The 007 Collective – ‘Casino Royale’

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The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.

I conclude my 007 Collective retrospective series with Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in the third and best adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, the masterful, game-changing CASINO ROYALE.

 

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Mission Title: Casino Royale
James Bond: Daniel Craig
Release Date: November 17, 2006
Source Material: Based on the novel ‘Casino Royale’ by Ian Fleming
Tagline: Everyone has a past. Every legend has a beginning. On November 17th, discover how James…became Bond.

 

MISSION BRIEFING

Fresh off earning his “00” stripes, secret agent James Bond is sent on a mission to foil a terrorist plot to blow up a prototype airplane in Miami. Realizing that the plot has direct connections to Le Chiffre, a millionaire weapons dealer and banker to the world’s biggest terrorists, MI6 sends Bond to beat Le Chiffre at a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, in order to force the criminal to seek protection from his dangerous clients. Along the way, Bond meets and falls in love with the radiant British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd, not knowing that his every move is being watched.

 

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MISSION REVIEW

It’s all led up to this moment. Years from now, when film historians look back and assess the enduring legacy of the Bond franchise in the context of the popular cinema, this is the film they’ll cite as being the turning point. Goldfinger set the template for the series in 1963, and films like The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights and GoldenEye all played their part in course-correcting the series over its 53-year history, but only one movie truly rebooted the series from scratch. Ladies and gentlemen… Casino Royale.

In 2002, the Bond series was in serious trouble. Although Die Another Day was a financial success—the biggest of the Pierce Brosnan era—it was also a creative wet fart. Devoid of smarts, practical stunt work, espionage and cheeky, it was a movie defined by astonishingly-bad decisions from its inane Bond girls (hello Halle Berry), shameful CGI, cartoonish gadgets targeted towards the Fast and the Furious crowd, and an asinine plot that entered the realm of science fiction with its invisible cars and continent-melting death rays.

Although Pierce Brosnan had fulfilled his four-film contract with EON Productions, he was game for one more movie. But after 9/11 changed the landscape of action filmmaking in 2001, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli decided that if Bond were to survive in a post-9/11 world and compete with action heroes like Jason Bourne, it was time he got a page one rewrite in the vein of Batman Begins.

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The new film would be based on “Casino Royale,” Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel whose rights EON Productions had finally won after it had been caught up in legal limbo for decades. Director Martin Campbell, who was so instrumental in kicking off Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as Bond 10 years earlier in GoldenEye, was the man chosen to direct the picture based on a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Academy Award-winning writer-director Paul Haggis. The idea was to craft a film that was darker, edgier, and more character-driven than previous films.

But the most important piece of the puzzle was the casting of Bond himself. After a long and drawn-out casting process, which included endless speculation in the media, British character actor Daniel Craig, who had previously appeared in films like Mathew Vaughn’s Layer Cake and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, was announced as the sixth actor who would play Bond. The casting was not without its share of controversy. Although most fans were largely intrigued by the casting (myself included)—there was a vocal contingent, including filmmaker Sam Mendes (who would go on to direct Skyfall and SPECTRE), who thought the casting was a mistake. British tabloid The Daily Mirror dubbed Craig as “Bland. James Bland” while some fans even started a petition to fire Bond before he had even made his first movie. Others built websites like DanielCraigIsNotBond.com in protest. Apparently, Craig wasn’t charismatic enough, and he was too blonde for the part that had traditionally been described as “tall, dark and suave.” Whatever the problems with Craig were, they were mostly silenced with a bullet once the final film saw the light of day.

I cannot overstate how important Casino Royale was this life-long Bond fan, especially after the drab The World is Not Enough and the god-awful Die Another Day. Nine years after its debut in November 2006, the film still stands as the defining entry of the entire franchise.  Yes, the entire franchise! Goldfinger and From Russia with Love tend to be untouchable on most Bond ranking lists but to me, this was it! This is the movie that put an end to the preposterousness of invisible cars, Christmas Jones, “Yo Mama” jokes and para-surfing tsunamis. It was the one that established the hard, edgy, and serious tone that has become the modus operandi of the series in the last decade—paving the way for the global phenomenon that was Skyfall in 2012.

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Casino Royale was the one that took the back-to-basics route by using Ian Fleming’s novels as its tonal guide instead of the iconic Sean Connery era of the 1960s. It also boldly dumped the formula that we had been accustomed to for decades: Gone were Q, Miss Moneypenny, the gadgets, and the big action sequence that opened the movie. There are barely any quips and puns, and there aren’t any colorful henchmen either. Yes, this was a true reboot, and a much-needed one.

