You couldn’t escape the negativity. “Craig Not Bond” cried headlines, and even a website address, when it was announced that blonde haired Daniel Craig would be replacing Pierce Brosnan as the famed British super-spy in the world’s longest running movie franchise.
Then the impossible happened. A black and white opening scene ending with Craig turning to screen, firing down a more stylised version of the fame gun barrel opening, a blast of electric guitar and Chris Cornell beginning to sing over a superbly constructed title sequence. Daniel Craig, in that moment, truly had become James Bond before our very eyes.
Make no mistake, Casino Royale was an absolute revelation for the long running James Bond series when it was released in 2006. Four years previous the series had reached a difficult cross roads with its twentieth entry, released to coincide with its fortieth anniversary, in the shape of Die Another Day. Mixed reviews, some of which were downright negative, but massive box office takings in the shape of $430 million dollars, a record for a Bond picture, put Eon Productions and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson into a difficult situation.
Released just over a year after 9/11, and into an emerging era where the action genre was becoming dominated by darker and complex characters in increasingly murkier narratives such as Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, whose adventures and stories were very much dominated by themes and ideas that were reacting to the war on terror and an increasingly disturbing surveillance culture, James Bond kite surfing a tsunami and driving around in an invisible Aston Martin fighting against a megalomaniac who wanted to destroy the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea with a space weapon looked trite and silly.
Whilst Pierce Brosnan was a wonderful Bond who actually brought more subtle qualities to his performance even as his movies became more and more outlandish, there was a sense that maybe fresh blood was needed and with Eon Productions finally getting their hands on the film rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, something that had eluded the series for years (explaining why we ended up with the quite frankly bizzare spoof from 1967 that really should be seen to be believed (or not actually)), Broccoli and Wilson decided to take a little bit of inspiration not just from Jason Bourne, but from what was the recently rebooted Batman franchise from Christopher Nolan in the shape of Batman Begins.
Taking Bond back to the beginning of his career, an idea that was originally proposed by Michael G Wilson for 1987’s The Living Daylights, Casino Royale sees more a brutish and trigger happy Bond with a “spiky” relationship with M (a returning Judi Dench who practically owns the role) on the trail Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker to half the world’s terrorists who, after foolishly gambling on the stock exchange with his client’s money and losing it due to Bond intervening in stopping an airplane bombing (a fantastic action sequence), puts on an extravagant poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to gain the money back. MI6 send in Bond, accompanied by Treasury Agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to stop Le Chiffre from winning and to say anymore would be to spoil too much if you haven’t seen it yet.
With Ian Fleming’s novel too short to turn into a two-hour feature film, the script from regular Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with contributions from Oscar-winning Crash director Paul Haggis, sees the film develop an extended opening act that sees Bond put on to the trail of Le Chiffre though an elongated and downright sensational opening chase scene involving parkour and sky-high cranes, with the last act also extending itself to include a ferociously intense confrontation in Venice.
The script is definitely one of the best in the Bond series, not since the triple whammy of The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill and Goldeneye had the series really gone to town with story telling and character development like this, and the movie reminding one of when the series took a chance on more challenging scripts like the ones given to Timothy Dalton (my personal favourite 007) and George Lazenby.
There is an exploration of the Bond character that is downright brilliant, thus allowing Daniel Craig to make the role his own right from the off. Tougher and yet boasting a more emotional frame-work that recalls similar exploration in Licence to Kill and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Craig IS Bond from the moment he appears on-screen and plays the part with a combination of tough smarts and emotional vulnerability. Even the climax of the film explores a theme of bereavement and loss in a way not since that fateful newly married drive from the church in Lazenby’s one time performance as 007.
Although the tougher levels of violence (the film had to be cut in both the US and the UK in order to gain PG-13/12A ratings with the uncut version not surfacing until its Blu Ray releases) are a shock for a Bond movie, it feels justified by the darker narrative and exploration of the 007 character. Craig brings an element of charm to the role that one needs to be Bond, but he also brings a physicality that had been lacking since the 60’s when Sean Connery played the part.
This is a Bond who really knows how to swing a punch, and even take one. At various points in the film Craig goes from looking great in a tuxedo to being a bloody mess, one fight sequence sees his tailored tuxedo looking like something from the climax of a horror movie. That the movie follows this sequence with a scene where he has to wash himself off and then looks at himself in the mirror, taking stock of the violence he has doled out, marks Casino Royale out as a different Bond movie experience.
