Bond fan Jake Farley still greatly enjoys the deconstructive 007 revival Casino Royale, calling attention to how it humanizes a character that had become self-parody, the film’s series-best first act chase sequence, and the top-notch work by Daniel Craig and Eva Green.
If you’re only ever going to watch one James Bond movie, it should probably be Casino Royale. It’s not my personal favorite of the series, and it’s maybe not the most emblematic of what the series is known for, but it’s the one that takes Bond most seriously as a character, the only one where the plot is secondary to the character of Bond himself (though it also just happens to be a great movie). For the first time in a series that has ranged in quality from iconic to self-parodic, the series bothered to ask itself what could make someone into a person like James Bond. The answer, of course, is “severe emotional trauma,” but we’ll get to that a little later.
This seriousness regarding character is a theme that has continued through the Bond films starring Daniel Craig, the first of which is this 2006 debut performance. This and the subsequent Craig films track the arc of Bond’s career much more closely than the previous 20 Bond flicks (Yes, 20! 24 as of this writing, in fact), which tended to treat the events of the films as more or less standalone events outside of a couple of occasional nods to continuity.
Also, before we go any further, let’s briefly consider the character of Bond himself—not a good guy, let’s be frank. The older films have a well-deserved reputation for misogyny and weren’t afraid to dabble in casual racism as well. To a degree, this film is a response to some of that, but I couldn’t fault anyone for not feeling their oats about watching an endless parade of women get tossed aside like empty crisp packets. (British-isms! Bond’s British, you know. Well, Scottish, technically.)
Anyway. I grew up watching Bond films with my mom, who was a particular fan of the Roger Moore-era Bond but would happily enjoy any of them—especially during the annual Thanksgiving TBS television marathons of the entire series—so a new Bond was always an event in our household. I had been deeply disappointed by the previous Bond, 2002’s Die Another Day, the final Pierce Brosnan outing. Let me put it quite charitably and say that it is an extremely bad film and let’s just leave it at that.
Not coincidentally, however, 2002 saw the release of a very different film—The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon. It’s a very good movie, and Casino Royale would wisely take a lot of cues from that film. Despite being directed by Bond veteran Martin Campbell (who previously helmed 1995’s Goldeneye, the debut and high point of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond), Casino Royale doesn’t feel like any Bond film before it and set a totally new tone for the franchise. I remember going into the theater in 2006 with high hopes for a new direction for Bond and being delighted at the degree to which they were met.
The film opens in black and white. Bond ambushes a crooked MI6 station chief. We learn that Bond has not yet earned his famous 00-agent status and that killing this gentleman is his final test. He passes.
Right away the movie is framing Bond differently than we’ve seen him before. He’s capable, eager, but inexperienced and brash, which means he’s not above miscalculations and mistakes as we’ll see throughout the film.
We cut to Uganda, where we meet Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the representative of a mysterious criminal organization the details of which will only start to become clear in the subsequent film Quantum of Solace. He is joined by the fabulous Mads Mikkelsen as the otherwise-unnamed Le Chiffre (or, The Number), an evil banker and unfortunate gambling addict. They are meeting with a warlord named Obanno (Isaach de Bankole) in order to take possession of Obanno’s many millions of ill-gotten dollars. After assuring Obanno that he will be able to access the money anywhere in the world at any time, Le Chiffre makes a call to his stockbroker and short-sells a great deal of stock in a particular airline company.
Incidentally, this is another major departure from James Bond tradition—gone are the elaborate evil lairs and plots to conquer and/or destroy parts of the world. Instead, the villains are concerned with stock market manipulation and black-market banking, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. It’s a big shift into a more realistic mode for Bond, but with very understandable stakes. However, because the plots are less colorful, they also become slightly harder to track, and over the course of these first two Craig-Bond films, you actually have to pay attention to figure out who is doing what and why. It’s a refreshing change.
The upcoming scene is probably the single most thrilling chase sequence in the entirety of the series. Just saying. Bond’s in Madagascar now, tracking a bomb maker (Sebastien Foucan), along with another MI6 agent. Unfortunately, the second agent is a major chump and tips off the bomb maker to their presence. This results in an absolutely fantastic footchase through the streets of Madagascar, up a still-in-construction office building, back DOWN the building, back into the streets, and into an embassy building. I can’t overstate how outstanding this sequence is in the context of everything that had come before in Bond’s history. It’s a huge shot of adrenaline.