However, the most important aspect that Casino Royale brought to the franchise was that it introduced the world to Daniel Craig’s steely interpretation of James Bond; a grittier, harder and far more serious 007 who wasn’t above shooting first and asking questions later. The James we meet in Casino Royale isn’t the suave, womanizing superman we know but an impulsive, emotionally-vulnerable, egoistic assassin prone to making deadly mistakes. He is, in essence, a blunt-instrument in dire need of sharpening. And the key to all of this is Craig’s tough, brooding but still charismatic performance.

By far, the best actor to ever play the character, Craig’s performance in Casino Royale is the best acting performance by any actor in the entire series, bar none. His performance was the first time since Licence to Kill that Bond felt like a fully-formed character, and not a male fantasy figure. He brought a psychological complexity to the role that was sorely missing. This is a flawed man whose icy exterior hides a tortured past, and every muscle on Craig’s face informs this pain. It’s no wonder he landed a Best Actor nomination at the BAFTAs in 2006—making him the only actor to score a leading actor nomination for a Bond movie.

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Bond wasn’t the only aspect that received an update; the acting was given more importance, the characters were more fully-formed, the dialogue was wittier and more importantly, dramatic scenes were given as much heft as the big action set-pieces. This is never more evident in the tragic relationship between Bond and the immaculate Vesper Lynd, by far the best Bond girl of the series. Bond may have married Tracy and fallen in love in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but I’d argue that no woman has been a better match for him that Vesper. Their relationship, which morphs from one of physical attraction and mistrust to one of intense love, yes LOVE, is the heart of this movie, and without doubt, the film’s greatest achievement. And Green’s multi-faceted performance, which is simultaneously smart, funny, sexy and sad, is a big reason why I adore the film so much. The tragic ending to this relationship is what looms large over the character’s journey across the Craig era, and it’s something that will continue to be addressed in SPECTRE too.

Aside from the Vesper, the film’s other strength is its second act, in particular, the poker sequences in which Campbell and the screenwriters constantly up the stakes. The final poker scene between Bond and the film’s villain Le Chiffre (a terrific Mads Mikkleson) is a breathtaking cocktail of tension and suspense, with Campbell lingering on close-ups of Bond and Le Chiffre’s eyes for maximum effect. To have the centerpiece of a major movie in a series defined by its big action sequences center on a game of cards was a game-changing move. It took guts but Campbell and company pull it off with panache, using every second of it to build character and relationships. Even better is the torture sequence that comes at the tail-end of the second act in which a desperate Le Chiffre tortures Bond for the access code of his winnings. It’s terrifying, intense, and absolutely hilarious. If I had to pinpoint a moment where Daniel Craig BECAME Bond for me, it would be this scene.

Still, as adept as Campbell is with dramatic scenes, he also proves, as he did in GoldenEye, to be a master at orchestrating action. The post-credits parkour chase is one of the best foot chases I have ever seen depicted on film. Just when you think the scene can’t get crazier, it goes and does just that, while always maintaining a strict sense of realism. The Miami International Airport set-piece on the other hand, is a brilliantly-crafted piece of chaos and mayhem—a true Bond action moment. The fact that both scenes also double as character-building moments for Bond (Bond using his smarts in the former, his cool in the later) is testament to Campbell’s skill as a filmmaker. I only wish he would have been able to direct one more movie in Craig’s tenure.

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Casino Royale established that Bond movies didn’t have to settle for simply being great genre movies but could aspire to be great movies period. In rebooting the character for a new generation and emphasizing James before Bond, it succeeds in putting character first, without sacrificing the action history of the series. The fact that its reputation has only grown in esteem over the last decade is telling about where people will see it in 10-15 years time. Brimmed with classic moments, among them… the magnificent black & white cold open, the parkour chase, the Miami airport sequence, Bond and Vesper’s first meeting on the train, Bond’s near-death experience, the final poker scene, that horrifying torture sequence, the Venice finale culminating in Vesper’s death, and of course, the final scene with Mr. White… this is a movie that epitomizes everything that I love about this series. For all those reasons, and more, it is and will remain my favorite James Bond movie.

