With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Casino Royale (2006)
When I started this column, I decided that the modern action movie began with Bullitt in 1968. But a strong case—maybe a stronger case—could also be made that the genre starts with 1962’s Dr. No, the first James Bond movie. The Bond movies essentially turned the action movie into a formula before it was even really a genre: An aspirational larger-than-life hero, a comic-book villain, a few showstopping set pieces, a couple of chuckles. The thrills of the Bond movies were the Saturday-morning serial types: How will our hero get out of this jam? I tend to prefer the Bullitt take on the genre: The stoic intensity, the white-knuckle action scenes, the sense that people could really get hurt at any moment. But even if they were more about consequence-free fun, the Bond movies really have cast a shadow over the genre for as long as the genre has existed.
As silly as the Bond movies could get—and they could get very silly—they’ve always been good for at least one absolutely breathtaking action scene. Some of the worst Bond movies have some of the best scenes. Most of us can probably agree that 1979’s Moonraker, with its Star Wars-biting space-battle climax, is a massive low point for the series. But that movie still opened with a no-parachute skydiving chase scene that practically gives me a panic attack every time I watch it. The Bond character himself might be an icon of hedonistic, unflappable British Cold War toughness, but the movies themselves have always been B-movies, albeit expensive ones. At their best, they’ve been very good B-movies. But 2006’s Casino Royale is the first movie that realized the series could be something else. And in so doing, it drew ideas from across the mid-’00s action-movie landscape. It added a few ideas of its own as well.
Casino Royale was, of course, Daniel Craig’s first shot at playing Bond, and it did everything it possibly could to separate Craig from every previous Bond. There’s no louche decadence to Craig’s Bond. Instead, he’s a human tank. He can look good in a tuxedo and trade sexed-up banter, but that’s not why he’s there. His function is to be a stone-cold killing machine who can do the dirty work of maintaining order in a scary world. Casino Royale does its best to tell a story about how Bond first becomes Bond, something that no previous movie had really bothered to address. It paints Bond as a disturbed, regretful force, as someone who realizes that he likes violence a little too much and who’d like to change but doesn’t know how. His boss straight-up calls him a “blunt instrument” to his face. She means it as an insult, and he takes it that way.
This tougher, more brooding version of a character is, of course, part of a now-tiresome tradition: the gritty reboot. Casino Royale didn’t start the gritty-reboot trend; that was probably Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the year before, which had done similar work in taking its ’60s-vintage hero from extreme ’90s goofiness to something grimier and more intense. But Bond really needed a gritty reboot, probably more than even Batman had. We had previously seen him in 2002’s Die Another Day, the final Pierce Brosnan Bond, which had famously featured an invisible car. The silliness had gone too far, and the franchise needed an extreme reaction in the other direction for the series to get back on track. Casino Royale was that extreme reaction.
Over and over, Casino Royale finds ways, both forced and ingenious, to subvert Bond-movie expectations. He gets pissed off when a waiter asks him how he wants his martini. He loses at cards to the villain. He makes shitty decisions that get people killed. He gets himself killed, at least temporarily. He falls in love—something that a couple of previous Bonds had done, but was still against type. He shows his body off more than the women in the movie. When the villain has Bond captured, he doesn’t use some high-tech Rube Goldberg device to torture him; he just hits him in the nuts really hard with a piece of rope. That scene is probably the only one in Bond history that’s ever made me wince, and that was its intent.
All of it works because Craig, mean and vicious in his square-jawed intensity, sells all of it. When he got the role, Craig had just gotten done making Munich, the movie about Israeli assassins who’d spent years getting revenge against the terrorists who’d killed Israeli Olympians. And he based his Bond, at least in part, on the actual assassins who’d worked as consultants on that movie. So even when he was trading flirty banter with beautiful women, he made sure to keep a flinty alertness, like he knew that he might be forced into some unspeakable acts at any moment. He was also physically up for the role. While a small army of stuntmen certainly worked on Casino Royale, Craig still looked like he belonged when he had to get into any of the movie’s nasty, chaotic close-quarters fights. This wasn’t a Bond who could smoothly throw a karate kick and then show up on time to dinner. He looked like he was really getting knocked around, so it meant more when he knocked other people around.
The movie’s first big action scene, the parkour chase on a Malaysian construction site, is a small masterpiece, probably the best action scene in Bond-movie history. Watching it, you aren’t entirely certain why Bond is chasing this guy other than the fact that the guy makes bombs. But he absolutely hurls himself up this crane, and through this scaffolding. We see stuntmen pulling crazy moves high above the ground. And we also learn things about this new Bond’s character. When, for instance, his fugitive does an incredible flying leap through the window above a door, Bond just smashes through the plaster wall like the Juggernaut. He’s tough, he’s mean, he’s resourceful, and he will not be stopped.
Casino Royale came two years after the great French parkour flick District B13, a fun B-movie full of absolutely ridiculous death-defying foot chases. And there’s no way that Casino Royale chase would’ve happened if its producers hadn’t watched District B13 and picked up a few tricks. They also learned, of course, from the nascent Bourne franchise, a harder and more visceral look at spy life in ’00s Europe. The Casino Royale fights have the same jarring immediacy, and they strive for the same sense of realness. Not all of Casino Royale’s influences were action movies; besides Batman Begins, there’s also Rounders, since the way-too-long poker scenes seemed to be based on the idea that you could become an infallible poker monster just by getting really good at reading the reactions of the other players. But in a lot of ways, Casino Royale is the sort of thing that should happen way more often: The handlers of a big-money property realizing that they need to fix things, looking around, and pulling the best ideas from movies around the world, successfully reimagining their own thing in the process. It’s the system working.
