Nostra at My Filmviews has organized an intriguing blogathon designed to push writers out of their comfort zones. It presents five obstructions (one per month) that force you to avoid the typical approach. This month's challenge wasn't too bad; writing reviews longer than 1,250 words isn't that abnormal for me. However, I chose to accept the higher level of difficulty and write a review that includes more than 2,000 words. My choice was to revisit Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's first appearance as James Bond. It revitalized the franchise creatively and is one of the series' best movies. I'd never written about it before, so this felt like the perfect opportunity to dig into such an intriguing film.
Casino Royale – Directed by Martin Campbell; Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, and Caterina Murino
Introducing a new James Bond is a tricky proposition. Within the first few minutes, the film makers are presenting their mission statement about the future direction for the franchise. Goldeneye announced that Bond had entered the big-budget world of the ‘90s. Brosnan jumped off a cliff and “flew” into a plane to save himself in ridiculous fashion. We were a long way from the more serious take of Timothy Dalton. The separation from those excesses is clear from the opening frame of Casino Royale. Daniel Craig is a brutal killer who drowns a man in a bathroom sink and then shoots a traitor in the head. Shot in black and white and emphasizing the grim nature of Bond’s work, this sequence makes us forget about invisible cars and space lasers. This guy is new to the force and recognizes the rough nature of his job. He’s a grunt who follows orders and kills, and the glitz of his predecessor is long gone.
Following a cool credits sequence with Chris Cornell shouting “you know my name!”, we jump right into the story. The villainous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is making shady financial deals and rigging the system. It’s a quick introduction and does little but confirm that he isn’t trying to take over the world. This scene is a necessity but quickly forgotten once Bond starts a relentless pursuit of an enemy operative. The chase is the movie's standout action scene and arrives during the first 15 minutes. It’s an interesting move and sidesteps the usual method of the slow buildup in many Bond stories. The high-flying Parkour action signifies once again that Bond is working in a different arena. Would any of the other Bonds create this kind of destruction? It’s a long sequence that might lose viewers hoping for a more sophisticated Bond, but it’s needed to clearly delineate Craig’s incarnation. He'll shoot and ask questions later, and that's not always a wise idea.
Bringing Judi Dench back as M (the lone crossover from the Brosnan era) is a wise move, and she plays an even larger role in Craig’s films. She’s the stern mother who chastises the inexperienced Bond for his rash actions. Her description of him as a “blunt instrument” is accurate, yet there’s still compassion for him. Bond respects few adversaries, but he’ll always listen to M. It takes an actor with Dench’s presence to make that relationship believable. He breaks into her house and flaunts the rules, yet M isn’t ready to turn on her back on Bond. The question is whether audiences have the same affinity for this guy. Craig is the right man to play this brutal agent, yet he’s so different from the other actors. Dalton had a fiery personality and could sell the drama, but he was never physically imposing. Craig lumbers around the room like a guy looking for his next fight.
The sequence on the beach is a curious one for such a different type of movie. It’s clearly an homage to Ursula Andress walking out of the water in Dr. No, yet now Bond is the sex object. We’re in the world of Sean Connery at an island paradise in the Bahamas. Bond visits the hotel casino and plays against an outmatched underling (Simon Abkarian). Even the music seems familiar to long-time fans. It’s also the first time he interacts with a beautiful woman, and we’re already 35 minutes into the film. Solange (Caterina Murino) is a tool at his disposal, and she’s doomed from the moment Bond appears in her sights. The surprise is that Bond doesn’t stick around once duty calls. This guy is all business, and the women take a back seat to his main objectives. Although she helps to signify a new side of Bond, Solange doesn’t stray too far from the normal model. We’re moving forward, but the problematic history for the franchise with its female characters hasn’t completely evaporated.
This portion of the movie is intriguing because it isn’t clear where Bond is headed. The main story has hardly begun, yet we’re nearing the end of the first hour. He stumbles upon a bombing plot at the Miami Airport, and it’s time for another cat-and-mouse chase. This is a post-9/11 world gone mad, and a threat exists around every corner. After some T1000-like running from Craig, the old-school driving stunts are a refreshing change of pace from the CGI-dominated modern landscape. Even when he’s performing daring feats, this Bond feels real and experiences actual pain. Roger Moore would have passed out after taking a few punches. This guy is almost too reckless and is basically a “demolition man” that destroys everything that he touches. His fearless attitude may be needed to stop this new crop of villains. They aren’t sitting in their lairs and preparing to blow up the world. These guys are on the ground, and it will take more than brains to stop them. The brief smile that appears on his face at the end is a rare moment of joy for the unflinching agent.
Solange’s off-screen death is notable because it’s given such a brief mention. Bond shows no emotion while M describes her brutal fate. Despite the fact that he saved the day at the airport, there are innocent victims to his efforts. After an hour, the main plot kicks into gear and sends Bond into a high-stakes poker game. We also meet Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a modern woman that truly seems different from most of the past examples. Their conversation on the train says a lot about both characters. Each has plenty of confidence and enjoys ripping into the others’ issues. Still, there still are limitations to any progress. Green is gorgeous and fits within Bond’s normal world; the difference is that she’s a capable actor. Thankfully, we aren’t in Denise Richards territory with this performance. The challenge is making Bond and Vesper’s romance feel natural and not just a plot requirement. They don’t get together too quickly, so the romance feels earned when they finally reach that point.
