My James Bond Retrospective: Casino Royale

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Before Die Another Day went into production, MGM purchased the rights to the 1953 Ian Fleming novel Casino Royale—the book that introduced the character James Bond 007. Because of this acquisition, there was much speculation that the twentieth Bond film would indeed be the “official” film adaptation of the initiatory novel. Instead, the studio released Die Another Day.

Following that film’s release, anticipation began to grow as news of the new Bond film started to spread. Rumors of a film directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Pierce Brosnan as Bond and Uma Thurman as Vesper Lynd, began to spread. However, as Brosnan’s original deal included only four films, it seemed he would not return to the series. Brosnan was approaching his 50th birthday, and it was becoming clear that he was not going to attempt what Roger Moore had attempted. In February 2005, Brosnan announced his departure from James Bond, and the search for a new 007 began.

daniel-craig-is-announced-as-the-new-james-bond-1350415778-view-1According to producer Michael G. Wilson, there were over 200 actors in consideration for the role of James Bond, but only three months after Brosnan announced his departure, rumors spread that a new James Bond had been selected. On October 15, 2005, Sony Pictures and MGM announced officially that Daniel Craig would be the new 007.

The news was not well received by Bond fans. Many announced that they would boycott the film, and an Internet campaign known as “Daniel Craig is not Bond” began.

When the news hit that Casino Royale would be a complete reboot of the series (and not just a “refresh,” as GoldenEye had been), more controversy arose. This was the first time a new Bond actor had been chosen during the Internet age, and websites everywhere were covered with strong (mostly negative) opinions about the upcoming film.

The producers turned to director Martin Campbell to helm the new film. Campbell’s first Bond film was GoldenEye, the first refresh of the Bond franchise, and the producers felt that since his first foray into the world of 007 was a huge success both critically and financially, he could repeat his success.

Casino Royale premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square, the Odeon West End, and the Empire simultaneously in London on November 14, 2006. Despite all the controversy leading up to the film’s release, it was very well received by fans, critics, and general audiences alike, quickly topping Die Another Day as the highest grossing Bond film to date. It was also the fourth-highest grossing film of 2006. Critics praised the new direction for Bond; Roger Ebert said, “Daniel Craig makes a superb Bond: Leaner, more taciturn, less sex-obsessed, able to be hurt in body and soul, not giving a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred. . . . It’s a movie that keeps on giving.”

The movie opens with Bond killing an MI6 section chief who had been selling classified information. Upon killing him and his contact, Bond receives his 00 status. His first mission as a 00 agent involves tracking down a bomb maker named Mollaka. Bond kills Mollaka and discovers a message on his phone which he traces to a man named Alex Dimitrios, an associate of the terrorist financier known as Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre has been holding money for Steven Obanno, a Ugandan warlord and member of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He loses the money, however, when one of his stock-shorting schemes fails after Bond intervenes. In order to recoup his losses, Le Chiffre enters a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro.

Bond enters the game as well, aided by Vesper Lynd, a British treasury officer sent to look after the governments interests, and René Mathis, a local MI6 contact. Bond loses his initial stake in the game, so he asks Vesper to free up the $5 million needed for a re-buy-in. She refuses, so Bond elects to simply assassinate Le Chiffre before he can win his money back. CIA agent Felix Leiter, who is also playing in the tournament, stops Bond before he can kill Le Chiffre and offers to fund his stake in exchange for American custody of Le Chiffre. Bond agrees and continues playing, beating Le Chiffre in the final round.

Le Chiffre retaliates by kidnapping Vesper and torturing Bond in an attempt to get access to the money. He’s unsuccessful, and someone from his organization eliminates him, apparently freeing Bond and Vesper.

Casino Royale is a testament to great filmmaking. It is by far the darkest and most serious film in the series, diving into much of what shaped Bond into the cold killer that he becomes. While the movie doesn’t have the explosive action that has become a mainstay of the franchise, the dramatic tension throughout does a more than adequate job of providing the edginess necessary to keep you fixated to the screen.