 

THE DOSSIER

Illustration by Mike Mahale at DeviantArt

Illustration by Mike Mahale at DeviantArt

 

COLD OPEN

The coldest of coldest opens. Shot in stark black & white, Casino Royale’s excellent 4-minute long prologue is as lean as you can get with this series. Reminiscent of the early Sean Connery era (think the scene of Bond assassinating Professor Dent in Dr. No and the train fight in the train in From Russia with Love), the sequence has one purpose, and one purpose only—to establish Daniel Craig’s ruthless new Bond. Set late at night inside an office room in an MI6 regional office in Prague, it finds Bond confronting a double-crossing MI6 agent before executing him coldly. The scene is seamlessly intercut with a vicious fight in a public toilet where Bond and an unknown assailant (apparently the contact of the double-crossing MI6 agent) fight to the death in close quarters. The interspersed scenes work beautifully to highlight Bond’s brute force and strength as well as to highlight his superior intellect and ability to come out on top in cerebral encounters too. The scene ends with Bond earning his Double O status and the iconic gun barrel sequence, now placed at the end of the pre-credits sequence instead of its traditional opening. With color finally entering the picture, we’ve just begun the first chapter in Bond’s colorful history as a 00 agent.

Grade: A

 

TITLE SEQUENCE

Title Designer: Daniel Kleinmann
Title Song: “You Know My Name” performed by Chris Cornell
Famous Quote: “The coldest blood runs through my veins/You know my name”

In a word… forgettable. Perhaps the only weak link in the movie, Chris Cornell and David Arnold’s well-intentioned but ultimately generic theme song “You Know My Name” feels like something that would have been better suited to the Pierce Brosnan era instead of the darker Craig era. While it’s easy to see why Cornell was chosen—hard rock singer, a grungier, broodier tone etc… but the song simply feels tepid compared to the rest of the movie. Still, it’s a lot better than the title song for Quantum of Solace, as well as the dreary Sam Smith song that accompanies SPECTRE.

On the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Kleinmann’s kaleidoscopic credits sequence is a minor masterpiece of title design that incorporates the four suites of a deck of cards to represent the themes of the film. For example, Hearts represent Bond’s romance with Vesper, Clubs represent the smoke and bullets from Bond’s guns, Diamonds represent the icy blood flowing through his veins, etc… Daniel Craig appears over the sequence in silhouette fighting enemies. Also appearing are images of Jacks, Queens and King’s as well as poker chips. Surprisingly absent are women, which, if I’m not mistaken, makes it the only Bond credits sequence in which no women appear.

Grade: for the credits. B- for Cornell’s song.

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VILLAINS

The Big Bad: Calm and collected international money launderer Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkleson) whose defining characteristics are his vanity, his asthma inhaler, and a creepy scar above his left eye, which causes it to bleed whenever he is stressed. Le Chiffre works as a private banker for world terrorists as well as for a private organization who may or may not be SPECTRE. He tends to earn large profits by using his clients’ money to make large bets on the stock market. However, when Bond foils one of his largest bets, he is forced to set up a high-stakes poker game at the titular Casino Royale in Montenegro. Danish actor Mikkleson, who would go on to have a major Hollywood career including a successful stint as Hannibal on TV, infuses the character with sinister charm and an aura of creepiness. As Le Chiffre’s options become limited, the actor successfully embodies the character’s sense of desperation and fear.

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Henchman: Greek playboy and underworld middleman Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) whose penchant for gambling costs him his Aston Martin DB5 as well as his mistress Solange. On Le Chiffre’s orders, Dimitrios hires Mollaka, a bomb maker in Madagascar, to create a deadly bomb that will destroy a new prototype airplane at the Miami International Airport. Once Bond assassinates Mollaka, Dimitrios then hires another gun-for-hire named Carlos to take care of the mission.

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The evasive and shadowy Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) who shockingly assassinates Le Chiffre on orders from his secret organization, and who Bon apprehends during the final scene of the film. Mr. White takes on a larger role in Quantum of Solace, and will appear again in SPECTRE.

Others: Mollaka (Sébastien Foucan), Carlos (Claudio Santamaria), Gettler (Richard Sammel)

Organization: Quantum, SPECTRE

World Domination Plan: When Bond foils Le Chiffre’s costly gamble by thwarting a plot to detonate a bomb at Miami International Airport, Le Chiffre sets up a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to recoup his loses. He plans on using the money he wins back to pay off his clients and get himself out of life’s danger.

