Casino Royale (2006) – The 21st James Bond Film; The 1st Daniel Craig Film – Directed by Martin Campbell – Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Abkarian, Jesper Christensen, and Judi Dench.
When I first watched CASINO ROYALE back in 2006, the first thing I said to someone about the movie was, “That’s the Bond movie I’ve always wanted to see.” Combining a global plot with an intimate character arc, CASINO reboots the Bond franchise by taking us back to the first days of James Bond (Daniel Craig) as 007. Largely gone are the gadgets, Moneypenny, Q, shaken-not-stirred, the signature theme music, the ridiculous henchman, the comedic ally, and the Hollywood-ized casting that came to the fore in the Pierce Brosnan films. In it’s place we have a straightforward action/espionage film with a villain whose interest lies in making money far more than ruling the world.
And it’s brilliant.
CASINO ROYALE is not only my favorite James Bond film, not only in the pantheon of all-time action movies, but it’s also flat out one of my favorite movies of all time.
Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, CASINO ROYALE manages to tell a large story without losing sight of the character arc of its protagonist. This is the first Bond film with a Bond still finding himself as a man and an agent. While he’s still cool, he’s not unflappable. He makes mistakes but he doggedly keeps pushing forward. He is very much the “blunt instrument” that M accuses him of being while dressing him down for an act that causes the British government public discomfort.
The movie opens in black and white, as we see Bond waiting for Dryden, an MI6 section chief in his office. Dryden tells Bond he isn’t worried because Bond doesn’t have “double-O” status because you need two confirmed kills to gain it. Intercut with the Dryden-Bond showdown is an incredibly physical fight between Bond and Dryden’s contact in a bathroom. Bond kills the contact for kill #1 and then Dryden for kill #2. Smartly, the film moves from the assasination of Dryden, back to the final killshot of his contact, which becomes the famous “barrel sequence,” then we’re into the titles, and when we come out the other side, we see a computer screen telling us that he’s “007 status confirmed.” It’s smart filmmaking that rewards you for paying attention. This isn’t to suggest that CASINO ROYALE is Memento or Mulholland Drive, but it will reward you for paying attention to the craft that went into its production.
When we next see Bond, he’s in Madagascar and working with a much greener agent to capture a bomb maker. We get this huge parkour chase sequence (with the bomb maker being played by Sebastian Foucan, one of parkour’s founders) through the city that winds through a construction site and ends at the Nambutu foreign embassy. It’s a fantastic sequence that highlights the raw physicality of Craig’s Bond. His target runs over obstacles and squeezes through tiny holes while Bond runs through them, combining his power with his intelligence to continually close the distance on the target. At the embassy we see that his intelligence has limits; far from being invincible, Craig’s Bond makes plenty of mistakes, like he does at the end of the sequence when he kills the bomb maker inside embassy grounds and in plain sight of a security camera.
The Brosnan Bond films did a solid job of plugging the Bond franchise into the contemporary political scene and CASINO continues this trend. Bond’s killing of the bomb maker causes all sorts of grief for M (still played by the awesomely bad-ass Judi Dench) as his assassination makes the papers back home. M is furious at the duplicitous nature of the lawmakers who want results and purposely don’t ask about their methods, and furious at Bond for being so stupid.
The relationship between M and Bond is different than it’s ever been this time around. With Brosnan’s Bond, Dench’s M was also a bad-ass, but there was always the sense that, relative to their fields, they were both at the top of their profession. Dench’s M actually has to prove herself to Bond in GOLDENEYE but this becomes mutual respect as the series progresses. In CASINO, M is clearly the superior, and her admonishing of Bond is much more … I hesitate to use the word “maternal” because I think I want to use it just because M’s a woman and Bond’s a man, but her attitude towards Bond is one-part taskmaster, one-part shepherd. “They want your head,” she tells him sternly. “I’m considering giving it to them.”
“Next time I’ll shoot the camera first,” he tells her flatly. You can forget, I think, just how humorous CASINO can occasionally be if you haven’t watched it in a while because the film, as a whole, is so serious. Craig’s usually delivers his quips in a serious monotone, which helps to keep the film and character grounded.
