(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.
For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to blow up a new super airliner is testament to how well writers Purvis and Wade and Haggis (perhaps surprisingly, the former duo deserve the majority of the credit, devotedly refashioning the Ian Fleming novel) have produced a screenplay that is heavy on narrative and character progression and reliant on action only to the extent that it integrates with and furthers those elements.
But then the picture stumbles, and unfortunately it’s Haggis who rewrote and crashes the climax. His actions aren’t enough to destroy the earlier fine work, but the last 20-odd minutes throw audiences a bone of a big, generic set piece in a sinking Vienna edifice. It’s the most obviously budget-guzzling part of the movie, and easily the least involving. Maybe the producers lost their nerve at the last moment, worried that they were being too mould breaking, and something more succinct and localised that concluded the plot between Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) just wasn’t enough. Even Campbell doesn’t seem as assured in the construction of the sequence, and Stuart Baird’s otherwise crisp editing is notably less precise.
Playing it safe can be seen in other areas too; the producers most definitely did not want Tarantino’s proposed ‘50s set version of Casino (curiously with Brosnan), and they opt to bring back Dame Judi. Who is fine, except that by now the Oscar-drenched luvvie has become a parrot on Bond’s shoulder, with Eon determined to soak up the kudos of having her shoehorned into the proceedings wherever possible.
Another point of note is that, for a Bond earning his stripes in the opening sequence (played out in black and white, perhaps a nod to Tarantino’s conception of the picture), he’s a bit of a late bloomer. Craig was 37 when he began filming, which is young enough compared to his two predecessors, but should put him out of the running for earning his 00 status. It’s no wonder he’s feeling a bit over-the-hill in only two movies time, which says very little for the selection process of this incarnation of the secret service. Henry Cavill may have been too young for the part at the time, but the producers would be fools not to do a Brosnan and get second dibs whenever Craig’s departure is announced (his performance in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is practically an extended Bond screen-test).
M: Any thug can kill. I need you to take your ego out of the equation.
I’d credited Craig with being moody and dour in the role from the off, but I’d forgotten how good he actually is with the humour here. The key is to make it germane, rather than douse him in traditional bad puns (notably, when he gives a standard riposte to the villain, the one about starting to weep blood being a sign he’s nervous, tumbleweeds invade the casino floor; likewise the gag about Le Chiffre dying scratching his balls isn’t exactly Bruce Forsyth). It’s also about the delivery. Craig makes the line that Vesper is to assume the identity of Stephanie Broadchest work, not least because it’s a sly dig at the tradition of suggestive and objectifying names for Bond girls (Exhibit A: “Vesper”).
He also brings a very determined physicality to the part, not just with those massive man tits on display in his Ursula Andress-esque beach-and-trunks moment, but also the sense that he’s a real bruiser, as time and again he’s called upon to get down and dirty. There are even laughs to be had in this area, but of a passing kind; during the superlative chase of parkour bomb maker Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) Bond plunges to the ground, pausing to shake his jowls before setting off in pursuit once more, as if this is a Warner Bros cartoon. Later during the same sequence, he bursts through a “wall” (a bit of plaster, so he’s not quite Robocop, even if they do share a chest size).
M: I knew it was too early to promote you.
James Bond: Well, I understand double-Os have a very short life expectancy, so your mistake will be short-lived.
Craig also nails the cocky SOB side of Bond, the guy who cheerfully breaks into M’s apartment, and embraces the character’s essential sociopathy. The opening sequence sees him disposing of a duplicitous MI6 section chief (Malcolm Sinclair), and it’s made very clear that Bond hasn’t yet earned his stripes, which, down to its unvarnished brass tacks, means he needs to kill two people. Except he dispatched number one already, in a toilet on the way there. So he responds coldly and coolly with “Yes, considerably” on shooting Dryden, who has just suggested of the next one, “The second is…” When Vesper questions him on this, if it bothers him killing people, he responds matter-of-factly (“Well, I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did”). This cavalier manner is just what the series should be doing with Bond, rather than nursing introspection.
M: You don’t trust anyone, do you James?
James Bond: No.
M: Then you’ve learnt your lesson.
There is a nagging feeling that bringing Bond fully into the ruthless killer mode, as chaperoned by M, is a bit trite, as are the repetitive remarks about his ego getting in the way (more integrated than the misogynist stuff in Goldeneye, though), but it’s refreshing that his Bond embraces the ice cold killer, when Bourne, which provided the base line, has a hero attempting to make amends for past deeds. Brosnan, in his first Campbell outing, was ill-advisedly troubled by the things he had done; Casino Royale is still attacking an aspect of the character that can only stand so much interrogation, but at least it largely works this time. If the “lesson” is a bit simplistic, the actual portrayal of Bond, prone to slip-ups but ultimately making good, works for the plot, yielding a much more invested, high stakes tale.
