After 44 years and 20 films, the makers of the James Bond franchise decided to go in a bold and brave direction by reinventing the series with 2006’s Casino Royale. To put it in proper perspective, 2002’s Die Another Day, the fourth 007 pic starring Pierce Brosnan, wound up being the highest grosser of the series.
It would have been an easy choice to do at least one or two more features with Brosnan, who probably would have been game for the job. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson chose to go in another direction and finally bring Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel to the big screen. By doing so, Casino Royale would essentially be a reboot of the series. Due to that, it meant Pierce Brosnan was out and a new 007 would have to be found. If you’re asking yourself why Fleming’s first novel hadn’t been made as an official Bond film, good question. The answer involves a lengthy, protracted battle over the rights to the book, which Fleming signed away before the “official” Bond films began. This actually resulted in Casino Royale being made into a 1954 TV movie and as a badly received 1967 007 spoof with an all-star cast that included Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. The entire history of the Bond producers finally gaining back the rights to the property is explained in great detail in an extra feature on the DVD/Blu Ray. If you own it, I’d strongly encourage you to watch it. It’s fascinating stuff.
As always, the search for a new 007 was the subject of much gossip. Actors like Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, and Hugh Jackman were talked about. Ultimately, producers turned to Daniel Craig, who had a nice little career going with roles in Road to Perdition, Layer Cake, and Munich. It may be hard to remember now, but the casting of Craig was not met with major enthusiasm. A blond Bond?!?!?! Beyond that, while he certainly showed acting chops in his previous work, there was high uncertainty as to whether he would fit into 007’s shoes, Aston Martin, and tuxedo.
After endless media speculation, audiences got their answer in November 2006. The opening scene of Casino Royale immediately informs us that we’re in true reboot mode, as Bond kills a turncoat MI6 section chief. This is his second kill as an agent and we see black&white flashbacks of his first. The significance of this? His two kills earns James Bond “00” status. This brief introductory scene is electrifying for two reasons: first, it’s just a well-written and action packed sequence. Second, it puts the audience in great anticipation of something we’ve never seen before in the franchise… an origin story.
Casino Royale is the first Bond picture to not open with the famous shot of 007 through the cross hairs of a gun barrel. We don’t get that iconic shot until the end of the great three and a half minutes opening sequence.
The theme song is “You Know My Name” by Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell. It’s a decent harder edged rock track that doesn’t rank with the best Bond songs, but is also not among the worst.
The action moves to Uganda, where we’re introduced to the main villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an international banker who funds the world’s top terrorist organizations. The scenes in Uganda provide us with an absolutely incredible action set piece with Bond battling a baddie at a construction site and at an embassy where 007 likely violates several international laws. When Bond figures out he can’t take his prisoner out of the embassy, he uses his licence to kill. The tone is set early: our new Bond can be a ruthless badass if need be.
When Casino Royale moves to the Bahamas (nice touch), Bond uses a bad guy’s wife to get some information in typical fashion. We also get a shot of 007 coming out of the ocean that is reminiscent of Ursula Andress in Dr. No, though I suspect this particular shot pleased the series female fans to a higher degree. Additionally, as has been tradition when a new 007 is introduced, he takes the Aston Martin for a spin. Casino Royale has great moments of humor as well. A personal favorite is when a hotel guest mistakes Bond for a parking attendant and 007 obliges his request while not leaving his vehicle in pristine condition.
The events in the Bahamas lead Bond to Miami and we witness yet another fabulous action scene. This time, it’s 007 stopping the bad guys from blowing up the largest commercial jetliner in the world. Bond’s smile at the end of this sequence when he knows he’s got the best of the bad guy is priceless.
All of this truly exciting action takes place just in the first hour and looking back, I marveled at how fast-paced Casino Royale‘s first act is. What follows for the next nearly 90 minutes is more of a deliberate pace.
