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‘Casino Royale’ a thrilling Bond movie that tries hard not to be a Bond movie

‘Casino Royale’ a thrilling Bond movie that tries hard not to be a Bond movie

Casino Royale

Directed by Martin Campbell

Written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade & Paul Haggis

United Kingdom, USA, Czech Republic, and Germany, 2006

For reasons that escape me consciously, I’ve never been caught up in the James Bond phenomenon. I understand why the series holds such an allure to so many people—fast cars, beautiful women, cliffhanging action sequences, a dashing leading man, etc. And it’s not as if I’ve managed to live my life, to be on this planet for nearly 30 years, and not see a James Bond movie. However, until very recently, I’d only seen the movies where either Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig played 007. A year ago, out of sheer curiosity, I revisited a few of the Sean Connery-era Bond films, movies like Goldfinger and From Russia with Love, and found them more cheerfully antiquated than propulsive or purely entertaining.

Casino Royale, on the other hand, was the first James Bond movie to excite me, to thrill me in the way that other great films in the action genre do. (It is, perhaps, a bit ironic to consider that Casino Royale is the one movie in the 50-year franchise to try very hard to feel as un-Bond-like as possible. I’d also note that Skyfall, the new Bond film, which is more obviously tied into the trappings of the franchise, is my favorite mainstream film of 2012.) By going back to the beginning, restarting the series not only by replacing the dapper Brosnan with the scrappier Craig, the producers realized it was time for a change. It’s not that the procedural-like elements of the James Bond movies didn’t work at all, it’s that they felt stale and too familiar. Of course Bond would flirt with Miss Moneypenny, but never do anything more. Of course he’d buck up against M, and try out some new gadgets with Q. And then he’d travel the world, meet and sleep with beautiful women, fight some outrageous villain, potentially lose one of the ladies in the heat of the battle, but he’d still survive at the end. (And, spoilers for Skyfall, but that template is exactly what happens, more or less.)

What Casino Royale does very well is incorporate a good number of those elements without them feeling forced. Q and Miss Moneypenny don’t appear in the film, and aren’t even mentioned. But this tough-minded version of James Bond does travel the world, from Madagascar to Miami to Montenegro, and he does sleep with two beautiful women, both of whom end up dead. Perhaps the biggest difference is that when these women die, it means something to Bond. I don’t often traffic in the kind of argument that action-movie violence is egregiously mindless, but it’s almost the nature of the James Bond series. Though Bond ages, depending on who’s playing him and for how long, he’s never going to get so old that he’s not brandishing a gun and taking down terrorists, thieves, and other criminals. And he always gets his man, no matter who else lies dead in his wake. I’m not saying this is why I don’t like the other Bond movies as much as I like Casino Royale, but in the latter film, death is taken seriously from the very beginning.

And it’s appropriate, because Casino Royale, as an origin story, is about how James Bond slowly dies and 007 is left in his place. We’re not given a ton of details of Bond’s past as Casino Royale opens, but the pre-title sequence—where we see him get his first two kills, cementing his double-0 status—emphasizes a level of honesty and reality absent from most Bond movies. The opening scene, shot in black-and-white, doesn’t take very long, of course; within five minutes, Bond’s murdered two people and the catchy-yet-mostly-terrible theme song sung by Chris Cornell is blaring through the credits. But the first kill, especially, isn’t easy, as Bond faces off with a spy feeding an MI6 station chief information in a seedy-looking bathroom. The violence isn’t sensationalized nearly as much as in the rest of the franchise (yes, even the lackluster follow-up to Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace), though it’s still exciting to watch.

Casino Royale also succeeds because, for an origin story and, in some ways, a reboot, it doesn’t feel truly bogged down in re-introducing the lead character. There’s a lot of mythology to unload with James Bond if you want to rewind to his beginning—how did he become 007? How did he meet Q? Moneypenny? What about who he was before he became an agent? Smartly, Casino Royale isn’t that interested in spelling out all of his story just yet. (Skyfall, for example, introduces Q and—again, spoilers—Moneypenny after a decade of not being in Bond movies. While it does answer those questions, it does so expertly and efficiently.) Basically, the movie is an origin story stripped to its bare minimum. All we need to know is that this James Bond is a fighter, someone whose past fights leave behind visible scars that he doesn’t forget. Craig’s notably craggy face is the perfect visage for a character whose scrapes are etched permanently inside and outside.

Casino Royale is also an excellent exercise in manufacturing suspense out of the inherently dull. Some will disagree, but the fact that the middle section of this movie is a poker game that’s not outrageously boring is impressive. Of course, Bond’s foe, Le Chiffre, a villain who has asthma and whose tear ducts are so screwed up that they leak blood (the most insane and ridiculous part of this movie, and yet it never feels too over-the-top), is sitting directly opposite our hero. However, even Le Chiffre is a small-time crook in the grand scheme of things. Sure, he may have flamboyant tendencies like the old nemeses, the Blofelds and Goldfingers, but he’s the front man for a larger organization that wouldn’t get fully explored until Quantum of Solace. (You remember that, right? No, of course you don’t. No one does.) As played by Mads Mikkelsen, Le Chiffre is a more physically threatening bad guy than Mathieu Amalric’s villain in the follow-up, but he’s still realistic enough.