The film is masterfully put together by director Martin Campbell. Campbell had already successfully brought Bond back to modern audiences attentions eleven years previously with Goldeneye, and here he was doing it again. Whereas Goldeneye managed to retain and modernise the Bond formula, here he is given free rein to really re-invent the character and his world. There is a real sense of change going on here with the confines of the Bond series. The film is genuinely tough, it really goes to town with more emotional beats, the violence is nastier, at least in a way that Bond hasn’t been since Licence to Kill, and the brutality has consequences (the last act of the movie begins with Bond in a convalescent home) and it even dares to replicate the dark ending of Fleming’s novel, masterfully pulled off by everyone involved, not least Eva Green.
Basically the film that brought her to the attention of mainstream movie goers, Green is the best of Bond’s modern-day leading actresses. Since the 90’s the series has always tried to do good by its female characters, after years of being accused of being sexist, something that had some basis in reality. Whilst characters like those played by Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry have basically been female versions of Bond, which isn’t a bad thing, especially in Yeoh’s case who was one of the best things about Tomorrow Never Dies, they’ve never quite felt like three-dimensional characters either.
Not the case with Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. Whilst not as physically capable as Bond in the action stakes, she more than holds her own with him verbally and as the film goes on, we’re given a wonderful, complex portrayal. Her performance, plus her scenes with Craig, are wonderfully scripted, full of glorious word play and goes in a direction not seen since Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The dialogue if spiky and delivered brilliantly, the chemistry is very apparent and best of all she isn’t a walk over to Bond’s charms and is never afraid to put him in his place. Her performance and likeable complexities allow the climax of the movie to carry a deadly, emotional weight and charge.
Also making his mark on mainstream audiences is Mads Mikkelsen. A much more subtle and nuanced portrayal as well, whilst some may criticise his performance for being TOO subtle, in fact that is quite the point. His character is calm, resolute and yet quite cowardly, even potentially letting his girlfriend lose her arm for his own mistakes. That the performance is as subtle as it is carries its own weight of darkness, one which rises up when we come to the infamous torture scene towards the end of the film when the genuinely darker aspirations of the character rear their head. The character goes from being a quiet, yet frightening looking menace to one who is genuinely scary.
The torture sequence, one of Ian Fleming’s most infamous passages in his books, is pretty much captured on film. Although the mechanism of Bond’s discomfort is different, the results are still the same and pretty much every guy in movie theatres across the world who were watching the movie no doubt had their legs crossed during what was probably the strongest thing to ever appear in a PG-13/12A rated movie. Of course, cuts were made, more so in the US than the UK, with only a close up of the instrument in question cut for UK audiences, the rest of the scene was left in tact.
If movie goers were shocked at the treatment Bond got in the opening credits of Die Another Day, a dark opening that hinted at a movie that we were in no way going to get, then the torture sequence in Casino Royale ushered in a new darker, more real era of the character. It is a very shocking scene and its hard to imagine any other Bond actor being stripped and violated in such a way, but it shows the mark that Craig and everyone else was marking with this iteration and pushed Bond ever further into the modern-day.
Best of all, the action sequences are fantastic. After trying to indulge in some CGI flavoured chaos in the previous movie, most of which was criticised, and rightly so, Casino Royale took the character and his brand of action back to the grounded assortment of stunts and genuine physicality that has always made the character and his adventures a joy to watch. The parkour sequence at the start, the chase to stop the airplane bombing, the stairwell fight and the Venice sequence at the end are all brilliantly done, and best of all don’t swamp the movie down. You don’t find yourself enduring the plot or character scenes until the film kickstarts another action sequence, they are there in service to the wonderful writing and story telling going on and is all the better for it.
After ten years, Casino Royale is still brilliant and quite possibly this reviewer’s favourite Bond movie. Whilst Skyfall did better box office and appears to be better loved, and is brilliant also don’t get me wrong, the truth is Casino Royale had more work to do and that it managed to pull it off is something to be applauded. Dark, emotionally complex, gloriously produced action sequences, terrific performances, Casino Royale is not just one of the best Bond movies, it’s also one of the best action movies of the 2000’s. You Know his name, you know his number; Bond, James Bond.