Bond... James Bond... famous words of introduction: Daniel Craig - the sixth actor to portray Her Majesty's Greatest super spy turned down a request to say them at a press conference in Prague back in February - but soon audiences everywhere will hear the actor say them for the very first time in Casino Royale, the latest instalment, for the very first time. As it happens, in the Czech Republic the film premieres in Prague on November 16th - a day before the anniversary of the country's Velvet Revolution that marked the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. Given Bond's cold war history, what could be more appropriate!
While many Czechs, had minimal exposure to 007 less than twenty years ago, there's no question the character at least for a time, tapped into a kind of symbolic pulp appeal here after 1989. It may be silly, but I honestly never forgot how one crowd cheered during one of the first screenings of GoldenEye at a Prague cinema, the scene where the spy successfully freefalls off a cliff and takes over a pilot-less plane only to swerve away from certain death. The crowd began to hoot and clap. Really, it was almost moving.
As one Czech journalist told me the Bond stories held irrepressible glamour for many here, for obvious reasons.
First there was the spy's obvious opposition to the Soviet Union in defence of the West. Good reason. But there were other reasons too: quite simply that the Bond films have always been very well made, in the past the title sequences alone were worth the price of admission. And, though it's a comic book rendition of life, with Bond it never mattered because it was all tongue-in-cheek, all in obvious humour. That, many would agree, has always been one of the franchises' greatest strengths.
The other reason why the films in the 90s may have enjoyed increased popularity here was simply because they were new. Czech audiences earlier - some had told me - were starved for decent detective or adventure stories, and in the 70s they didn't get many. The dubious "best" that Czechoslovakia's notoriously vacuous "normalisation" period produced was the woolly Major Zeman - a series, if we leave aside serious issues of propaganda, ideological manipulation and distortion, was simply bad TV: no action, little suspense. The character of Zeman in his ill-fitting dark green uniform on duty and a bland shrug and grimace, could certainly not compete. He was no Bond.
No Pierce Brosnan either - cheered on by that Czech GoldenEye audience. Brosnan did perhaps more than anyone else to re-invigorate the character for the franchise after the cold war was done. Even when his appeal gradually wore off, it was less his fault than the films' becoming more spectacle than story. The "baddies" too somehow lost their bite once what Reagan called the Evil Empire - cartoonishly portrayed in the Bond pictures - was no more. I'm not surprised the production team opted now for a completely different look with Casino Royale: going with the blond Mr Craig whose far grittier and less than classical features saw him criticised long before filming even began, but he is so different it might just do the trick.
And even if for some Czechs agent 007 in the last few years lost a bit of his edge (after all there are all kinds of newer heroes and antiheroes now to choose from) Casino Royale will hold interest at least for some who will want to see the scenes filmed here in the Czech Rep - the first time a Bond film was shot here, with Prague as Prague - not Vienna or Budapest.
November 16th, 19:45 pm, the Czech capital.
In the end the joke was on me and I have to laugh recalling the production's team's insistance early in the year that Prague was featuring as itself in the movie. Having just attended one of the first screenings of the Bond film here, I can say Prague got maybe about ten seconds and you wouldn't know it was the Czech capital if there wasn't a title saying as much. Oh well, next time. At least Prague got the honor of opening the film in a black and white sequence that will no doubt be famous in years to come, showing how the secret agent earned his license to kill.
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