I suppose that’s one of the best aspects of Casino Royale: it toes the line between reality and overwrought silliness, maintaining that balance throughout. The way Campbell and screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have been around the series since GoldenEye, surprisingly) & Paul Haggis build tension is exemplary for a simple reason: we all know James Bond is going to survive. Hell, in the ads for Skyfall, we see 007 being shot and apparently killed, but no one among us actually thinks he’s dead for good. He’s James Bond, for God’s sake. James Bond doesn’t die. With that knowledge always present, any tension is a welcome breath of fresh air, because how can you create suspense surrounding a character who will make it through any situation he’s presented with? Campbell, Purvis, Wade, and Haggis get it right because it’s not about if Bond will make it out alive, it’s how. How can he revive himself with only seconds to spare after he’s given a drink laced with poison? Through the system installed in his brand-new car, of course! …Except the wires aren’t hooked up correctly, so down goes Bond. He’s saved by his love interest, Vesper Lynd, quickly enough; still, Casino Royale pushes Bond to his breaking point often, raising the stakes each time.

I will admit, though, that even upon rewatching Casino Royale, the weakest element of the film is the supposed romance at its core, between Bond and Vesper. Eva Green, as the sultry and intelligent woman working with James as he travels to Montenegro to face off with Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game at the title location, is fine. She’s beautiful, and she’s got a prickly enough personality to make us buy that she would initially be repelled by our hero. (And as we find out near the end of the movie, she has other reasons to not be instantly attracted to him.) However, I found that her connection with Craig was too minimal. Part of this, frankly, is due to the odd structure of the script of Casino Royale, which waits about an hour before putting Bond on the train to Montenegro, thus making it so the two have to create a spark within the final hour. As death and destruction quickly insert themselves into the poker game, especially in a fierce hand-to-hand combat scene between Bond and an African militant that extends from a hotel room to a maintenance stairwell, Vesper and James grow close. I can’t help, though, but see it simply as a function of the script—hey, we have to get Bond to hook up with someone fast!—than as a natural progression in the characters’ relationship. Frankly, the mostly physical connection James gets with the wife of a hotheaded terrorist contractor in the Bahamas has more of a spark.

So you’d think that, because Bond’s apparent love for Vesper doesn’t totally work for me, I might not be so hot on Casino Royale. Not true. I’ll admit that the final sequence, set in Venice, is the weakest in the film, not because it makes the movie drag but because I didn’t have the same level of interest in what was happening. (As a quick note, I don’t have a problem with Casino Royale being nearly 150 minutes. Honestly, if there’s enough story to tell, who cares how long a movie is?) I’ve always enjoyed the beginning of the sequence, ending right after Le Chiffre is murdered and Bond passes out after being tortured, partly because it wavers between offering Bond a deliriously happy ending and feeling intentionally inexplicable and strange. That ineffable feeling I sometimes get with movies—the last half-hour of The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind—where a scene is fascinating simply for seeming completely unnecessary until it reveals its true purpose crops up here.

Still, the Venice climax, if it’s not a letdown, doesn’t raise the needle. In some ways, it’s like there was only so much intensity that could be packed into one film, and Campbell used it all up before the third act. The film, as a whole, plays quite well for me 6 years after it was released to mostly positive critical and commercial reactions. The more I think back on the Bond series, and reconsider the older films in light of this month’s series at Sound on Sight, the more I think not being a fan has its advantages. I never got too worked up by the 007 producers casting a “blond” as the new James Bond. (I use the quotation marks because I don’t consider Craig to be blond. Maybe dirty blond, but there’s plenty of brown in his hair. Now, Javier Bardem in Skyfall? That’s a blond.) I never got disturbed that the 21st James Bond film would eschew so many of the familiar beats of other entries in the franchise. I went in with, perhaps, the most open mind of all. I wanted a fresh start, a clean slate, and that’s exactly what Casino Royale was.

Postscript. I think it’s worth acknowledging that I wrote the majority of this article before Skyfall opened. As such, I feel like I should quickly clarify why, as of now, Skyfall is a far superior movie to me than Casino Royale is. Skyfall is a bit more focused and direct in its storytelling, first. Though both movies are roughly the same length, Skyfall has a clear purpose, to focus on Bond’s relationship with M, as well as her relationship, in general, with anyone who works for her. I’d also argue that, though it may be odd to further expand Bond’s origin here, Skyfall is leaps and bounds above Casino Royale in fully building up 007. This is a confident, entertaining, and excellent film. Casino Royale almost acts embarrassed that it’s a Bond movie. Skyfall is proud of that categorization.

— Josh Spiegel

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 24, 2012. 

This article is part of our 007 marathon. You can find all the entries by clicking here.