00 Saturdays Week #41 – Casino Royale Movie Review

“The job’s done and the bitch is dead.” – James Bond

Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure.  This is our weekly walk through the Bond saga.  This week, we take a look at the first James Bond film for Daniel Craig, Casino Royale.

In 1952, Ian Fleming wrote the first James Bond novel and it was published the following year.  Casino Royale is a particularly mature pulp style novel about a British MI-6 agent with a licence to kill stationed in the Caribbean.  Bond is a cold man dedicated to his job, but often faces moral dilemma and is often left bruised and scarred by his missions.  While not a particularly well liked novel critically, Ian Fleming’s novel and spy, named after a real-life ornithologist, was a massive success with fans.  By the time President John Kennedy was interviewed by Playboy Magazine, the popularity of the character and novel hit a then all time high when the President mentioned From Russia with Love as one of his favorite books.

Just then, the popularity grew even more when Dr. No would hit the screens and begin a decades-long series with success hardly rivaled by any other franchise.

However, Fleming’s first Bond novel had never been part of the official EON Productions stable of films.  It was produced as an hour long episode for television in the mid-50s starring Barry Nelson as an American version of Bond that, despite it centering entirely on the card game that serves as the central drama of the novel, was a well made and fascinating version of the secret agent.  In 1967, a spoof made by Columbia Pictures was made that is fantastically odd and awkward in almost every wrong way.  Though, I will say the music to that 1967 film is pretty phenomenal (Dusty Springfield’s version of “The Look of Love” is technically the first Bond song to be nominated for an Academy Award).

The rights for any film version of the novel stayed with Columbia Pictures until 1999 when MGM traded the rights to Spider-Man for the rights for EON to finally adapt the original James Bond novel.  Talk about your win-win situations as both the Spider-Man franchise would be huge money for Columbia/Sony, and Casino Royale would launch the most lucrative era of the Bond films ever (something Sony still gets to be involved in thanks to MGM’s not so great financial situations over the past 20-30 years).  In 2004, plans to adapt Casino Royale would begin with Pierce Brosnan expected to be the Bond.  EON, hearkening back to when Moonraker came out, felt they needed to bring Bond back to earth.  Die Another Day was too fantastical and wasn’t the hit with critics and fans as they expected, even though it still performed well at the box office.  It was time to ground Bond again and bring back the flavor of the novels.

In this, Pierce Brosnan would be a casualty.  When he joined with GoldenEye, he signed a four-film deal.  That deal expired with Die Another Day.  EON was not against bringing him back and there were discussions to do just that.  However, in 2004, Brosnan officially stepped away and the search for a new Bond began.  Producer Michael G. Wilson claimed over 200 people were considered.  In the end, it would be a truly new era for Bond with blonde-haired, blue-eyed Daniel Craig stepping into the role.  Craig wasn’t as debonair looking as Brosnan or Roger Moore.  He was more rugged like Sean Connery and a little more emotive like Timothy Dalton.  This Bond was at the beginning of his career, not an established 00 agent.  In fact, the opening sequence shows the two kills he had to perform to reach that status.  He won’t have the touch his predecessors had, but more on that shortly.

Casino Royale would not use every element of the original novel, despite this being the most faithful adaptation of any Fleming novel.  First, the primary bad guy, Le Chiffre, is still a money man used for the trade of weapons, but he is not the money man for the Russians and the original organization Bond often went up against, SMERSH (it was an amalgamation of the “smert shpionam” phrase “death to spies” that played a heavy part of The Living Daylights).  Since the Russians really aren’t the bad guys anymore in the series, Le Chiffre was simply a money man for another shadowy organization that was supplying weapons to terrorists and generally bad dudes in various parts of the world.  Later, we would find out that Le Chiffre and the mysterious Mr. White from this movie were members of SPECTRE.

At the time of this film’s scripting and production, SPECTRE was not available due to legal reasons from… guess what – THUNDERBALL.  Jesus, Thunderball and Kevin McClory are constant headaches!

Right out of the gate, you know this is something different and new.  No opening gun barrel sequence before launching into the Prague pre-title scene.  It’s shot in black and white.  Bond is an assassin, not his usual self.  Bond is sent to kill a British agent in the Czech Republic selling secrets and the contact the info is being sent to.  The contact and Bond engage in a brutal fist fight in a bathroom before Bond believes the man was killed by strangulation and drowning.  I mean it, it is a brutal moment in the history of the series.  The seller is a much easier kill with a bullet.  It’s a marvelous sequence.  It’s Bond as a killer and a man with a mission, nothing more.  We’ve never seen Bond as cold as this.

We meet Mr. White and Le Chiffre who are securing money for weapons from an African warlord.  Le Chiffre uses the money to make a seemingly risky bet in the stock market.  Meanwhile, Bond is working with another agent in Madagascar to capture a bomb maker.  This leads into one of the most spectacular action sequences in all of Craig’s time in the role of Bond.  The bomb maker leads the newly minted 007 on a wild foot chase thanks to the bad guy’s parkour talent.  While he makes calculated and athletic jumps, Bond simply runs through walls and generally makes a mess of a lot of things – particularly when Bond kills the man at an embassy that would otherwise provide sanctuary.

This rightfully pisses M (Judi Dench in her fifth go around in the role serving as a handoff from the past era to the new) off something terrible.  This is a Bond of little regard for rules, as per the usual, but with almost zero tact.  He’s young.  I always said this movie makes Bond out to be more of a sledgehammer than a meticulous tool for precision.  Bond would eventually learn this tact in the course of this film having to show more collected cool when he enters into an extremely high stakes poker game at the titular Casino Royale in Montenegro.