There was no reason to believe Casino Royale should’ve worked as well as it did. The members of the cast, good as they were, were largely untested. Eva Green, heartbreakingly sharp as Vesper Lynd, was a French woman mostly known for starring in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, an art movie with a whole bunch of sex in it, while Craig himself seemed to get the gig largely by starring in the-post Guy Ritchie gangster-bloke movie Layer Cake. Director Martin Campbell was a longtime journeyman whose biggest movie had been the last James Bond reboot, 1995’s Pierce Brosnan debut GoldenEye. (After Casino Royale, Campbell was probably best-known for the superhero disaster Green Lantern; apparently, he should only ever direct Bond movies.) One of the writers was Paul Haggis, who’d just made a Best Picture-winning movie—but that movie was Crash, so that should’ve counted against him, not for him.
But together, these people all showed what a gritty reboot can do when everything is working right. It’s not a perfect movie. It’s way, way too long, full of the same expository dialogue-dumps that bring down every Bond movie. It’s sometimes a little too impressed with its departures. Its great villain dies with 40 minutes left in the movie, leading into some world-building stuff that nobody really ever needed. But it’s still probably the best Bond movie, and its Bond is still probably the best Bond. And if every long-running action franchise had made the leap into the new century as gracefully as Bond, the genre would be in a healthier place right now.
Other 2006 action movies of note: The runner-up for the year is its own kind of gritty reboot, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing was the straight-to-DVD sequel to a movie that wasn’t even a big hit in the first place, a Walter Hill prison-boxing movie from 2002. Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, the two stars from the first movie, aren’t in it. Instead, it’s got dreary Eastern European locations, low-wattage stars, and a plot that doesn’t make too much sense. Ving Rhames’ character, now played by Michael Jai White, goes to Russia to film a commercial and gets thrown into prison because the local gangsters want to see him fight their homegrown prison-MMA monster. But its fights are brutal and balletic and generally incredible, and its simple story has a great B-movie intensity to it. The movie would launch its director Isaac Florentine and its stars White and Scott Adkins to straight-to-DVD stardom. And in doing so, it helped carve out a place for straight-to-DVD action movies, which, before long, regularly featured better action scenes than their theatrical cousins. These days, the straight-to-DVD action world is its own little thriving shadow economy, and that, I would argue, starts with Undisputed 2.
But Hollywood’s mainstream churned out some interesting examples of action cinema in 2006, too. Mel Gibson’s slightly insane, deeply problematic Mayan throwdown Apocalypto had some masterfully stressful escapes. Michael Mann’s movie version of his old Miami Vice TV show, while it lost money and became a punchline, was full of gorgeous, evocative digital photography and gnarly-as-fuck gunfights. Today, it’s a lot more widely recognized as a gem of its era. Crank went to extreme lengths to turn the Jason Statham persona into a joke, and while I tend to think of it as overly ironic try-hard bullshit, I must admit that it was pretty fun at the time. Mission: Impossible III, thanks to an incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman villain performance, temporarily turned the Tom Cruise franchise into something dark and mean. And while The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift was more of a teenage drag-racing flick than an action movie, it did keep our greatest running action franchise alive in the lean times, and it introduced director Justin Lin, who would lead the series to glory. (It also introduced some continuity weirdness that the series would have fun solving in the years ahead.)
Meanwhile, WWE star John Cena made The Marine, a dumber-than-dirt Die Hard bite that’s only slightly redeemed by Robert Patrick having some fun as the villain. (The movie was supposed to turn Cena into a Rock-level star, but that wouldn’t even start to happen until he turned out to be a pretty fearless physical comedian almost a decade later.) Running Scared roped in Paul Walker for a nasty, hyperactive crime story; it probably remains his best non-Fast And Furious role. Snakes On A Plane had a fun title and absolutely nothing else going for it. And then there was Lucky Number Slevin, a crime-movie romp that I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever seen. (For years, I got it mixed up with Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen that one, either.)
In Hong Kong, Jet Li returned to glory with the period kung-fu epic Fearless, a movie that features some of the best fight scenes of his career. Johnnie To remained in the triad underworld to make the just-as-bleak sequel Election 2, but he also made Exiled, an unbelievably cool Peckinpah/Melville homage about a group of hitmen who become fatalistic brothers after almost killing each other. And Donnie Yen teamed up with director Wilson Yip for the goofily mythic kung-fu comic book Dragon Tiger Gate. Meanwhile, in Chile, Marko Zaror, the hulking martial artist who’d been the Rock’s stunt double in The Rundown, made Kiltro—a low-budget movie about a lovelorn, JNCO-rocking street-fighter—which helped launch a whole Chilean action-movie industry.
Next time: I’d originally planned to write this week’s column about 300, but commenters pointed out that 300 didn’t really come out until 2007 and that I should write about Casino Royale instead. So I did. Next week, we’ll talk about 300. (Apologies to Elite Squad, the Brazilian vigilante-cop blockbuster that I’d planned to write about for the 2007 entry.)