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Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Casino Royale (2006)

November 2nd, 2012
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So, about a year ago I had an idea that I’d try to watch one or two Bond films a month, starting with Dr. No. I thought this would be a fun way to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise in 2012, and a great lead up to the release of the new Bond film.  Well, I wasn’t able to get too far in my efforts!  (But you can click here for my in-depth review of Dr. No, here for From Russia With Love, here for Goldfinger, and here Thunderball.)  I love Bond, and I do intend to continue re-watching the series in order, though it might take me until the NEXT Bond film before I finish!  Meanwhile, with the release of Skyfall fast approaching, I decided to skip ahead and re-watch Daniel Craig’s two previous Bond films: 2006’s Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace. Let’s dive into Casino Royale today, and I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Quantum of Solace. (Then of course I will have my review of Skyfall up as soon as possible!)

The film: Casino Royale really knocked my socks off when it was first released, and it has held up extremely well after multiple viewings in the years since.  This felt to me like the Bond I’d been waiting for — serious and intense, with great action coupled with a compelling (and suitably downbeat) emotional arc for the main characters.  The Bond franchise has been rejiggered before during the transition between Bond actors, but this was the first time the series was ever started over from zero.  (What we like to call a “reboot” these days.)  I tend to despise prequels, and I was worried that Casino Royale was just an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the success of Batman Begins from the previous year.  And while there is no question in my mind that Casino Royale would not exist without the success of Batman Begins, that connection has justifiably been forgotten because the film works so fabulously well.

Bond, James Bond: One thing that never worried me in the days leading up to Casino Royale’s release was the terrific casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond.  That whole kerfuffle over his hair color, etc., just seemed ludicrous to me.  Craig is an absolutely FANTASTIC Bond.  On the one hand, I love the way in which his Bond seems to be, of all the Bonds, the most similar to Connery’s version — the man is, in many ways, a thug.  Craig’s Bond has a brutality and a dangerousness that I don’t think any of the Bonds have had since Connery.  On the other hand, Craigs’ depiction is far from a slavish impersonation of Connery.  He has made the role his own, and carved out a whole new version of Bond, one that respects the core of the character while not being afraid to chart new paths and to give the character an emotional honesty that I don’t think any of the other Bonds have had.

The Opening: I adore the black-and-white opening sequence, which depicts Bond’s first two kills, and his attaining of Double-O status.  It’s a real sit-up-and-take-notice sequence, a bold announcement that this was going to be a totally different type of Bond movie.  There is no elaborate action sequence, and no jokes.  Bond shoots a man in an office, and kills another man after a brutal hand-to-hand fight in a bathroom.  We’d never seen as ugly a fight sequence as that one before in a Bond movie.  (Even the justifiably famous hand-to-hand fight scene on the train in From Russia With Love had a bit of glamour to it that is totally absent from this sequence.)  I love how clever it is to END this opening sequence with the famous Bond-though-the-gun-barrel shot (rather than OPENING with that shot, as all previous Bond movies had done), and to make it be the literal final shot of the scene: the last thing the man sees before Bond shoots and kills him.  It’s the whole film in a nut-shell: respectful to the Bond legacy but demonstrating a clever eye for reinvention of this fifty-year-old film franchise.

The music: I’m a big fan of Chris Cornell’s theme-song for the film “You Know My Name.”  (Casino Royale is one of the few Bond films in which the main song has a different title than that of the film.)  It’s a great rocking tune, and I like how the lyrics seem to be from Bond’s point of view.  As the film goes on, I love how “You Know My Name” is woven into the score.  (I LOVE when the Bond films do that!)  The Bond theme is used very sparingly in the film — we don’t really hear it until the very end, though it tickles me to hear a bit of the Bond theme in the score when we see him first put on the tailored tuxedo that Vesper bought him.

Getting back to the opening sequence, I love it — it’s a visual feast, dense and beautiful.  I love all the casino/card-playing imagery, and I think the whole sequence is clever and well-realized.  When I first saw this film, I was totally on board by the time the opening musical sequence was over.