 

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BOND GIRLS

Primary: Unforgettable MI6 treasury agent Vesper Lynd who, as played by the immaculate Eva Green, tops Tracy, Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder, Tatiana Romanova and Anya Amasova as the best Bond girl of all time. No woman was a better match for Bond than Lynd. She may be fragile and vulnerable when it comes to the physicality of things but she is Bond’s equal (if not superior) when it comes to intellect. Her first scene with Bond on the train, rife with sexual tension, flirtatiousness and one-upmanship, may be one of the most enjoyable scenes in the movie, immediately setting up the pair’s relationship. This relationship with Bond eventually morphs from one of physical attraction and mistrust to one of intense love, yes LOVE. Their relationship is the heart of the movie, and without doubt, it’s most memorable aspect. Green’s multi-faceted performance, simultaneously smart, funny, sexy and sad, is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. While her tragic death is one of the saddest moments in the series, its her betrayal of Bond that eventually shapes him into the detached, cold-blooded killer.

 

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Others: Alex Dimitrios’ ill-fated mistress Solange (Caterina Murino) who Bond pumps for information in order to ascertain Dimitrios’ whereabouts.

 

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ALLIES

M (Judi Dench): As the only element that the franchise producers decided to bring along from the Brosnan era, Judi Dench continues to be the defining iteration of the character for modern audiences. M’s relationship with Craig’s Bond is more of a motherly figure. Although she loathes Bond’s penchant for disobeying orders, being reckless—she constantly chastises him for inadvertently causing collateral damage and for being a “blunt instrument” with no control over his off button—she also knows that he’s the best man for the job.

All-round good guy and charmer Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) i.e. MI6’s field operative in Montenegro. Rene aids Bond with his outfits and other documents in Montenegro but is incorrectly assumed by Bond to be a double agent for Le Chiffre during the film’s last act when it is actually Vesper who betrays him. Rene aids Bond and Vesper in their mission in Montenegro and comes in handy when Bond needs to dispose bodies, among other things. Although wrongfully arrested at the end of Casino Royale, Rene returns in Quantum of Solace to once again assist Bond.

Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright): The CIA’s finest makes his first appearance in the Bond franchise since Licence to Kill. Felix meets Bond during the Casino Royale poker game, introducing himself officially when he finds out that Bond is about to lose. Felix makes a deal with Bond to transfer Le Chiffre to the CIA’s custody if Bond beats Le Chiffre in the game. Like Rene, Felix also returns to the series in Quantum of Solace.

 

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NOTABLE GADGETS

Aston Martin DBS: As the producers of the film promised, Casino Royale would be short on gadgets, and as such, Bond only gets one item—the Aston Martin DBS which he uses and destroys (naturally) in Montenegro. The car doesn’t come with any major gadgets, save for a deliberator in case of emergencies, and a fancy compartment to store his Walther P99.

Tracking and homing device: Used by Bond to deduce the location of Le Chiffre’s room at Casino Royale. Bond places the homing device in Le Chiffre’s asthma inhaler, and tracks its location using his cell phone.

 

 

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ODDS & ENDS

Most Memorable Quote:
Casino Royale is a treasure trove of memorable one-liners so it’s really hard to pick just one quote as the best of the lot, but since I have to choose, I’m going with…

[Bond has just lost his 10 million in the poker game. He walks up to the bartender]
James Bond: Vodka-martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
James Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?

 

Most Embarrassing Quote:
[Mathis has just got his enemies arrested while sitting with Bond and Vesper]
Mathis: Amazing what you can do with Photoshop these days.

Yea, that’s a Photoshop joke in a Bond movie.

 

Most Memorable Moment:
Once again, there are so many iconic moments in Casino Royale that it was near murder to pick just one to go with. I first contemplated choosing the Parkour free-running sequence that follows the cold open. Then I changed my mind and thought about selecting the final tense and suspenseful poker scene. In the end, I couldn’t just pick one so this one’s going to be a tie.

The first one is Bond’s first meeting with Vesper on the train to Montenegro, a beautiful piece of screenwriting that immediately establishes the smart, sexy relationship that will manifest between Bond and Vesper over the course of the film. It’s a relationship born out of respect and admiration but also suspicion.

The second one is the iconic torture sequence where Bond, stripped naked and tied to a chair is mercilessly tortured by Le Chiffre for the password to his poker winnings. The greatest part about this sequence is how Bond, although naked and extremely vulnerable, is able to gain the upper hand by taunting Le Chiffre. An instant classic!

