Bond is All In
Casino Royale is directed by Martin Campbell and stars Daniel Craig in his first film as Agent 007. The film also stars Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, and Judi Dench and is based on the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming.
By the year 2006, James Bond had starred in twenty different films over the course of 44 years, featuring a wide range of women, villains, gadgets, and action. The likes of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan were the big three when it came to actors portraying 007 up until then, with names like George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton serving as one shot wonders (Dalton would portray Bond twice, to be exact) that happened to be wedged in the middle of the series. While the Bond film series never turned into a disastrous, money-leaking hazard that would have Ian Fleming trembling violently in his grave, the series has been something of a roller coaster, going through some high highs and some disappointing lows. We can point to the tweaks that Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan gave the character during their time in the role, as well as go on and on about the best way to describe how Sean Connery breathed life into the role. But as much credit as those three deserve for the time they put in to portraying James Bond, none of them could give Bond such the massive overhaul that Daniel Craig gives the character in Casino Royale, while at the same time delivering what arguably could be the best film in the entire series.
Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, being written back in 1952, where it would go on to be produced as a 1954 TV episode of the Climax! anthology series and later in 1967 as a satirical comedy film. I have not yet seen the 1967 film, but from what I've heard, it's quite terrible. In March 2004, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade went to work on writing a screenplay that would be highly faithful to the style of Fleming's novel, with screenwriter Paul Haggis writing the climax of the film. The screenplay was written with Pierce Brosnan in mind, but Brosnan had announced a month before that he was stepping down from playing Bond, having filled his contractual obligation of appearing in four films. Brosnan was also approaching 50, and he didn't want to upset fans and critics in the same way they were upset by Roger Moore hanging onto the role until he was 58. Thus began the search for a new, younger actor. Names like Karl Urban, Henry Cavill, Sam Worthington, and even Hugh Jackman were considered, but none of them could make the commitment.
Enter Daniel Craig. Craig had originally rejected the idea of playing Bond, believing that the series had become too formulaic. But upon reading the screenplay and seeing that the film would present Bond in a more raw and vulnerable manner, he changed his mind and agreed to take the part. Craig's casting was met with doubt and dissatisfaction from fans and critics, going as far to threaten boycotting the film. At the heart of the complaints towards Craig's casting was that Craig had blonde hair and blue eyes, and therefore didn't match the image of a tall, dark-haired, and handsome man that people were used to seeing in the twenty films prior. Oh how foolish those people looked by the end of 2006.
The Bond series had been weighed down by CGI effects and a nagging sense of silliness leading into Casino Royale, so there was a desire by Eon Studios to return to the more old-fashioned way of the stunt work and a hope by Purvis, Wade, and Haggis' to stay close to the darker side of the story and Bond's characterization in Fleming's novel. The fruits of those labors was the closest thing a Bond film might get to achieving an R-rating, as Bond is completely stripped of cheesy one-liners and a tongue-in-cheek approach. Instead, Bond is a cold-blooded, arrogant killer who has no desire to court to bed every beautiful woman he meets. We see this in the opening scene, presented in black and white. Bond gains his licence to kill and his status as a 00 agent when he shoots and kills the traitorous MI6 agent Dryden (Malcolm Sinclair), inter cut with scenes of a grainy, black and white fight scene in a bathroom between Bond and Dryden's contact, Fisher (Darwin Shaw). After Bond seemingly defeats Fisher, we see Fisher pick up a gun on the ground, but just before he can shoot Bond, Bond turns around and shoots in the traditional gun barrel opening, leading us into the opening credits.
The plot of Casino Royale concerns Bond going up against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker who finances many of the world's terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre loses a large investment after Bond prevents the destruction of a Skyfleet airliner, and he hopes to earn the money back by setting up a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond is entered into the poker tournament, with MI6 believing that a defeat will force Le Chiffre to seek asylum with the British government, in exchange for information about his clients. Bond is accompanied to Casino Royale by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British Treasury agent who is sent to protect the government's $10 million buy-in.
Normally, I like to think that the best Bond films are those that maximize the standard 007 formula in a way where everything comes together to work as robust as can be. But given how many components there are to the formula, it's admittedly very difficult to fit in as many components as possible without the resulting film seeming like a bloated, incomprehensible mess. As a result, it's inevitable that some of the parts, perhaps the gadgetry or the action, are going to get little to no emphasis whatsoever since you need your story or your Bond girl to be top-notch. So how does this apply to Casino Royale? Well, there are no notable Q gadgets to speak of throughout the film's 144 minutes (Q isn't even a character in the film), and the humor is incredibly sparse. What Casino Royale does is go all in (pun intended) for is considerably the five most important elements of the 007 formula: Bond's portrayal, the girl, the villain, the plot, and the action.