We begin with Bond’s introduction to Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an agent of the treasury. She’s assigned to accompany 007 to Montenegro and keep an eye on him as he’s been entered in a high stakes poker tournament at Casino Royale. On the train where they meet, the audience immediately sees the spark between Bond and Vesper. This isn’t going to be your average Bond girl. Much of this is due to Green’s fine performance (we’ll get to Craig later).
This isn’t just any card game. It’s been put together by Le Chiffre with a $10 million dollar buy-in. The game is of extreme importance to the protagonist and the antagonist: Le Chiffre got screwed over financially when Bond stopped the airplane attack and is depending on the winnings to pay off clients or risk getting killed. If Bond doesn’t win the tournament, he’ll be directly responsible for financing international terrorism. In other words, not your average Saturday night poker game with your drinking buddies.
The poker tournament sequence is something to behold. It lasts over half an hour, but before you go thinking it’s like watching half an episode of the World Poker Tournament, not so fast. The sequence jumps back and forth between the tournament, breaks in the tournament, back to the tournament, and events taking place the following morning. We see Le Chiffre being threatened by his clients, Bond and Vesper battling bad guys, Bond getting poisoned, and, yes, a few poker hands. This whole sequence is a marvelous achievement in editing and screenwriting. Quite honestly, everything about it works.
I realize I’m going over the plot points of Casino Royale probably more than other Bond blog entries. I think I’m doing so because everything in the film seems worth mentioning because it works so damn well. I’ll hurry it up. We get a scene with Le Chiffre torturing Bond that’s quite memorable. Right before that, a great car chase where Bond is forced to crash his precious automobile.
Finally, we get to Bond falling heads over heels for Vesper. It is at this point when audiences might feel the picture beginning to drag a little. All of this takes place after our main bad guy is, well, out of the picture. Soon enough, though, we understand why the film is showing their love blossom. Not everything is at it seems. Vesper has ulterior motives. Bond learns this after he’s tendered his resignation with MI6. He figures out that if he doesn’t, he’ll never have a normal life where he’s capable of love and he decides that isn’t what he wants. This is heavy stuff for a Bond film, but the screenwriters handle it so well that it’s totally believable.
Furthermore, it is the wonderful performance of Daniel Craig that sells it. When he was cast as 007, many (including this blogger) didn’t know what to make of it. Casino Royale silenced all his critics. Big time. Craig is the best Bond since Sean Connery.
The whole cast is first-rate, from Green and Mikkelsen to Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter and Judi Dench, still getting it done as M. As Mathis, one of 007’s contacts who may or may not be on his side, Giancarlo Giannini does a fine job.
Martin Campbell, who kicked off the Brosnan era in Goldeneye, return to direct the start of the Craig era. Veterans Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade return and are aided by Paul Haggis, screenwriter of the Oscar-winning Crash and many others.
Audiences and critics embraced the reinvention and it grossed just under $600 million worldwide.
When the Pierce Brosnan movies got underway after a long absence, we got a mix of previous 007s – a little Connery, a little Moore, a little Dalton. And for three films (excluding the disastrous Die Another Day), the formula worked fairly well.
Here we have something much different. Casino Royale is a reinvention. An origin story. It’s a bold decision by the Bond makers to have gone this route and it succeeds on a level that is truly unanticipated. It brings an energy to the Bond films unseen since Connery’s heyday.
And it still maintains nods to the old films that only a true Bond aficionado would cherish. The screenplay makes Bond more human than we’ve ever seen before (with the possible exception of the greatly inferior On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and they pull it off and then some. We believe the romance between Bond and Vesper. And when it goes south, we understand that Bond’s likely future habits of not getting too close to anyone make a lot of sense.
Casino Royale is not a great Bond film. It’s a great film. I highly suspect it will rank high (very high) in my final rankings of 007 pictures.
Here are the facts:
Film: Casino Royale
U.S. Release Date: November 17, 2006
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis
Bond: Daniel Craig
Main Bond Villain: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen)
Main Bond Girl: Vesper Lynd (Eva Green)
Theme Song: “You Know My Name” – performed by Chris Cornell
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Box Office: $599 million
My James Bond blog series will return in “The 007 Files: Quantum of Solace”