I’m not sure if I’ve ever discussed this on this page, but for the last 15 years, I have been a big fan of the James Bond series. I started watching them as a nine year old and even though some aren’t so great, they are usually at least pretty entertaining. I remember how proud I was of myself when I memorized each of the movies in chronological order… again, I’m a dork. So with the arrival of Bond’s next outing, No Time to Die, finally hitting theatres next month (as a Bond-aholic, November is a more fitting month, but it’s whatever), it seemed like an ample time to stroll down memory lane.
Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day marked the 20th Bond film. It was also, from what I recall, one of the silliest, and while perhaps not horrible, the Bond team must’ve figured that they’d reached a crossroads. Either they were going to continue to do the same thing, or they were going to have to try something new. So four years later, they basically hit the reset button with Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, in that the series had a new angle, a new tone, and a new Bond (and he was blonde! The gall!). Casino Royale felt new, from the ground up, and it was basically given the Batman Begins treatment. It is also the best Bond movie ever made.
Before you jump my ass for being a millennial or something, hear me out. I love James Bond, hence why I’m still doing this segment. I love the character, I love the vibe, I love (a good chunk of) the movies. I love the action, I love the names, I love the women, I love (a good chunk of) the villains. The Bond films achieved genuine greatness a few times, particularly with Sean Connery’s From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. Connery is certainly a hard act to follow. Well, Craig just about does it. I could only imagine being someone who has been watching this franchise since 1962, and experiencing Casino Royale for the first time. It had to be jaw-dropping. Even for me, it’s still jaw-dropping.
Campbell was given a difficult task with Casino Royale. He was to breathe new life into a franchise that was beloved and sacred, capturing something new while giving us what we expect. The beauty of Casino Royale is that in every department, he triumphed. The film feels completely different from probably any Bond film before it, and yet it also feels wholly, purely, Bond. What makes this film stand out though is that it is all that, and even more. Revisiting it last night, I was also impressed by the fact that the Bond producers put all of their chips in on a cast of mostly unknowns. At the time, Judi Dench and Jeffery Wright were probably the biggest names. Yet every gamble made in Casino Royale is one that pays off.
Bond this time is played by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, then somewhat unknown Daniel Craig. He may have seemed like an odd choice at the time (usually people expect a huge name, like how we’re anticipating Tom Hardy to play Bond next), but to say that Craig is the best thing to happen to Bond since Connery is an understatement. Craig and Bond are a match made in heaven. He’s handsome (watching him come out of the water is breathtaking), he’s cool, he’s charming, he’s hilarious when he wants to be. He is everything you’d want, and expect from a Bond, and yet they took it even further. This is a Bond who bleeds, who feels. He doesn’t have much in the way of fancy gadgets. He’s a lover, but he’s also a fighter. We don’t really go to a Bond film for depth, and yet Casino Royale dug beneath the surface. We wanted something new, and they gave it to us.
Casino Royale was actually Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, and for whatever reason they couldn’t get the rights for it. Sometimes, these things work themselves out. So yes, the film is an origin story, of the sorts. From the get-go, you know you’re watching a reinvention. Usually these films open with Bond walking, stopping, turning, and shooting into a gun barrel, and then we proceed to an action sequence that sets the plot in motion before we get to the opening title sequence. Here, the formula is shaken, but not stirred. Rather than give a big action sequence, the film opens with Bond having a conversation, while also reflecting upon a fight he just got out of. The gritty nature of the film is established early. Basically, Bond kills both men, and then we get the gun barrel, and then we get the title song, this time being “You Know My Name” by the late Chris Cornell. This is a good song, and I love the score by David Arnold that accompanies it throughout, but also, this title sequence is a knockout, with an animated Bond throwing spades and diamonds at enemies and such.
The plot first follows Bond’s first few missions, which are a tad sloppy. One is an incredible chase sequence in Madagascar, which ends with Bond blowing up an embassy; another is another incredible chase sequence at an airport, in which terrorists set out to blow up a giant plane that would cause the stock market to collapse. They obviously fail, but it turns out that the latter ties into the central plot. The film’s villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, in top creepy form) is a private banker who is funding terrorism. Le Chiffre is chilling, and yet he’s not totally in control, in that he’s played around with terrorist’s money and could be killed at any moment. Alas, Le Chiffre is taking part in a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro.
Bond’s first official mission as 007 is to enter the game and beat Le Chiffre. Supplying the funds to keep the game going is one Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and let me just say that from her introduction to the film and on, you know you’ve never seen anything like this in a Bond film. It’s a simple moment, really. Bond and Vesper, sat across each other on a train, try to pick each other apart and get a read on one another. Again, it’s a simple moment, but also one, one that provides depth and actually gives a Bond girl a personality. She isn’t immediately rushing to get in bed with him, but rather, she has no trouble calling him out for his ego, but she also likes their banter. The Bond/Vesper relationship is part of what takes Casino Royale a step further. These two are placed in some terrifying situations- one involving terrorists with machetes, another in which Bond is poisoned and she comes to the rescue, another in which they’re both kidnapped and tortured (well Bond is, in a cruel but unforgettable and kind of hilarious way). Craig and Green work wonders together, and the relationship between them is so strong and convincing that when he mutters the words, “I love you,” you truly feel it, and believe it.
All of this leads to a phenomenal climactic sequence in Venice, in which Bond must rescue Vesper from a sinking building. Casino Royale is one of those films that, by golly, just keeps getting better. Not only do I appreciate it more the more I see it, but it is one of those movies that begins splendidly, and just somehow keeps on giving. I’m also disturbed by the fact that this didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination, because this is remarkable filmmaking. Is it long? Sure, but it’s length is justified, because Campbell spends two and a half hours delivering breathtaking action sequences while also giving us characters we grow to know and care about. Usually with these films, you can just kind of assume that everyone will make it out alright. That is not the case in Casino Royale, because everything is pretty much at stake, and it’s interesting to note that because there isn’t a giant laser pointed at earth and there’s no elaborate plot to knock over Fort Knox. The big plot is grounded and contained- not that big of a plot, but it’s so well done that you feel everything that the film is setting out to do.
Le Chiffre is an interesting fella too. He sports a giant scar across his eye, and he has a tear duct that causes his eye to drip blood. He is cold and frightening, particularly with those eyes of Mads Mikkelsen’s… and yet he isn’t a Bond villain that comes across like a winner. Most of them have the confidence and the showmanship to give off the vibe that they’re going to take over the world and defeat Bond, but with the exception of the torture scene, Le Chiffre is in danger himself. So he really isn’t at liberty to be calling shots or anything.
Its action is gritty and jolting, as is the tone, and yet while trying to do something new, Campbell and Co. never lose sight of what makes a Bond film a Bond film. The women are gorgeous, as are the locations; despite the seriousness, there is also a sense of humor at play, and Craig manages to deliver it in a way that doesn’t feel corny or hokey. Casino Royale is a film that gets every single thing right- the performances are first-rate, the screenplay is sharp, the direction is marvelous; it’s a masterpiece that I’ve been raving about for the last 15 years (it turns 15 on November 17th, when I turn 25) and I’ll probably continue to rave about it til I’m dead.
James Bond, and I, will return with Quantum of Solace.
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