Casino Royale (2006) – Martin Campbell

The reason that James Bond is the single most durable character in movie history is that he has no beginning and no end. He fits no time because he fits all times. His adventures are only vaguely related to each other, and they wrap up in a way that suggests everything will be ready to go again for the next one. It makes no difference when Live and Let Die occurs in relation to You Only Live Twice; no more than it matters where “The Hound of the Baskervilles” resides compared to “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Recurring characters, good and bad, string the stories together but the series has been mostly smart about when to get rid of them.

Therefore, the idea of an origin story for James Bond runs so entirely counter to what makes him appealing—his self-assuredness, the feeling that he leapt, like Athena, fully formed out of a martini glass—that there’s a reason that the producing team of Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who made the series popular, avoided making a movie based on Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. Yet here it is, nearly 50 years after the first real Bond movie and 10 years after the death of both Broccoli and Saltzman, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, which tells the story of a green and untested Bond that nobody wanted to see. He doesn’t even care what he drinks.

The history of the Bond franchise is a reactionary pendulum swinging from the two extremes of the series: When a movie gets too intense, the storytelling trends back to camp; when an installment proves too silly, they provide a grittier edition. The chain usually goes on the absurd end of the spectrum toward the end of a particular actor’s run as the British super-spy, then the filmmakers can introduced a new, more realistic Bond with a new face. With the exception of Connery, every actor who has ever played Bond peaked with their first entry. Though the jury obviously still remains out, that tendency applies to Daniel Craig, even though the pendulum has never swung so far back toward intensity as it had in preparation of Casino Royale, Craig’s first go.

That Bond was due for some realism is clear; the editions at the end of the Brosnan era were in danger of collapsing under their own ridiculousness, but the shapers of the franchise, in the midst of the mid-2000s fashion for reboots and revamps, panicked, and instead of realizing that their property was much more valuable because of its earlier history, chose to disregard it and start anew. Even in Fleming’s book Bond is an established spy when the story begins, but in the movie we are very much told that what we are seeing is Bond’s first assignment, his initial adventure. We are placed in a definite timeline, one in which this guy introduces himself as “James Bond” and falls in love with women. It’s very disorienting. In a series that is dependent upon familiarity and the anticipation of certain moments, denying us those isn’t a reimagination, it’s just mean.

That’s my main problem with Casino Royale, which is competent, exciting, well-paced, and has two very good set pieces; it obstinately doesn’t do what is expected of it, undercutting the power of having 20 previous movies behind it. Most every other movie is rated against Citizen Kane, but a Bond movie must be rated only against Goldfinger (1964), the finest of the bunch. Casino Royale would be a fine Jason Bourne movie or a Mission: Impossible, and in fact, as a film, it’s “better” than perhaps half of the movies in the James Bond series. But in relation to those Bond movies it’s inferior because even the worst ones, whether they have an aging Roger Moore slowly pursuing his man or a mugging Timothy Dalton with a nosebleed, were undeniably in the style and formula of James Bond. Craig in Casino Royale could be any actioner and that’s a fatal blow.

In the movie, Bond is in pursuit of the snaky Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), a cold banker and profiteer who invests money from terrorists. After his latest investment fraud ploy is foiled by Bond (in one of the two brilliant sequences, James averts the destruction of a airplane that would have manipulated the market in Le Chiffre’s favor), Le Chiffre is forced to try to win back the lost investments in a high-stakes poker tournament in Montenegro, where Bond is there to beat him once again. Bond is accompanied by the beautiful Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an accountant with the British government who is authorizing the money Bond is risking in the tournament. The poker scenes are the best in the movie, the most at home in the Bondian universe of tuxedos, elegant dresses, and menacing men with false eyes and scars. The poker is movie poker, where everyone has a tremendous hand and you just wait for the last person to beat it, but it maintains the appropriate tension. That tension is largely given away in the movie’s last third, which changes focus from the story we’ve been following for nearly two hours and even worse touches into true romance, an area Bond should never enter.

