Bad Haggis (I did like In the Valley of Elah, but wish to shit that we could erase Crash from our collective subconscious and instead make The Next Three Days his exploration of racism by simply making Russel Crowe and Elizabeth Banks a black couple - ooh, and maybe reverse the gender roles and perhaps keep the "innocence" issue a little more murky, as it hardly factored into the husband's decision... yeah, now we're talking. How would audiences receive a movie about a black woman deciding that the system isn't working for her and saying 'fuck it' busting her convicted-killer husband out of prison? Hmmm...)
But I digress.
Haggis's script for Casino Royale was fine, but he shit the rug and very nearly screwed the whole pooch with one sequence. Can you guess which? Yeah, the uh, Casino one. That poker game is the worst.
Casino Royale's been adapted... thrice - as the pilot for Climax!, the unsuccessful television incarnation of Ian Fleming's spy guy, then in 1967 as a comedy starring David Niven and Woody Allen among others - Four times if you include Kaleidoscope, the 1966 Warren Beatty picture that bears some um, similarities - including a big poker sequence - without a really good card playing scene yet. There's nothing exciting about two (even less, four) titanic hands going up against each other (and in betting order worst to best, no less) when dramatically, folding isn't an option. Honestly, it's as interesting as a game of War or... a raffle. Hard to wag your cock in victory when you win the lottery. Blind, stupid chance is the only factor.
I get that it has to be heightened - it's a movie - hell, it's a Bond movie, but wouldn't the real drama be getting somebody to fold a superior hand, or even laying down a good one of your own when you spot a trap. Or even... dare I say it, losing?
Which is why The Cincinnati Kid is my favorite poker movie. You know Sam Peckinpah was fired from this picture? I love Peck and his explorations and subversions of masculine ideals and I'm damn sorry we didn't get a glimpse at his gambler picture, but Steve McQueen and Norman Jewison gave us winner of a loser flick.
And let's face it, losing is what most gamblers do most of the time - poker, pool, roulette, Monday Night Football, the stock market - losing is everything.
I dig the flicks that explore the gambler as philosopher/addict like, uh, The Gambler with James Caan. Owning Mahowny with Philip Seymour Hoffman is alright too. Hell, Factotum with Matt Dillon as Charles Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chinaski has some good gambling life insights. Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight rocks, and Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur is good shit. Even the remake - Neil Jordan's The Good Thief with Nick Nolte - has a great lose-big or die vibe that I've yet to tire of.
The Hustler with Paul Newman and even Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (script by Richard Price, kids) are less about hustling, the con, getting one over on some sap, than they are about that need to prove you're not the rube, that all-consuming insecurity that won't let Eddie rest, and rules and ruins his life is what they're really about. I love the Walter Tevis books and Color is a great sequel to a story that begs not to have one.
I like all the cool, cynical atmosphere, the slang and the fantasy of being so ridiculously good at this shit that I could make a living showing up everybody else just as much as the next guy, but when that's all you've brought to the table you make a movie like Shade instead of Rounders, or think of the difference between Poolhall Junkies and Chris Eigman's Turn the River. If you haven't seen Famke Janssen overcoming the cringe-worthy title, and you enjoy this kind of flick, please do give Turn the River a chance. It's a solid movie about someone who happens to be a hustler and every sequence of her plying her trade - card playing, pool shooting - reveals character and serves the story rather than feeling like a music video interrupting a drama.
And that's ultimately the goal, yeah? Reveal character? How about Bruce Dern in Silent Running, Elliott Gould and George Segal in California Split, or hell, Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers - exactly how much would we know about those characters from that blackjack scene alone? Just about everything.
So, yeah. Skyfall. I need to see it because Casino Royale was good enough... but man, it really bugs me that a film that played more interesting notes in the ballad of Bond than any since... Dr. No? squandered the opportunity to put another intriguing texture on the icon in that poker scene, opting instead to remind us that he's a lightning-struck son of a bitch on top of everything else.