M wants Bond to see “the big picture” in light of his actions in Madagascar but at the end of the film, after Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is dead and Bond coldly tells M he doesn’t need anymore time off because “the mission is over and the bitch is dead,” you can see a look on M’s face that says she’s a bit wary of what she’s just created.
CASINO plays with your expectations of what a Bond movie “should be” a bit here and there, both for comedic effect and to highlight how this film is going in a new direction. When Bond first meets Vesper, she tells him, “I’m the money” and he dryly replies that she’s “worth every penny of it.” Later, when a bartender asks him if he wants his martini “shaken or stirred,” Bond angrily snaps back, “Does it look like I give a damn?”
The main storyline in CASINO involves Bond playing in a high stakes poker game that bad guy Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) puts on to recover the money he lost when Bond stopped his agent from blowing up a jet in Miami. Le Chiffre short sells stocks and then hires people to do bad things to profit from rebuying the stock at a much lower price. When Bond stops the bomb, the shares of the jet’s manufacturer don’t fall, and Le Chiffre ends up being out $100 million. Give or take. The poker game is his chance to make his money back.
The problem with his scheme is that he’s investing other people’s money, and that’s where the real problem for him lies. He takes money from international terrorists and invests it and they’re understandably torqued when Le Chiffre’s “low risk” investing strategies cost them their money. A bunch of African terrorists show up in Montenegro to rough him up a bit and Bond ends up killing them when they recognize him as a threat. The fight between the men and Bond (with Vesper caught in the middle) is another rough, physical, brutal fight down a stairwell inside the casino. Bond kills both terrorists but the fight takes his toll on him. Where a previous Bond might be bothered most by the blood on his clothes, Craig’s Bond clearly needs time to come down from what he’s just done. Guzzling liquor as he undresses back in his room, Bond needs time to compose himself before returning to the table to continue the game.
Moving parallel to the poker game plot is Bond’s developing relationship with Vesper, an agent from the Treasury who’s been assigned to the mission. She’s authorized $10 million to go into Bond’s account for the poker game buy-in and she can authorize $5 million more if she deems it a wise investment. Craig and Eva Green have fantastic chemistry. The dinner scene aboard a high-speed luxury train is one of the best back-and-forths in the franchise. There’s a mutual attraction between them but Lynd makes a point to tell Bond that this will be a business trip. After they pop-psychoanalyze each other, Lynd asks him, “How was your lamb?”
“Skewered,” he answers with a droll smile.
Vesper ends up betraying Bond in the end. She’s a double agent, working for the organization that employs Le Chiffre. Her boyfriend was held hostage by the group and they coerced her into working for them to get the money. What’s nice is that because Lynd isn’t a professional at all of this, her tears are real when she sees Bond kill the two African terrorists. The filmmakers have managed to make all of her actions consistent with both her growing attraction to Bond and her ultimate betrayal. It’s a quiet but powerful performance by Green, and the relationship between Vesper and Bond grows naturally through the film so you feel her betrayal all the more when it comes (even if you know it’s probably coming).
At the helm for the first time since GOLDENEYE is Martin Campbell and once again he delivers stellar work. It’s top notch directing from start to finish from Campbell.
David Arnold is back to score his fourth straight Bond movie and once again he’s fantastic, too. He’s hamstrung a bit by the decision to not use the classic Bond theme until the end credits, but he co-wrote the title song, “You Know My Name” with Chris Cornell and uses an orchestrated version of the song throughout the film to serve as a substitute theme for Bond. It works extremely well and sounds reminiscent enough of the classic Bond theme that, unlike GOLDENEYE, you’re not constantly waiting for it to show up. It’s a great rock song, too, and the opening titles (designed by Daniel Kleinman) are spectacular. I love the colorful brightness of the sequence, which stand in contrast to the film’s muted (though well-lit) palette. Both song and title sequence are among the best in the franchise’s history.
CASINO ROYALE is a triumph from start to finish.