The film is in many ways a drastic departure from the tropes of the franchise and doesn’t apologize for being as different as it is. The new pre-title sequence that did away with the traditional “gun-barrel” opener served as an indicator that Bond was headed in a completely different direction.

CasinoStill01eCraig does an excellent job as 007 in the film, shedding almost all of the humor that had characterized his predecessor. Instead, he opts for a grittier, angrier version of the character, and one that is far more believable as an assassin. This new Bond is clearly a sharpened weapon.

If there’s one complaint I have with Craig’s performance here, it’s that he wears Bond’s sophistication with disdain. He’s not a charmer (not that Bond should be one), but ever since Connery, Bond has always had an allure about him that drew people in. Craig’s Bond is an assassin and not much else.

The movie speeds along at a brisk clip; the film’s pacing is fast and intense, keeping you on the edge of your seat for pretty much the entire thing. Rarely does the movie pause to look at the landscape, and when it does, it’s an important story element. Pacing is not an issue at all with this film (although, I would argue that pacing problems had pretty much disappeared from the series after A View to a Kill).

The film is also a big departure from the standard Bond formula. Bond movies always started with a big action set piece, moved to the title sequence, then there’s probably a scene with Moneypenny. Shortly thereafter, M gives Bond his assignment, he meets a couple babes, beds said babes, encounters the villain, and then saves the day. Sometimes the formula worked magnificently, and other times it flopped. But at any given moment in a Bond movie, you always knew where you were in the formula. Casino Royale changes all of that. Yes, it has all the elements (sans Moneypenny), but they’ve been jostled about to the extent that you really don’t know what’s coming next. The movie is as unpredictable as Dr. No was when it first came out back in 1962.

The villain Le Chiffre is well played by Mads Mikkelsen. He’s creepy and sinister, while maintaining a certain level of relatability. He’s not the best villain of the series, but he’s ideal for this movie and is certainly among the top villains in the franchise.

The real show stealer was Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. The character was by far the most well developed Bond girl in the series. She’s smart, mysterious, sexy, and dangerous. But her mystique betrays a sadness and desperation that is disarming. Lynd is far and away my favorite character in this film. She is also my favorite Bond girl (with Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King, Izabella Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova, Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier, and Diana Rigg’s Tracy di Vincenzo rounding out my top five).

Green’s performance is stellar. She gives the movie that extra level of je-ne-sais-quoi that turns Casino Royale from being a good Bond film to being one of the finest Bond films. I found myself drawn to her performance and rooting for her character far more than I did Bond. She held the movie together. The craziest part about her character is that she’s probably the most “traditional” Bond girl we’ve seen since Kara Milovy in The Living Daylights, showing us that you don’t need computer programmers, government spies, or nuclear physicists to have successful Bond girls who can be Bond’s equal; you just need a strong female character who can draw out the best in Bond.

Vesper is such a deep character that her interactions with Bond develop into the most convincing romance of the series (granted, there is only one other romance between Bond and a leading lady in the whole series; the rest are simply Bond’s conquests). The relationship is so passionate that it drives Bond to resign from MI6. If the romance weren’t believable, his resignation wouldn’t be taken seriously by the audience; it would be a laughable moment. At one point in their interactions, Vesper says to James, “If the only thing left of you was your smile and your little finger, you’d still be more of a man than anyone I’ve ever known,” not in response to anything he did as a British spy or any of his charm, but in response to his willingness to give everything he has for her. The most powerful scene in the movie was an almost silent moment between Vesper and James where he comforts her after she had witnessed the killing of two men who had been chasing them.

This is quite possibly the best Bond film to date. While it is sorely lacking in humor (save some small comedy relief in a scene that is otherwise a dark and brutal scene), it has all the elements of a great Bond film and then some. Not only is it an excellent Bond film, it’s an excellent film in its own right. If you watch no other Bond film, watch this one. It’s certainly not the archetypal Bond film, but it does everything that a Bond film should do.

Next up, Quantum of Solace.

(Click to go back to the list.)

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