We’re in the home stretch now folks. That’s right, with today’s film we’ve reached the tenure of our current James Bond, Mr. Daniel Craig. And let me tell you, things are taking a turn for the better. Because this film, Casino Royale? It’s my second-favorite Bond film, only beat by From Russia With Love, and it really is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s a near perfect film, with one awkward issue that weighs it down, and in the years since it’s come out it’s really given itself a wonderful legacy. This is a very different kind of Bond film, one that still uses the tropes and iconography of the franchise while becoming a film that doesn’t quite feel like the rest of the franchise. Action filmmaking was really changing at the time, and this film really shows that. Often times when the Bond franchise has decided to ape a new type of filmmaking it results in some half-baked ideas. But this film really feels different, and succeeds at it. It’s a film that introduced Bond to a whole new generation, and even though the Pierce Brosnan era functioned as a soft-reboot to the franchise, reinventing itself after the Cold War and the hiatus between GoldenEye and License to Kill, this film completely throws everything out before it, and becomes a completely new continuity, and a whole new story. Which is something that I’m not completely on board with, but the strength of the film carries. I love how loose the Bond franchise has always held continuity. Technically James Bond is the same character in every incarnation (unless you want to get real weird and get into the “James Bond is a codename passed down to different agents” thing) but this film kind of wipes that all away and starts fresh.
Which it kind of needed. Yeah, I love all Bond movies, and there’s something fun to find in them all, but boy is Die Another Day a low-point. The acting, effects, direction, and music are all serious nadirs for the franchise, and it was clear that things were going to need to be reinvigorated. Plus, the world was rapidly changing, and what people were interested in were no longer invisible cars. They needed something darker, grittier, and more realistic. And, as luck would have it, they had something perfect to try. Because for the first time in the franchise’s history, EON had the right to adapt Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale. The rights to Casino Royale had been confusingly withheld from EON for their entire run, and after being passed around for decades they finally ended up at Sony. But because Sony couldn’t do anything with them, they decided to trade them to MGM, oddly enough for the rights to Spider-Man, so after Die Another Day’s critical catastrophe it became the perfect place for them to start. And a combination of Pierce Brosnan not wanting to return to the franchise and the fact that they were adapting the very first James Bond adventure made EON realize they needed to do something drastic. They needed to reboot the franchise, and give James Bond’s origin story. Which means that they needed a new Bond. So, of course, they began looking for a new actor, and ended up seeing basically every white actor who was from a vaguely British country. Really anything that used to be part of the Empire. And, after an exhaustive hunt the white smoke rose from EON’s chimney and they announced someone somewhat surprising. We were getting a blonde Bond! And people lost their minds. Those people were idiots, because Daniel Craig would end up knocking this performance out of the park, becoming yet another amalgam Bond, absorbing the traits of all the previous actors, while doing something new with the character, bringing fresh life to him. And you know what? He may be the best of the bunch.
Casino Royale starts off with a shockingly noir-like cold open, shot in black and white, and featuring James Bond’s first mission. Turns out that to be a double-oh agent you need two kills, which Bond acquires while killing a corrupt MI6 sector chief and his contact. We’re then thrown into a manically colorful credit sequence, featuring some fun and weird animation and a very different type of theme song sung by Chris Cornell. And once that’s over we start trotting around the world, getting everything set up. We see a man named Le Chiffre who functions as an accountant and financier for terrorism and criminals making a deal with an African warlord before making some risky moves with an airline’s stock prices. We’re then tossed into Madagascar where Bond is hot on the trail of a bomb-maker linked to terrorism. The two get in an insane parkour chase through the city that ends in an embassy, which Bond blows up. But he got the bomb-maker’s cellphone, and finds a mysterious text-message that just says ELLIPSES. Bond then returns to England so he can get chewed out by M, who is not happy that Bond created a diplomatic incident with the embassy. She forces Bond to take some leave, and he decides to keep investigating things, and tracks down the source of the ELLIPSES message to someone in the Bahamas. So Bond heads to the Caribbean, and tracks down source of the message, a man named Alex Dimitrios, a known criminal. Bond begins harassing Dimitrios, even winning his car in a poker game and then seducing his wife, before jetting off to Miami to follow him. And along the way he lets MI6 in on his developments, linking Dimitrios to Le Chiffre, who MI6 have been after for quite some time.