The Good: There is so much that Casino Royale does right.  We get a nice complicated, twisty spy story, with some great action, but more importantly is that James Bond suddenly feels grounded and real.  Yes, he’s still a super-spy, but this Bond can get hurt, this Bond doesn’t always have all the answers.  But he’s tough, he’s ferociously tenacious, and he’s loyal to the institutions and people who he feels deserve his loyalty.

Casino Royale is not a film over-stuffed with action, but what action we get is fantastic.  Almost immediately after the opening musical sequence, we get a bravura chase sequence in which Bond pursues a bomb-maker through a construction site.  That sequence famously utilized parkour, and it’s a real hoot to watch as the two men careen over, under, and through every obstacle around them.  The sequence is filled with a lot of clever action beats and great character notes, as time and again we see the bomb-maker nimbly jump over and around things, while Bond the “blunt instrument” just smashes right through.

I also love the car/truck chase in the Miami airport when Bond is attempting to prevent the destruction of the new huge “Skyfleet” plane.  And we get another great brutal hand-to-hand fight when Bond battles the thugs (who arrived to threaten Le Chiffre) in the Montenegro hotel’s stair-well.

The film finds a balance that many other Bond films miss, in that it is very long and complex, but not indecipherable.  The story makes sense, and the audience can follow the logic as one scene moves to the next, and Bond hops from location to location in pursuit of the villains.

Casino Royale is a long film, one of the longest (perhaps THE longest) of all the Bond films.  The film feels like it’s over at around the two-hour mark, once Le Chiffre is finally defeated, but of course there’s another twenty minutes to go which focuses on Bond and Vesper.  It’s a great tease, as the happy-ending is yanked away from Bond and the audience.  The film overplays its hand a teensy bit when we see Bond send a letter of resignation to M.  (Even the most clueless of audience member knows that Bond isn’t going to stay resigned, so I think that’s a mistake because it makes us anticipate a twist happening.)  Regardless, the end of the film is wrenching.  It’s the most downbeat ending since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which I think is the most under-appreciated Bond film of them all), and I love every second of it.  Very bold.

And, of course, after Vesper meets her end, we get the fantastic coda in which Bond tracks down Mr. White.  As he finally introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond,” the Bond theme plays and we know that the character’s origin is complete.  It’s a great way to end the film, and it leaves the audience drooling for the next installment, as we (and Bond) learn that there’s a much larger criminal organization out there.  At the time, I was giddy with the idea of the Bond franchise bringing SPECTRE into the new millennium, and couldn’t wait to see where the series went next.

The Silly: There’s not too much to mock in this film!  OK, that parkour-trained bomb-maker must be the most nimble and acrobatic bomb-maker who ever lived, but that chase sequence is so much fun it’s hard to complain.

My only real problem with any part of the film’s story is during the poker game, when we get to the whole business with Le Chiffre’s tell.  It’s crazy to think that such an exceptional card-player would have such an obvious tell.  That Bond thinks for a moment that this is a possibility is ludicrous.  If they wanted to use this as a plot-point, the filmmakers needed to have figured out a much less cartoonishly-obvious tell to give Le Chiffre.

Classic Bond-isms: Not many!  But I take a lot of joy from the fact that even this new, rebooted, more “real” James Bond still announces his real name all over the place, not seeming to give a hoot about staying under-cover.  (He registers at the desk of the Montenegro hotel as James Bond, for goodness sake!!)

“Where’s Pussy?” (The Women): Casino Royale works because of Daniel Craig, but it also works because of Eva Green as Vesper Lynd.  Vesper doesn’t enter the movie until it’s almost halfway through, but as soon as Bond meets her, we can she that their relationship is really what the movie is all about.  I think the scene when they first meet is a little over-written (there’s something just a little too on-the-nose about the way they each verbally dissect the other — we don’t need to hear Vesper say about Bond that “you think of women as disposable objects” — duh, we get it), but the chemistry between the two is immediately palpable.  (By the way, just watch Bond’s eyes when Vesper figures out he’s an orphan — it’s a great moment of performance for Daniel Craig, and gives the scene an emotional power even though it’s one moment in Casino Royale when I’m not totally in love with the other-wise fantastic dialogue.)  I like how the film takes its time before putting the two characters together — this isn’t a case in which Bond smiles and the girl melts, we get to see how the two slowly fall for one another.  It makes the ending so much more painful.