Perhaps if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you’ll enjoy this one, but I can’t help but think more about what’s not in it than what is. It seems to be intentionally withholding what we have been anticipating and then adding elements we’re not interested in. Despite this being an origin story of sorts, I got no new information about what makes James Bond who he is. I don’t care who he is; he’s a tuxedo who always wins. In fact, the more one thinks about who he is, the less appealing he becomes. This isn’t particularly fair to a movie that is intelligent and well done, but it’s a Bond movie that tries to deny it. I shouldn’t have to wait two and a half hours to get my first decent listen to that wonderful theme. 

2 Responses to Casino Royale (2006) – Martin Campbell

  1. I’m going to have to disagree completely with you on this one. First off, they didn’t make the origin story until now because EON didn’t have the rights to the book as they were owned by Columbia and then later Sony. I’m sure you’re familiar with the original Casino Royale, which was an intolerable spoof. The series was obviously in dire need of a reboot as The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day were only laughably watchable. So yes, an origin story was a necessary evil. And why not? The book readers got one, why shouldn’t the movie watchers get one? If Ian Flemming thought it was appropriate to give James Bond a small inkling of a backstory then who are you to disagree? A lot of the books tended to divulge a lot more backstory than any of the movies did anyways.

    I think this is were Daniel Craig really succeeded in his portrayal of 007. (Side note: typing 007 just then made me a little bit hard.) He really added a lot of depth to his character that is normally only discussed in the books. You can obviously tell he has already been through a lot of women and seen things that would make most men shit themselves, while having the experienced intellect to not blindly obey every order given.

    And how can you not even mention the foot chase sequence at the beginning of the film? It is definitely the best filmed and well paced chase scene I have seen in recent years. At the same time, you learn a lot about both of the characters. Bond, for example, is brutish and unevenly tempered enough to smash right through a wall hulk style, and yet keen enough to stop at a certain point to observe his surroundings, which his prey is clearly very familiar with. Not to mention that stunt shot where they jump between those two cranes was straight up badass.

    I think this film succeeded where a lot of other Bond films fail: the mystery element. In a lot of Bond films, somewhere along the 2nd act, around the time where Bond enters an empty room and the theme music comes on for the 10th time for no reason other than he just flicked the lights on, shit gets boring. This never happened with Casino Royale. It balanced just the right amount of mystery and stalking with an equal or larger portion of porking and car flipping. I just added porking to my spellcheck dictionary.

    A great thing about this movie I hadn’t thought about until recently is that it has one of the most well rounded villains of the Bond series. He has a very clearly defined backstory, goal, weaknesses, strengths, and unlike a lot of Bond villains he isn’t just inherently evil. I almost cared when lost all his money to Bond at the end. I didn’t though because caring about Bond villains makes you a communist.

    • I agree with you completely about the villain, who is well-drawn in his motivation and is clearly working towards a defined goal. That’s why it’s doubly disappointing to have him tossed aside as thoughtlessly as he is in the movie.

      I also should have mentioned the construction site foot chase but I ran out of space (in my defense, I mention that there are two brilliant sequences in Casino Royale and that chase is one of them). My problem with that chase, however, is that the acrobatics of the man being pursued border on the ridiculous, his parkour routine gets a little out of hand.

      However, I won’t budge in my conviction that an origin story for James Bond is patently superfluous. We agree, and I mentioned as much in the review, that the later Brosnans were almost parodies of themselves, but I feel in a desire to revamp the series, the creators threw the baby out with the bathwater. Most people found the new look Bond to be humanizing, I find it unsettling and I’m happy to be in the minority.

      On Daniel Craig; The jury is still out for me on whether he’s a good 007. His main strength as an actor is his intensity, which is a Bond necessity, but he isn’t as deft at that second pillar of Bondness, the quick pivot to pomposity. In Casino Royale, M mentions that he has a lot of cheek, but we don’t really get a sense except during the brilliant torture scene in the last third of the movie. Most of my complaints are with the writing (and I’ve already announced my annoyance with the direction the series is taking) but Bond needs to be a little more cavalier than he has been in the Craig era.

      Lastly, just give me the damn music. I’m so tired of the constant withholding of the music. I don’t care if they use it 20 times, if he’s turning on lights, frying an egg, or watching television. He has a theme song, use it. It’s a third of the reason I buy a ticket to these stupid movies.

      And I’m with you that the David Niven-Peter Sellers Casino Royale is a joke.

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