M: In the old days, if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have the good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.
Bond's decision to shoot the bomb maker is rash, but it makes for a classic surprise moment. This recklessness also sees him give tail and get spotted by his target on two different occasions (although not as disastrously as his colleague during the bomb maker surveillance), get the girlfriend (Solange, played by Caterina Murino) of one of these tails (Simon Abkarian’s Alex Dmitirios) killed and bring that crashing ego into the room on repeated occasions (such as announcing himself as Bond rather than his cover identity at the casino, on the grounds that someone with the connections of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre would have found out who he was anyway). But he's hoisted by his own petard. During the game of Texas hold ’em, Le Chiffre misleads 007 by fabricating a tell (“You must have thought I was bluffing, Mr Bond”), leading to a setback for which Vesper scolds him (“You lost because of your ego”).
Bond’s failures make the victories more vital; particularly with the card game (in which, interestingly, we’re used to seeing high cards win yet the makers don’t go that route, possibly confusing viewers unfamiliar with the rules). And lines like “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked if he wants his vodka shaken or stirred don’t feel entirely frivolous because they instruct the character (I’m less convinced of the need to wheel out the Aston Martin, particularly when they are holding off on the iconic theme until the end of the picture).
When it gets to the point of the renowned (in the novel) torture scene, where Bond’s testiacles (as Vic and Bob would say) come under duress, his bravado is definitely to be celebrated. Not only is he not willing to give up the password for the girl, but he’s happy to make jokes about his forlorn balls (“I’ve got an itch, down there. Would you mind? To the right”).
Vesper: I’m the money.
James Bond: Every penny of it.
One thing I’m not entirely convinced of however, and I know most people claim it as one of the movie’s crowning achievements, particularly as it provides Bond’s entire motivation for the next picture, is the love story with Vesper. There’s a wealth of good material here, and Green’s (who is excellent as always) introductory “reading” scene on the train is a classic of its kind, deftly castigating Bond’s approach to the ladies (“You see women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits”, and his riposte that she’s not his type not because she’s smart but because she’s single) in a manner Goldeneye made a meal of, while arranging some reverse objectification (Craig’s “perfectly formed arse” is surprisingly feted above his massive man tits). But my response to their ill-starred relationship ends up very much as it is on their first meeting; “Apparently, we’re very much in love”.
James Bond: I have no armour left. You stripped it from me.
Much of Bond and Vesper’s interaction is choice and witty (his reaction to the tailored dinner jacket waiting for him, Vesper treating him the way he treats her; also nice that David Arnold very nearly breaks into the Bond theme when we first see him wearing it), and the scene where she is sobbing in the shower ends not with a customary shag. But I don’t buy that Bond is in love, not the way Lazenby (in no way shape or form as strong an actor as Craig, or even Roger Moore) sold it in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Craig can’t make us believe the “Whatever I am, I’m yours” as, despite his swollen balls, he doesn’t come across as vulnerable or in need.
Maybe part of that is there’s always the sense we haven’t got the full story of Vesper (she’s the only one without a tell), but their relationship plays out more as plot than as romance. As such, the loss of Vesper lacks the profound impact of the loss of Tracy at the end of OHMSS; the preparatory work isn’t sufficiently affecting (Bond going from “Job’s done. The bitch is dead” to realisation that she made a deal to save his life, and even sent him a clue to track down what ultimately turn out to be “the architect of all your pain”... but let’s not go there).
Le Chiffre: Well, Mr Beach. Or is that Bond, I’m a little confused.
James Bond: Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?
In stark contrast to most of the Brosnans, Bond once more incarnates a really strong villain, courtesy of Mikkelsen as leaky-eyed, asthmatic (upholding the dubious tradition of associating villainy with physical disability) Le Chiffre. There are so many plusses about this character, but most of them come down to his being appropriate to the material in terms of scheme and activity. He isn’t a super villain, he’s “the private banker to the world’s terrorists”. The most winning aspect of his persona (and again, this is something, like the action scenes, no one seems to have learnt since), is that a villain works best when you are interested in them, and if they have troubles of their own. This was even true of the briefly appearing General Ourumov in Campbell’s Goldeneye.
Obanno: Not a word of protest. You should find a new girlfriend.