The sequence ends with Bond getting cornered by soldiers after having taken the bomb maker hostage. In order to escape the embassy, he executes the bomb maker and blows up a bunch of gas tanks. It is…not subtle. Indeed, it’s so unsubtle that it makes headlines across the world, resulting in a major chew-out for Bond from his boss, Judi Dench’s M.
Dench’s M, by the way, is the one returning element from the Pierce Brosnan films, and it’s not hard to see why—she’s fantastic in the part. The interplay between her and Craig and the development of their relationship becomes the backbone of the first three Craig-Bond films, and her steely refusal to take any of Bond’s shit is a highlight.
After that, Bond is on the outs with M due to the very public murder he committed that was caught on camera, but it’s more or less okay because he managed to swipe the bomb maker’s cell phone, which he uses to track some leads. This leads to an interesting sequence wherein Bond seduces a corrupt official’s wife in order to gain information on him. The presentation of this scene is unusual in the context of Bond films—traditionally, Bond’s sex life is portrayed in a purely fantastic manner, by which I mean in the mode of a fantasy. Bond has casual sex frequently, and for no better reason than that he wants to. He becomes routinely entangled with women throughout the course of his adventures as well, but the fact that they have sex is typically incidental to the actual plot of the film in question. Here, however, Bond is deploying a classic honey trap, the term used for the tactic employed by real spies to gain information through sexual favors. This is one of the sequences in the film that plays very well due to Craig’s underrated strengths as an actor. The audience can very clearly see him turn on the charm, as it were, and immediately turn it off again once it’s not needed. The fantasy element of the sex here has been removed—this is purely utilitarian for Bond.
This leads Bond to another terrific action sequence wherein Bond halts an attempted bombing of an off-brand giant Boeing airplane, which throws off Le Chiffre’s plan from earlier to short-sell the not-Boeing stock. Le Chiffre loses somewhere in the range of 100 million dollars. That’s bad, and Le Chiffre needs to make up that money fast before all his criminal pals come to murder him. In order to do so, he arranges for a high-stakes Hold ‘Em game (he is a gambling addict, after all) at the Casino Royale (title!) in Montenegro. MI6 enters Bond into the tournament in an attempt to bankrupt Le Chiffre so that they will have leverage to offer him protection from his terrorist friends in exchange for information on them. This is kind of a crazy plan, to be honest, but they do note that Bond has a reputation for being the best card player in the service.
On the way to Montenegro, Bond meets the treasury agent who will be handling the 10 million dollars required for Bond’s buy-in to the game. (Incidentally, the game itself was changed for this film to poker from baccarat in the original story and movie. This is because baccarat is both difficult to understand and relatively unpopular outside of Macau [source: Wikipedia]).
The treasury agent is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and she immediately proves herself Bond’s equal, and as it results, Bond will display more open emotion over her than any other character in the entire series. She is another puncturing of Bond’s reputation for womanizing—his feelings for her are very real, unexpectedly so. Rather than discarding her for his career like so many other women in past Bond movies, the reverse happens—by the end of the film, he is perfectly willing to throw away his career to be with her. Eva Green is outstanding in this role, by the way. She’s a perfect foil for Daniel Craig’s sardonic, reserved take on Bond, and the way they are able to get under each other’s skins builds an unusual rapport between the two.
The centerpiece of the movie is the high-stakes game of poker at the Casino Royale. It’s a showcase for both Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre and Daniel Craig. It’s fascinating watching each of them slowly grow to hate the other over the course of the game, emotion portrayed only through their eyes and slight twitches of the face. Again, this is a villain who gets into Bond’s head and makes him emotional in a way that is entirely unusual for a Bond film. By the time Bond loses his entire 10 million stake, he’s so flustered that his immediate next plan is to just straight-up stab Le Chiffre to death with a steak knife, but he’s stopped by Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, a CIA agent and recurring friend of Bond’s (here they’re portrayed as meeting for the first time), who is playing in the game for much the same reasons as Bond himself. Leiter’s not the poker player Bond is, though, and he knows it. He offers to stake Bond back into the game, but only if the CIA can be the ones to take Le Chiffre in. Reconsidering his plan to stab Le Chiffre in the neck with a steak knife in the middle of a crowded casino, Bond agrees.