“Now the whole world’s gonna know that you died scratching my balls!”

 

 

Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
Although the movie doesn’t have any obvious stinkers, the scenes I hated were the expository dialogue that Mathis keeps uttering during the Poker game. The lines which are there only to spoon-feed the audience into what’s going on in the game, feels disingenuous, succeeding only at taking us out of the moment.

 

 

Funniest Moment:
[Even after Bond’s testicles are repeatedly struck by Le Chiffre with a brutal torture device, he continues to not give up any information. Realizing that Le Chiffre is getting more and more desperate and losing his patience, a badly injured Bond bursts out laughing deliriously]

James Bond: Now the whole world’s gonna know that you died scratching my balls!

 

 

Most Touching Moment:
The scene in which Bond comforts a visibly distraught and shaken Vesper as she sits trembling fully-clothed in a cold shower. It’s a rare moment of emotion from Bond during the early half of the movie, and it’s the first that sets up the duo’s stirring emotional connection.

 

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Most Shocking Moment:
It has to be the shocking scene in which a guilt-stricken Vesper, unable to live with the guilt of betraying Bond, commits suicide by drowning herself – all while he struggles in vain to save her. Watching her death, and then the subsequent scene in which he desperately and frantically tries to resuscitate her, to no avail, is a devastating moment—arguably the most powerful moment of the series.

 

Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[Bond has just survived a poisoning attempt. Making his way to the table after being resuscitated by Vesper, he swiftly gets into his seat, surprising Le Chiffre. Excusing his absence from the table, he remarks]

James Bond: Very sorry. That last hand almost killed me

 

 

Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
Casino Royale is very short on the puns and none of them fall under the worst category. That would be doing a disservice to the screenplay.

 

 

Best Stunt/Action Scene:
An easy choice: The exuberant Parkour free-run chase sequence in Madagascar in which Bond uses his superior intellect to combat the physical superiority of bomb maker Mollaka. A truly breathtaking sequence!

 

Most Dated Reference:
Hey, remember when Sony Ericssons were a thing?

 

Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 2 (both with Vesper)

 

Number of people Bond kills: 12

 

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Best Kill:
This is technically cheating but since these two kills are the ones that actually earned Bond the two ‘0’s in 007, then they should count as one. The first is the bone-crunching messy hand-to-hand fight in the bathroom stall at the cricket club in Pakistan with the rogue agent while the second is Bond’s slick dispatching of Dryden, the double-crossing local contact in Prague.

Dryden: Your file shows no kills, but to become a double-0, it takes…
Bond: Two.
Dryden: How did he die?
Bond: Your contact? Not well.
Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn’t worry. The second is…
Bond: [Bond shoots Dryden] Yes… considerably.

 

 

Locations visited (In order of appearance): Prague, Pakistan, Uganda, Madagascar, London, Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, Lake Como, Venice

 

Misogyny Meter: 5/10
Casino Royale may be a modern Bond but the character’s treatment of women doesn’t really change. He treats Solange as a disposable object who he please in order to pump her for information. His behavior causes her death. He keeps condescending to Vesper during many of their earlier scenes, treating her as his junior and as worthless woman whose only purpose is to spoil the fun and to look good in order for him to distract his competitors. The choice to depict the character the way they do is a purposeful move on part of the filmmakers but it’s nevertheless misogyny.

 

Homophobia Meter: 0/10
N/A

 

Racism Rating: 5/10
Do all the non-white characters at the poker table really have to be dressed in those stereotypical outfits? How come they aren’t dressed in tuxes like Bond, Le Chiffre and Felix Leiter? Also, of course the drug lords terrorizing Le Chiffre are African. Not stereotypical *at all.*

 

 

Box Office: $167.45 million ($212 million; 10th highest overall).

 

Oscars: none (which is a damn shame)

 

007 Chronological Listing: 20/24

 

Overall Grade:

 

A- Grade

 

CASINO ROYALE

Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriter: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkleson, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright
Producer: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli

Editor: Stuart Baird
Cinematographer: Phil Méheux
Music: David Arnold
Production Design: Peter Lamont

Running time: 144 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, Sony Pictures, MGM
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity)

The 007 Collective will return in:

SPECTRE (2015)

 

Previous entries in The 007 Collective:


Data References:
MI6, IMDb, WikipediaBox Office Mojo

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