There are other beautiful women in Casino Royale, such as the doomed Solange (who is the first woman who we see the rebooted Bond sleep with in order to get to someone she’s close to, but presumably not the last!), but Casino Royale is all about Vesper.

“I told the stewardess liquor for three” (The Supporting Players): It’s a bizarre choice to bring back Judi Dench as M (she played M in all four Pierce Brosnan films), but she’s so great that I don’t care a whit.  I love her chemistry with Daniel Craig, and their interplay is one of my favorite things about the film.  One of my favorite moments is when M dryly comments to Bond: “I’d ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but I don’t think that’s your problem, is it, Bond?” to which Bond replies simply, “No.”  It’s a great moment, and I LOVE Daniel Craig’s delivery of that simple word, “No.”  There’s no defensiveness, no guilt there, just a simple gruff acknowledgement.  Great stuff.

Jeffrey Wright is a great choice as Felix Leiter, and I like that Felix gets some meaty things to do in the film’s second half.  I like this version of Felix a LOT — he’s clearly not as good a super-spy as Bond, but he’s not an idiot either.  This Felix is capable and clever, and I like the atmosphere of mutual respect between him and Bond.  I like that it’s Felix who prevents Bond from doing something rash when Bond thinks he won’t be able to buy back into the poker game.

I adore Giancarlo Giannini, and I love every second he’s on-screen as Mathis.  Too often in previous Bond films we see Bond’s fellow spies depicted as total nincompoops.  I love that Mathis, instead, is immediately shown to be very competent (with his cunning strategy for removing a local official who would prove problematic for Bond’s mission).  I love Mathis’ joie de vivre and the spirit he brings to the proceedings.  I’m glad that the last-minute-reveal isn’t the last we see of this character.

Mads Mikkelsen does solid work as the villainous Le Chiffre.  I can’t say the character ranks among the best of the Bond villains — he doesn’t have anything overly flamboyant or memorable about him.  But I like that he’s presented more as an intellectual challenge for Bond, rather than a physical one.  I think Mr. Mikkelsen does good work at playing this Bad Guy without too many over-the-top villainous flourishes, while still showing the character to be a real villain and a danger to Bond.

Best Exchange: Vesper: “Am I going to have a problem with you, Mr. Bond?”  Bond: “No, don’t worry, you’re not my type.”  Vesper: “Smart?”  Bond: “Single.”

Continuity Nods: It’s amusing to see the beefcake Daniel Craig come out of the water in his tight swim trunks, a male version of Honey Rider’s famous entrance in Dr. No.

Why Not Just Shoot Him? Le Chiffre gets a great line about how he never understood villains using elaborate tortures, though he too seems to miss his chance to just shoot Bond.  (Though, to be fair, at that point Le Chiffre needs Bond alive so he can recover the money he lost by losing the poker game.)  His attempt to poison Bond earlier in the film is a little weak.  (Why not just have one of his men shoot Bond in the back of the head when Bond goes to use the Mens’ Room or something?  But poison does seem a more effective strategy than a tarantula from the rafters or a laser-beam.)  Let me just say, though, that the genital torture sequence (so famous from Ian Fleming’s novel, and something the filmmakers didn’t shy away from incorporating into their film) is absolutely brutal.

Womanizer Alert: I’ve got to laugh when Bond, mid-embrace with Solange, learns her evil husband Dimitrios is taking a flight to Miami.  Luckily Bond decides he can still bed the girl before rushing out to catch a late flight over.  Wonder what he told her as he was leaving?

Alcoholic Alert: This Bond doesn’t seem too concerned with the quality of his booze, but I love that he orders a “Vesper” martini.  (“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel.”)  That recipe is straight out of Ian Fleming’s novel.

James Bond will return in the woefully-named Quantum of Solace, and so will I!

Previous Bond Reviews: Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965).

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