Unfortunately, while Bond is able to kill Dimitrios, he’s unable to stop a terrorist from getting his instructions and equipment. Bond follows the terrorist, and ends up figuring out that he’s trying to blow up a demonstration of a new plane from the airline that Le Chiffre was betting against earlier in the film. Bond and the terrorist get in a brutal fight at the airport, ending with Bond succeeding and keeping the plane safe. He’s then welcomed back to MI6, where M gives him some news. Apparently Le Chiffre was hoping to make a killing in the stock market by betting against the airline’s stocks, but since he’s been thwarted he’s now in desperate need for money, so he’s holding a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro. And they want Bond to beat Le Chiffre and put him in even hotter water so that MI6 can convince him to turn against his terrorist clients. So Bond heads off to Montenegro with a babysitter from the Treasury Department, Vesper Lynd. Bond and Vesper instantly have a whole bunch of sexual chemistry, but shes put off by Bond’s reckless nature. Which isn’t helped when he drops all pretense and gets rid of his fabricated identity to Le Chiffre. The poker then begins! Bond, Le Chiffre, and a variety of rich oddballs begins playing poker while Vesper and a French agent named Rene Mathis help Bond try and put pressure on Le Chiffre. The poker games continue to get more and more intense, with Bond almost winning and losing it all, while also fighting off the warlords that Le Chiffre screwed over in the beginning. Bond’s luck changes though when he finds out that one of the players is a CIA agent, Felix Leiter, who offers to help bankroll Bond when Vesper no longer can. Which is when Bond wins, taking all of Le Chiffre’s money, and finally driving the man to the edge.
However, it turns out this wasn’t a great plan, because instead of running to the open arms of MI6 or the CIA, Le Chiffre goes a little insane. Vesper is kidnapped by Le Chiffre, and Bond chases after him, getting in a horrible car accident. Le Chiffre implies that Mathis sold them out, and takes Bond off to some warehouse to get tortured, pummeling Bond’s genitals with a knotted rope. But Bond wont give Le Chiffre the money, and as the man gets more and more frantic they’re suddenly saved by someone unexpected. A mysterious man who works for the criminal organization that employs Le Chiffre. The man, Mr. White, kills Le Chiffre and his goons, and leave Bond and Vesper. Bond then awakes in a hospital, recovering from the damage that Le Chiffre did to him. He and Vesper spend quite a bit of time together at the hospital, and end up falling in love. So after Bond’s done with the hospital the two plan to run away together, and head to Venice. Unfortunately, things aren’t as they seem, and Bond finds that Vesper was actually the double agent, and she’s planning on delivering Le Chiffre’s money to representatives of the same organization that Mr. White works for. Bond follows Vesper and gets in a huge fight with the criminals, which ends with them sinking a house into the Venetian lagoon. However, during the brawl Vesper decides that she can’t live with what she did, and commits suicide by drowning herself, and not letting Bond save her. Bond is obviously crushed by all of this, but finds that Vesper has left him one last message, pointing him in the direction of Mr. White. The film then ends with a small coda featuring Bond finding White, shooting him in the leg, and getting ready to interrogating him while the James Bond theme finally swells and Bond gives the traditional, “Bond. James Bond,” line, completing his transformation into the character we know and love.
