Bond enters the Bourne generation with Daniel Craig’s near-perfect debut as Ian Fleming’s superspy.
Who made it?: Martin Campbell (Director), Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis (Writers), Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson (Producers), EON Productions.
Who’s in it?: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino.
Tagline: “Always Bet On Bond.”
IMDb rating: 8.0/10.
It was always inevitable that the hardcore Bond we witnessed in the severely-underrated Licence to Kill (1989) would one day resurface. By 2006, audiences were ready for a tough, take-no-prisoners 007 that reflected the post-9/11 landscape. They were also looking for something a little grittier than the last entry, the atrocious Die Another Day (2002), which saw Pierce Brosnan exit the role amidst invisible cars and surfable tsunamis. There was also the matter of The Bourne Identity (2002), a spy film which completely redefined the genre. Audiences now expected their action films to be sophisticated and somewhat plausible. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson knew it was time to give Bond a radical makeover and bring him into the modern-day, going back to the man who achieved that goal previously, GoldenEye‘s Martin Campbell.
There are a variety of reasons for why Casino Royale is my favourite Bond film ever (an opinion which hasn’t changed in Skyfall‘s wake), least of all Campbell’s first-rate direction. To paraphrase Broccoli, the writers always go back to Ian Fleming’s source material when in doubt. They did just that, dusting off Fleming’s very first 007 novel to reintroduce cinema’s most well-trodden character. While it had been filmed previously in 1967 as a spoof starring David Niven, the script by Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with a little help from the great Paul Haggis (Crash), is a lot more faithful to the text. Casino Royale effectively denies the existence of all previous franchise outings and wipes the slate clean. It was a decision that single-handedly saved Mr. Bond from retirement.
The darker intent is perfectly summed-up in the glorious black-and-white prologue which sees Bond (a defiant Daniel Craig) making his first kill; a brutal bathroom punch-up that pushes the film’s 12A rating for everything its got. The way it segues into the full-colour title sequence is ingenious, incorporating the time-honoured gun-barrel shot in the most unexpected of ways. Campbell is almost telling you to abandon your expectations. Such rulebook rewriting is also heightened by the choice of Chris Cornell for the song, an atypically “hip” pick for the series. “You Know My Name” got a lot of unwarranted flack upon its release, but it has aged rather well and embodies the franchise’s newly-hardened credentials (hey, anyone’s better than Madonna). Add the fact that Bond is given his 00 status during the credits, and you have a film that has done more for the franchise’s legacy in ten minutes than Die Another Day managed in 133.
Casino Royale succeeds because it is constantly informing us about this new, conflicted Bond whilst charging ahead with a plot that ticks all the usual boxes. In his first officially-sanctioned mission, Bond must stop Le Chiffre (a terrifically creepy Mads Mikkelsen), a banker to the world’s terrorist organisations, from winning a high-stakes poker tournament at Casino Royale in Montenegro. What seems like a routine assignment becomes increasingly more dangerous, especially when the cold spy’s heart is warmed by a beautiful Treasury agent, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). But, as we know, love for Bond is always going to end badly. Just ask George Lazenby.
There is a real vibrancy to Casino Royale that is exciting, and that’s because we feel like there is something at stake. As portrayed by Craig, 007 finally resembles a human being with recognisable motivations and flaws. He isn’t yet the calm, cool and remorseless hitman we know from Goldfinger (1964). He makes mistakes and clings onto his humanity like a Walther PPK. Casino Royale is the origin story we never had, and sees the character pushed physically and emotionally, especially in the infamous torture scene where Bond’s love spuds are pulverised by Le Chiffre and a knotted rope. There’s also the fact that Vesper, far from the empty eye candy of past Bond Girls, manages to crack the steely veneer to see the man beneath. It gives the action scenes greater punch as a result, because we feel like this is a Bond who can be harmed.
Campbell and the screenwriters also pull off the love story credibly. Vesper is a fascinating character who more than holds her own against Bond, displayed best in their first meeting on a high-speed train to Montenegro. Their snappy back-and-forth is typical of the franchise, but where it would be empty pre-coitus innuendo in past films, here it works to inform the characters, especially when she surmises that they are both orphans. Few of his conquests have ever managed to understand the person behind the tailored façade making Miss Lynd one of the most memorable Bond Girls in history. The romance also functions because Craig and Green actually have chemistry. This might seem unimportant, but have you ever actually bought a romance in a Bond movie? Green’s charisma does wonders for the film.
And while Casino Royale is occasionally po-faced and meanders into romantic melodrama at points, the action scenes make it a force to be reckoned with. For sheer scale and ingenuity, no other Bond film can match the set-pieces on show here. From a thrilling Parkour chase across a construction site to a nerve-wracking demolition derby through an airport, Campbell brings the goods. All of it is so efficiently shot and choreographed that any faults in the film’s plotting are instantly forgiven. This is action filmmaking on a broad canvas produced by craftsman of unparalleled technical competence. As a blockbuster, Casino Royale is top-tier stuff.
Making it all fire, however, is Craig. Despite the pre-release buzz suggesting he was a horrible choice for the role, the veteran actor made 007 his own. The first “blonde Bond” is unlike any of his predecessors, carving his own niche and breaking from tradition. Craig sells Bond’s complexity as well as his schoolboy mentality that allows the odd flippant pun to hit home. He is also much more adept as a rough-and-tumble action hero than Pierce Brosnan ever was. Because Craig’s Bond is a thoroughly well-rounded protagonist, I have no hesitation in calling him the second best only to Sean Connery. Craig is in the enviable position of playing a character and not an archetype.
Casino Royale isn’t entirely perfect. At 144 minutes, it is the longest film in the series and feels like it on occasion, but your patience is rewarded with some of the best action scenes ever put to celluloid and a bold rejuvenation of an iconic character. Royale does full justice to Bond’s legacy whilst updating his mission statement for the better. As franchise reboots go, nobody does it better.
Bond always gets his man, even when that man is into Parkour. Damn French.
- Daniel Craig’s role in the British thriller Layer Cake is said to have clinched the role of James Bond for him over the other competing rival actors. DVD/video rentals of the movie went up after the announcement Craig would be the new Bond.
- First James Bond movie not to have a major pre-credits action stunt sequence since The Man with the Golden Gun.
- This is the first film since Dr. No where there were no nude dancing females during the opening title sequence.
- James Bond’s letter of resignation via the MI6 intelligence intranet read: “M – I hereby tender my resignation with immediate effect. Sincerely, James Bond.” This is the third movie where Bond has resigned. The first was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the second was Licence to Kill. In the latter, his license to kill was revoked, and in Die Another Day he was temporarily decommissioned.
- This is the very first EON Productions official series James Bond movie to feature the ally character of Rene Mathis (played by Giancarlo Giannini). The Mathis character appeared in the original Ian Fleming novel but not the film of From Russia with Love, and variations of this character’s name have appeared in Climax!: Casino Royale (as Valerie Mathis) and 1967′s Casino Royale (as Inspector Mathis). Rene returns in this film’s direct sequel, Quantum of Solace.