Le Chiffre is engaged in a very dangerous game, investing money from men even nastier than he is, so when his ruse to make money from put options on Skyfleet, then blowing up their new airliner, is thwarted by Bond he’s really up against it (curiously, this plan foregrounds one of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which maintains that put options on United Airlines stock were placed prior to the attack on the Twin Towers; M even references this directly). Thus, when Ugandan warlord Obanno (Isaac De Bankole) arrives demanding his money (I know you have to get your actor’s worth, but would he really rock up in person to sort Le Chiffre out?), we are suddenly in the place of concern for the bad guy. And his girlfriend, threatened with loss of limb (Ivana Milicevic of Banshee, making an impression in a fairly nondescript role).
Le Chiffre, the pro, initially outwits Bond (who should have taken notice of Vesper when she warns “He knows you’re reckless”), and when he can’t outwit him he resorts to plain brutality. Notably, Bond is under orders to bring in Le Chiffre alive, because he can give the goods on what will eventually be reconvened as Spectre. As such, the role of Mr White (Jesper Christensen, veteran of three Bond movies as a baddie, pretty first rank as far as the series goes) is significant. Bond doesn’t even get to bring in the Big Bad, as Mr White finishes him off (“Money isn’t as valuable to our organisation as knowing who to trust”).
In retrospect, I think the decision to allow the tentacles of
Quantum Spectre to extend throughout the Craig era was
a mistake, one that has limited its variety and scope, but it can’t be said it
hasn’t individualised his era. The problem is, this path quickly allowed the
slate cleaning of Casino to introduce
its own set of encumbrances.
The wayward Bond here who has a tracker implanted “so you can keep an eye on me” has changed so little that the pale imitation of nano blood is introduced (to little effect, and failing to capitalise on the Surveillance State them of the picture) in Spectre. Generally, the gadgets here are sensible, if as fortunately crucial to Bond’s pickles as ever; the defibrillation sequence is one of several classics to avoid excess in favour of plot-first excitement in a manner the series immediately drops. Alas.
James Bond: I’m sorry, that last hand… nearly killed me.
The movie is very keyed into Bond using his wits straight off the bat, such that even when it comes to physicality (pursuing Parkour guy) he has to calculate how to make up for his lack of speed and agility through taking shortcuts. It’s a great set piece, simple yet elaborate, and if the last 20 minutes are mostly superfluous, the first 20 are absolute dynamite.
Further great but unshowy sequences follow, such as Bond struggling with Dimitrios for control of a knife at the Body Works exhibit, and the brutally effective fight on the casino stairwell, complete with machete. Campbell’s understanding of where to place the camera for such action is so good, it makes you wonder why his non-Bond movies have usually been less than altogether satisfying.
Yet he handles the drama of the card game, and the psychological warfare between his players, just as adeptly. It’s easy to see why baccarat was replaced with the more skill-conscious Texas hold ‘em. If anything, the makers might have made even more of the game playing, although I appreciate this can be difficult to sustain, hence the need to break the tournament up with fights and poisonings.
The casting is generally spot-on. Jeffrey Wright is a great addition as Felix Leiter, but has been disappointingly ill-served subsequently (the CIA is less mocked than in the Brosnan era, and “Does it look like we need the money?” is Leiter’s boastful response when Bond asks if they want the winnings back, since he staked him).
Populating the picture with so many non-Hollywood faces helps lend Casino Royale a strong personality, including the likes of Giancarlo Gianini, Richard Sammel and Tobias Menzes. The biggest laugh-getter is Ludger Pistor’s ebullient Swiss banker, bursting into peals of laughter when Bond asks if he brought any chocolate (“I’m afraid not!”)
They “attempted” to reel in the product placement for this one, apparently, but it’s still very obvious where the Fords and Ericssons and Richard Bransons are. Still, the choice of songsmith for the theme may not have been as traditionally or commercially-minded (Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell) but it works in context. It’s also shown off to one of the very best title sequences in the series’ history, courtesy of Daniel Kleinman, as pre-Mad Men styled figures shoot and are shot by playing card symbols (in keeping with the picture’s rising bruiser tone, and very male vocals, the ladies are in short supply here, limited to Vesper’s face on a card).
So Bond 21 ended up far far better than anyone might reasonably have expected of a series hitherto floundering desperately and looking over its shoulder for pointers. It also improved on the box office of its predecessor (which was no slouch, whatever the critical brickbats it received), making more than $100m more globally even accounting for inflation (fourth for its year too, only Skyfall at second would top that). The legacy of Casino Royale may be that it’s at least, if not mostly, the source material that made it so good, rather than the Bourne-esque physicality and grit. Certainly, subsequent Craig efforts, while avoiding the rot that set into his predecessor’s work, haven’t come close to this.