I love this film. I love this film so much. When I first became a Bond fan the best I had in the way of new films was the World is Not Enough. I was welcomed into franchise on the decline. As I examined the rest of the franchise and found how great it used to be it became a little depressing to see how mediocre things had become. But then things changed. And they changed drastically. Casino Royale somehow feels completely familiar while also being unlike anything we’d ever seen from the franchise. Directly from the beginning of this movie with it’s black and white noir opening you can tell that things were going to be different. This was a darker Bond, a more realistic one. This was a post 9/11 Bond that became fixated with terrorism. The Brosnan era ran into a problem by trying to find what kind of threat Bond needed to face now that the Cold War was over, and faltered. But here? They found a perfect new boogie-man for Bond to chase. And to lead us into this new world of Bond we were given one of the most well-made films in the entire franchise. Martin Campbell absolutely crushes this movie, making a much more artfully and skillfully crafted film than the franchise has ever seen. The action is fast, brutal, and well-shot, giving us the power of the fights in the Bourne movies without the motion sickness that Paul Greengrass’ direction usually causes. But one of the biggest draws the film has is the fact that it’s across-the-board well-acted. Daniel Craig is phenomenal as James Bond, showing us at first a cold-blooded killer, before revealing that this is all an act that Bond puts up so he can remain good at his job. But hes able to pull off quips, romance, friendship, and all of the emotionless assassin stuff. Craig may be the best actor to ever portray Bond, and he gives the character some shocking depth, making him instantly likeable and sympathetic. And he’s equally matched with Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, who immediately becomes the best Bond Girl the franchise has ever had. Vesper is funny, tough, and competent, actually serving a purpose in the script while delivering some incredibly chemistry with Craig. You really believe the burgeoning relationship between Bond and Vesper, which makes her betrayal and his response that much more powerful. Plus, they’re given an absolutely delightful antagonist to go up against. Mads Mikkelsen is always a terrific actor, but this may be the performance of his that I most enjoy. Le Chiffre is a wonderfully unhinged character, dropping some genuinely funny lines and reactions, while becoming more and more unstable and insane as the film goes on, culminating in the twisted torture scene. Really the only issue that I have with the film is that the Venice scene is far too long, and the final action set-piece kind of drags the film down, conflicting with the emotional resonance that the scenes before and after crafted. But that quibble aside, Casino Royale is an amazing film, and one while serves as a wonderful jumping on point for the franchise, and a bold new beginning.
The James Bond series has never really been continuity heavy. We also never really learned all that much about James Bond the man. Yeah, Alec Trevelyan mentions Bond’s parents dying in “climbing accident,” and we would occasionally get some awkward references to Tracy, but by and large you can watch any Bond in any order and be fine, because you really aren’t going to miss anything about Bond’s character by watching them out of order. But when the producers of Casino Royale decided to go back to basics and adapt the very first Bond novel, they had a chance to adopt a then growing trend in blockbuster films. They got to reboot things and go over the origin story. Blockbuster cinema loves the origin story. It’s a change to tell a condensed hero’s journey while hopefully getting people reinvigorated for a character. Things have changed drastically in the blockbuster world since 2006, namely the rise of the cinematic universe and the idea that franchises can intertwine, but one thing sure hasn’t. Studios love to reboot. Franchises can always be viable, and when they seem like they’re no longer viable you can just shake the Etch-a-Sketch and restart while still holding onto the nostalgia and loyalty from the previous movies. Which obviously doesn’t always work. But it’s something that probably seemed incredibly tantalizing for James Bond. The character had been around for more than forty years (on screen) and things had never really rebooted. Yeah, things were really that connected to begin with, but we were still obstentibly dealing with the same character in Dr. No that’s in Die Another Day. But Casino Royale got to do something new. They got to bring things back to the very beginning of Bond’s career, literally showing us his entry into the double-oh program. Reboots often feel like cash-grabs. Soulless experiments that beg the question of why the studios didn’t just pull a James Bond and recast the role while keeping the continuity. But when done right a reboot can take a lagging franchise and breathe some life and vitality into it by doing something different with the series than had been done before. And that’s what we get here. Now, I’ll talk about this a lot in the next couple days, because the Craig era really is far more inter-connected than the rest of the franchise ever was, but Casino Royale is a very different film. Not just because we learn about Bond’s origin. But because we learn anything about Bond. This is a film that examines Bond’s orphan history, that shows his growing-pains in the job, and generally gives him more depth than we’ve ever seen. I love James Bond, but the character that we get in the vast majority of the franchise is more an archetype than a character. James Bond typically doesn’t have a lot of depth. The Fleming Bond usually gets a bit more, but the movies don’t really care about the psychological or physical ramifications of James Bond’s actions, they care about his charm and his skills. But this film goes in a very different direction, and it’s one that the rest of the Craig era, for better or worse, will follow. I for one love Casino Royale, and the depth that it brought to one of my favorite characters, and it remains my absolute favorite reboot of all time.
Categories: Reel Talk