Le Chiffre (played wonderfully by Mads Mikkelsen) did not count on Bond becoming involved with his organization’s dealings.  When Bond prevents a terrorist from blowing up a new airplane that would have paid off big with Le Chiffre’s stock gamble, he’s forced to play a game of hold ’em poker to get back the money that is due in order to purchase the weapons for the African warlord, Obanno.  Bond, with the help of the CIA’s agent, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). must defeat Le Chiffre and interrupt the plans of the mysterious organization he works for.

Bond isn’t alone though.  The British government sends a treasury agent named Vesper Lynd.  She is the one looking after the money for Bond’s entry into the game, and is also there to be the girl on his arm which is to be expected at a glitzy casino.  Lynd is played by the lovely Eva Green.

There are two important women in Bond’s history.  The previously seen Countess Tracy di Vicenzo, which, at this point, is Bond’s future, and Vesper Lynd.  Now, when it comes to Vesper, her primary importance is that she is the first Bond Girl.  She was someone Bond fell in love with in the novel, as he does in the movie.  She proves to be something of a mysterious figure later in the plot of Casino Royale.  She has to ultimately double cross Bond and Britain because Le Chiffre and Mr. White’s organization is supposedly holding her fiance ransom, though she really is ultimately being betrayed by that boyfriend as well.  It’s a triple cross that ultimately break’s Bond’s heart which leaves him to become cold and distant.

Green’s chemistry with Craig and the overall extremely well written character that Vesper is make for something very compelling and was noticeably absent from the Brosnan era.  The Roger Moore era had lots of moments in which Bond and his Bond Girl had tremendous chemistry.  Whether it is Moore’s scenes with Maud Adams or Barbara Bach or Lois Chilles, these were instances in which you believed Bond cared about these people and they felt natural together.  Timothy Dalton’s era continued that with Maryam d’Abo and Carey Lowell.  Brosnan’s time was not quite the same.  Aside from his scenes with Izabella Scorupco, it seemed more difficult to pull off the proper level of chemistry.  Those girls in his films simply felt like people he’d bed and move on from almost instantly with little to no emotion.

It was maybe more important than anything else that Daniel Craig and Eva Green worked together.  You can do enough action scenes and include the proper amount of James Bond-like lines to make your new actor work.  When you need to build a character from the ground up by having this James Bond go from being an angry sledgehammer to something more human through a meaningful relationship with a woman who challenges Bond but also seemingly loves him with reckless abandon.

Whether their introductory scene in which they trade barbs, or an incredibly tender scene in which Bond soothes Vesper after she sees the violent world in which Bond lives, or the final heart wrenching moment in which she chooses to die than deal with the aftermath of the events leading up to Bond becoming a terrific thorn in the clandestine organization’s side, Craig and Green are absolutely spectacular.

Daniel Craig’s individual performance in this movie is fascinating.  Bond is almost inhuman until he meets Vesper.  He’s a brute almost completely detached from his emotions.  If there is anything he takes pleasure from it is from others’ misfortune and suffering.  He wants nothing more to kill the bomb maker, and doesn’t even care when the people at the embassy he was trying to gain sanctuary are hurt or possibly even killed.  When the terrorist sent by Le Chiffre is killed when Bond attaches the bomb to his belt so he can’t blow up the airplane that will cash in Le Chiffre’s risky stock move, Bond smiles at the irony of the bomber being blown up by his own bomb.  M even comments on how she doesn’t believe remaining emotionally detached will be an issue for Bond.  His response is an almost socially inept confirmation that he doesn’t have any emotion whatsoever.

What makes this that much more interesting is how emotionless Mikkelsen is as Le Chiffre.  When Obanno finds Le Chiffre at Casino Royale, he threatens to maim Le Chiffre’s girlfriend and he does not make one sound of protest.  Le Chiffre is just as detached and has a singular interest in only himself.  Le Chiffre is described as a mathematical genius and you get the impression that Bond, an orphan who is unimpressed with anyone’s silver platters, wants nothing more than to destroy this guy.  The only difference is that ends up growing a soul.

The entire film is centered around a poker game that could result in a government on the side of right directly funding a terrorist organization many times over.  This came at a time in which Texas Hold ‘Em Poker is a television phenomenon and being played in just about everyone’s smoky, dingy basement. You’d think sitting around watching other people play a card game would be unexciting, but dammit if this movie doesn’t make it a tension filled watch.  A lot of this comes from Mikkelsen and Craig just acting their balls off in such subtle ways.  At one point, Le Chiffre gets the upper hand on Bond and the reveal that Le Chiffre knows he has Bond exactly where he wants him is spectacular.  Little reactions and pitch perfect line delivery makes these poker scenes action scenes on their own standing.

There are so many things that could be written and talked about when it comes to Casino Royale.  I haven’t mentioned a particularly tense moment in which Bond is poisoned and nearly dies.  That’s not to mention another very famous scene directly adapted from the novel in which Le Chiffre performs testicular torture on Bond after he won the card game.  There are supporting performances from Giancarlo Giannini, as Bond’s Montenegro contact Mathis, and Jeffrey Wright that make this a wonderfully well-rounded film full of fun moments and characters.

Also, Judi Dench’s M continues to grow as an important character in the series.  It’s for good reasons too.  In Brosnan’s era, it was to tether him to the modern era in which women were now bosses and it’s possible that men from a different era might have to take orders from someone they may never have before as well as from a different type of personality that may value cold, hard numbers over instinct and intuition.  In Craig’s era, it’s to provide Bond a mother figure.  She’s someone that will help him become a better agent while also reconnecting all his aspects of himself to become the Bond we know later.  She’s the one who will help him fit the song “Nobody Does It Better”.

“The name’s Bond… James Bond.”

Join me next week for a look at the music of Casino Royale.  In two weeks, we take a look at something that has never really been done before in the series, a direct sequel with Quantum of Solace.

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