- Everything that Casino Royale attempts to maximize is done so in such an efficient manner that the film remains as equally investing the one hundredth time you it as it does the first time you watch it. This is the first Bond film that presents Bond as something of an anti hero. He isn't sex-driven or extremely charismatic in the way he normally would be in earlier Bond films. Bond is arrogant and vulnerable, with M (Judi Dench) condemning his actions early on in the film and even going as far as to tell Bond to seriously reconsider his future as an MI6 agent. This is not a James Bond that people were used to seeing. People have been seeing a Bond that always asks for his martinis shaken and not stirred, a Bond that delivers one-liners when the situation calls for them, and a Bond that had the experience to properly handle any tough encounter. This Bond when asked if he wants his martini shaken and not stirred, he replies with, "Do I look like I give a damn?" He seduces a woman in order to gain information he needs, and once Bond obtains the information, he leaves, instead of fooling around in bed with said woman. For the first time in the series, we see Bond in a dark place with himself, and Daniel Craig sells it beautifully.
- Casino Royale just might have the best Bond villain in the entire series in Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is no power-hungry overlord hell-bent on world domination or a greed-driven hotshot who hopes to bankrupt someone in hopes of some massive financial gain. Le Chiffre is thrust into a situation where his very life is in danger. Le Chiffre needs to win the poker game because he loses the money he needs to finance his clients, and this is his one and only chance to get back on track. If he loses the game, it's the end of the line for him. This makes Le Chiffre out to be especially human more than anything, because he has motivations that we can get behind and understand. There is no stroking a white cat or hiding out in some heavily guarded fortress for Le Chiffre. This is a man who finds himself in hot water, and he is desperate to do whatever it takes to get out.
- A rock solid Bond and a terrific villain in Le Chiffre are enhanced by an also terrific Bond girl in Vesper Lynd. We first meet Vesper when she accompanies Bond on a train ride to Montenegro, and the two have a great exchange of verbal sparring dialogue, attempting to read one another and guess what they came to Casino Royale for. Never does the film suggest that Vesper is anything resembling a Bond sex object, but rather a real life human being with real emotions and real goals. In one of the most emotional moments in the Bond franchise, Bond finds Vesper sitting alone in a shower while still wearing the fancy dress she was given to wear to the start of the game. Vesper had just witnessed Bond fight and kill two men, and is clearly traumatized by the event. Bond sits by her and comforts her, showing that despite how arrogant and flawed he may be, he still has a softer, more caring side. The script originally had Vesper sitting in the shower in her underwear, but Daniel Craig suggested that Vesper and Bond should leave their clothes on for the scene. The change was approved, and the scene is much more powerful because of it.
- So many high points. The action, on top of everything else, is riveting and completely devoid of anything resembling silliness. Daniel Craig pulls off a lot of his own stunts, including a death-defying leap from a crane when Bond is chasing a man in the first scene after the opening credits. Every action scene feels like a scene you wouldn't find in a standard action film, at least not until the finale, because they are all crafted and put together so wonderfully that you'll want to watch them again and again.
- The first two hours of Casino Royale take a lot of you, because they are that enthralling. As a result, you might be a little gassed for the final twenty minutes, mainly because the film slows down for a bit and lets you catch your breath, only to pick up speed again. That is not to say there's anything wrong with the final twenty minutes. It's just that the film temporarily halts its momentum right around the two hour mark, and because so, the thrill ride we're getting out the film suffers slightly.
Comparing more recent Bond films to older ones is kind of unfair, since the more recent ones have the benefit of technological advancements. And while several of the older Bond films look great for their time, very very few of them are up there with Casino Royale when it comes to being an absolutely fantastic Bond film from top to bottom. Some trade in eye popping action and humor for a well-rounded villain and a memorable Bond girl. Others take a good story and a solid villain in place of visceral thrills and creative gadgets. In other words, Bond films go for doing as much as they can with certain aspects of the Bond formula while minimizing other parts that don't need much focus because, again, it's just flat out impossible to make everything in the formula perfect.
So while Casino Royale is not immune to the formulaic approach, it's still such a stand out Bond film because of how much it gets out of what it goes all in for: presenting Bond in a darker, more serious manner, delivering a villain and a Bond girl who aren't stereotypical in the least, and action that is enhanced by its amazing stunt work. This all comes with an intriguing story that is a casino goer's wet dream, resulting in a Bond package that delivers the goods in all the right ways. The momentum might wane a little in the final twenty minutes, but that's hardly anything resembling a significant flaw for a film that isn't just one of the best Bond films of all time, but also one of the best films to be released during the 2000s.
Recommend? Absolutely. If you are brand new to James Bond, this is my recommendation for the first film to watch.
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