Giancarlo Giannini brings a convincing presence to René Mathis, who supports Bond in Montenegro. His return in Quantum of Solace feels natural because this world seems more grounded in reality. His story isn’t finished after the events of this film. The set-up for the big card game feels similar to a less-inspiring moment from License to Kill. Bond gives Vesper pointers on looking the part, and the conversation sounds a lot like Dalton giving Carey Lowell pointers about her attire. The difference here is that Vesper turns the discussion back on Bond’s generic dinner jacket. It’s sort of clunky and obvious, yet it’s still a move forward. There’s also the first appearance of Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, and it’s another example of a talented supporting actor. Excluding Never Say Never Again, he’s the only African-American actor to play the character. More importantly, he adds layers to a typically one-note associate. Bringing him back for the follow-up connects those films even further. Wright clearly enjoys the role and has a subtle glee as the serious CIA agent.
The tricky part with pulling this story from Ian Fleming’s novel is that the entire plot hinges on the results of a card game. It’s been changed to Texas hold’em to make it easier to understand for modern audiences. Still, pulling drama out of this game isn’t easy. Martin Campbell returns to the franchise after Goldeneye as the director, and he uses every trick to keep us engaged. The action scenes during the breaks also keeps the pace rolling. Bond’s vicious fights inside the hotel stairwell bring us back into the rougher tone. It’s a wild and violent world out there, and it’s only a matter of time before Bond’s pretty suit gets bloodied. Vesper’s reaction is a key moment for her character; despite what we learn near the end, this isn’t really her comfort zone. Their scene in the shower is surprisingly tender and shows that this is more than the typical conquest for the suave agent.
The poker game reveals why Mads Mikkelsen is such a different brand of villain. With an intense stare that hides the glee behind his eyes, Le Chiffre plays Bond for a fool and capitalizes on his ego. There is some unfortunate exposition from Mathis, but it’s understandable in a commercial picture. Even with the popularity of the World Series of Poker, it’s still a niche game that might confuse audiences. The Bond character is known as a suave guy who’s always a step ahead, but this guy’s a novice who’s frequently bested by Le Chiffre. He loses his money, is poisoned, and barely escapes with his life. Bond needs a lot of help to stay alive and blunders his way into every situation. The potential to become a superb agent is there, but he’s struggling to make his way in the big leagues. It’s a gutsy move to show Bond in such a fragile state, and it makes us care more about his success.
Casino Royale was Fleming’s first Bond novel, and it revealed the hardening of the character after betrayal by his love Vesper Lynd. It also includes a brutal torture scene where Le Chiffre reduces Bond to a shell of his former self. One of the film’s most daring scenes is keeping this moment and making few changes. A lesser film would change the outcome and have Bond act like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Instead, he’s bailed out by circumstances beyond his control. Once again, he’s lucky to survive the ordeal. Craig does his best work in this scene and reveals the grit behind the stoic façade. Bond isn’t killed, but little fight remains in his wounded soul. The job is over, and sailing around the world with Vesper is the perfect way to forget the past. He’s found love and is ready to quit the game, yet there’s one more betrayal that will bring the armor back for the changed guy.
The Venice finale is an impressive scene but seems to over play the moment. Was an action scene really necessary this late in the film? Green sells Vesper’s tragic death, and it’s a surprisingly poignant moment for a Bond film. Even so, the utter destruction of the sinking building slightly diminishes the impact. It’s still an impressive practical stunt that’s directed well by Campbell. He knows how to stage an action scene and keeps us on the edge of our seat while Bond faces off with a horde of goons. The MacGuffin of the suitcase of money is a nice touch, so the sequence hardly diminishes the movie. There’s even a creepy goon with silly glasses who dies in grisly fashion. The ultimate result matches the novel, though it’s hard to argue with the simplicity of the source material.
Uttering Fleming’s words “The bitch is dead”, Bond returns to the stern look he had before meeting Vesper. He’s reached a new low, and the only solace will come from justice. This leads us to the iconic finale, which succeeds despite being pretty obvious. The image of Bond with a machine gun standing over Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) is a perfect conclusion. The shot of Craig in a black suit uttering the famous line “the name’s Bond, James Bond” feels earned because we’ve taken the long journey with him. Some fans decried the choice of Craig for this new incarnation at the start, but now it feels like no one else could play this rougher variation. He brings a physical presence that Brosnan lacked, and the writing doesn’t stick him with painful one-liners. Casino Royale is a brilliant opening to a new era for the franchise and hasn’t been topped by its sequels. Skyfall was an excellent movie, but it lacks the same emotional punch as the origin story. It’s one of the top Bond films, and it ranks among the best modern action films of the new millennium.