The game continues with a few interruptions, including Le Chiffre attempting to poison Bond and Vesper being forced to restart Bond’s heart with a defib device, but ultimately Bond prevails. Le Chiffre is broke and desperate. As a result, he kidnaps Bond and Vesper and tortures Bond for the code which will give him access to the money. Bond is a fairly tough cookie, though, and despite Le Chiffre hitting Bond over and over in the groin with a quite large rope, Bond refuses. Alas for Le Chiffre, the organization he represents has already decided he is too much of a risk either way, and Mr. White returns from the beginning of the film to execute Le Chiffre, leaving Bond naked and tied to a chair but alive.
Bond awakens in a hospital and discovers that Vesper is alive as well. Together, they recover and take possession of the poker winnings and transfer them back to MI6. Bond appears to have had something of a come-to-Jesus moment after his multiple brushes with death over the past few days, and he confesses to Vesper that he wants to quit and just be with her. She seems both sad and happy to hear this, because Eva Green is a good actor and this is foreshadowing.
Anyway, Bond submits his resignation, and all seems well. For the first time in a James Bond movie, we see Bond just…happy. The two of them spend an indeterminate but not-too-long period of time bopping around Europe, behaving as young lovers who are both ridiculously good-looking are wont to do. Of course, since this is functionally an origin story, Bond’s happiness doesn’t last. M contacts Bond and he learns that the money was never transferred back to MI6 at all—Vesper is a double-agent. Bond discovers that the money is being transferred now, and he races to stop her. The final action scene of the movie results, as Bond pursues Vesper and the men to whom she was giving the money into a building. Bond shoots the airbags supporting the building (oh, uh, they’re in Venice, by the way) and the building begins sinking into the canal. Bond fails to retrieve the money (it’s picked up by Mr. White, who escapes with it), and in the resulting chaos, Vesper drowns. To his credit, Bond tries quite hard to save her, and Mr. White observes Bond cradling her body for some time before he leaves.
This is the key sequence of the movie—the event that pushes Bond over the edge and fully commits him to his career as a “blunt instrument” (as M puts it earlier in the film) for the government. Despite his clearly emotional reaction to Vesper’s death, by the time Bond debriefs with M over the phone, he has shut that part of himself away, maybe forever. M reveals that Vesper had a boyfriend who had been kidnapped by Le Chiffre’s people and they were holding him hostage to force her cooperation. Bond’s reaction to this is callous—“the bitch is dead.” I recall people gasping at that line in the theater, and rightly so. It’s a hard switch from the more emotional Bond we’ve seen throughout the film, but it’s what the entire story has been building towards—Bond will never let himself feel this way again. What could make a man into an emotionally closed-off womanizing government assassin?
The film ends with Bond discovering that Vesper did leave him one last thing—the phone number for Mr. White. We see Mr. White pull up to his absolutely stunning villa. He admires the view from his front lawn for a moment before receiving a phone call.
“We need to talk,” says the man on the phone.
“Who is this?” asks Mr. White.
A gunshot rings out and Mr. White collapses, clutching his knee. A man stands over Mr. White and looks down.
“Bond,” he replies. “James Bond.”
Cue the huge brass hits of the iconic James Bond theme (the first time we hear it in the entire film) and roll credits.
Returning to Casino Royale, I was pleased to see how well it held up. It’s a deconstruction of Bond while simultaneously reviving Bond, a thrilling action flick filled with fantastic acting. It humanizes Bond more than any of the films before it and, while it lacks some of the emblematic elements of the series till this point (like the wacky gadgets of Q Branch), it more than compensates by making Bond feel worth taking seriously again. Also, Daniel Craig is the best-looking Bond of them all. Fight me.
– Le Chiffre has a giant scar over one eye and occasionally weeps blood due to what he describes at one point as “a derangement of the tear duct.” Sounds terrible!
– Bond is actually betrayed at a couple of key points in the film, in fact—Giancarlo Giannini plays Rene Mathis, an MI6 operative who assists Bond and Vesper during the game, but is secretly working for Le Chiffre. He winds up getting tased and dragged off by goons after Bond survives Le Chiffre’s torture. “Lesson learned,” he says to Vesper afterwards.
– The woman Bond sleeps with to gain information on her husband is subsequently found murdered. In another example of the excellent acting Craig brings to this role, Bond is clearly but quietly upset by this discovery.
– Jeffrey Wright will become a welcome presence as Felix Leiter in the Craig-Bonds. His gruff scowl and gravelly voice is immediately more interesting and memorable than any of the no fewer than seven previous actors to portray the role.