Review: “Casino Royale” (2006)
Produced by: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis (screenplay)
Cinematography by: Phil Meheux
Music by: David Arnold (score), Chris Cornell (title song)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Simon Abkarian, Caterina Murino, Ivana Miličević
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming
There are always going to be arguments about who did Bond best. I grew up watching the films but can honestly say that I don’t remember much of the 60s – 80s thanks to the films largely feeling quite… samey. As a kid, however, I did love the character and his world, and, for a while, Pierce Brosnan was my Bond — cocky, suave, witty, and boy did he have a lot of gadgets. Brosnan’s still just fine in my book, but there’s no hiding the fact that his Bond was saddled with the task of carrying a series of films that increasingly got more and more ridiculous and bland.
It was like the Batman film series all over again — a strong start (Batman / GoldenEye), a strong but bloated sequel (Batman Returns / Tomorrow Never Dies), a right turn into camp (Batman Forever/ The World is Not Enough), and then an ultimate downfall into a ridiculously gauche, almost satirical world that didn’t even resemble the first two (Batman & Robin / Die Another Day). Like with Batman, a fifth film to carry on the series was in the works, but, ultimately, the series was put on a brief hiatus for a restructuring. Luckily, Bond continued in the footsteps of Batman and went for a reboot for the “fifth” film, taking a more serious, thoughtful, and realistic approach to the character and his world and ridding the series of the excesses, and doing so by, for the first time ever, exploring the events that made Bond the hero that we know him to be today.
Taking a cue from the first ever Bond story by Ian Fleming, Casino Royale can easily be summed up in its basic story structure of following Bond as he attempts to win all the money in a game of poker set up by terrorist financier, Le Chiffre. While there are all sorts of things going on that lead up to this high-stakes poker game in the titular casino, the film is, for once, less concerned about Bond confronting the film’s big bad, and is more focused on how Bond develops into the hero we know from past films and the events that lead up to that turning point in his life.
There are still plenty of explosions and big action set pieces to keep audiences riveted (the early parkour chase through a construction site and another chase that begins quietly at a Body Worlds exhibit and escalates to an attempted bombing at a local airport are particular highlights of the film), but this time around, they’re constructed around fewer gimmicks and instead around plot developments that have lasting effects on the character and the audience’s perception of him, not just in this film, but throughout the entire franchise.
This refocusing is evident immediately, as the film’s usual opening gambit, usually one of those big adrenaline-rush sequences, is instead a black-and-white vignette, a confrontation of words between Bond and his target, a rogue MI6 section chief, within the target’s office, interspersed with grainy flashbacks to a brutal bathroom battle between Bond and another adversary. This sequence shows us just enough of how Bond achieved his 00-agent status without taking away from the mystique behind the agent. We know this is a Bond who is dirtier, hardier, and a man who must compensate for his mistakes, but knows how to do so efficiently. Moving into the usual title song sequence, we don’t even get the typical near-nude women, as that’s not yet the Bond we’re dealing with. Instead, we get a gorgeously rendered series of stylized action sequences that show us Bond’s training, and, as the title song suggests, we know that this is the film that will ultimately show us how we got the Bond we’re familiar with.
As if the absence of suggestive dancing weren’t enough, the film also goes ahead and makes its primary Bond Girl an intelligent, complex character with whom Bond feels not just a mutual attraction, but also a mutual respect. Vesper Lynd, MI6’s financier in the poker game, instantaneously earns the title of the best Bond Girl from her first appearance, where she and Bond trade catty verbal exchanges with equal skill, their underlying admiration for each other lending just the right amount of good-natured playfulness to their relationship. Their mission at the Casino Royale and the resulting and unforeseen developments within their professional and personal relationships are engaging enough by themselves, but within the grander scope of the entire series, it also helps to give some logical explanation as to why Bond treats women the way he does in the other films, despite Casino Royale not exactly being a traditional “prequel.”
Of course, a James Bond film, even one with a plot as well developed as the one here, wouldn’t be anything without the performances of skilled actors to handle the material. Daniel Craig was a controversial choice for the main role, as both his look and his take on the character were clear departures from that of his predecessors. Blonde, blue-eyed, and playing the character as arrogant but not without hesitations or a sensitive side, Craig’s Bond is truly the first to actually feel like a professional spy who doesn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty when duty calls. This Bond gets bloody, and the fight sequences he’s forced into are hectic and even a bit dirty. (Some are quick to point out that Casino Royale imitates the Bourne films too much in this regard, but luckily this film is a good bit better at creating a coherent fight sequence while maintaining that stylized “in the action” atmosphere than its contemporary.)
As Vesper Lynd, Eva Green more than makes up for the travesties that were Halle Berry and Denise Richards in the prior two movies, for once helping to create a Bond girl who cannot legitimately be accused of being a slut, seductress, idiot, nor just outright annoying. Green brings a welcome intelligence, class, and charm to a character that truly required a lot of finesse to avoid making her seem like she’s going through mood swings — cold and aloof one moment, and desperately infatuated the next.
Though he’s not given too much more to do in the film than play poker, cry tears of blood, and implement a particularly horrible form of torture, Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, a mere financier for a terrorist group hoping to win back some losses, is still enough of a presence to make his role memorable and seem like he has the potential to e a true threat to Bond.
And in case you were afraid of having too much new around, Casino Royale‘s makers saw fit to continue using Judi Dench as M, who becomes the reboot’s version of Q, who is apparently not yet working at MI6 at this point time. Having her aboard makes helps ease older fans into this new take, and Dench’s strict, motherly presence is an even better foil for Craig’s cheeky take on Bond than it was with Brosnan’s own smug charms.
Though some apparently feel as though Casino Royale was an unnecessary restructuring of the series’ heretofore status quo, by the end of the film, I felt as though Bond’s journey was complete, and when, for the first time in the film when the traditional Bond theme plays after so many audible hints, I still get a bit of a chill. I guess I take a different perspective on the series than those people. I see Bond as a character who has necessarily become one whose film presences who will always maintain the same key characteristics and yet also one that will and should always go through different filters as time goes on.
The James Bond on display here is still the same spy we know and love, complete with martinis, girls, and guns, but this fresh take on the character breathed new life into another franchise that was (once again) on the brink of going off the deep end with excess. Casino Royale wisely strips the character and his world back down to their basics while adding on layers of never before seen character development in places where previous films instead placed even more gadgets and explosions. It is, by far, my favorite Bond film at this moment (Skyfall releases in 2 days as of this writing), and Craig has, with this film alone, permanently supplanted Brosnan in my mind as being the Bond, as well.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5