Published on October 29th, 2015 | by Greg Payne0
Casino Royale: A Winning Hand At Last
On his first assignment as a newly-minted Double O, Bond is tasked with bankrupting a desperate terrorist financier by besting him in a high-stakes poker match. On the way there, he demolishes half of Madagascar to eliminate a parkour-ing bombmaker, saves a prototype airliner from sabotage and sinks a centuries-old Venetian house into the canals. Oh, and he falls in love, which ends about as well as it did in 1969.
Title Sequence and Bond Theme
Before the first frame of film rolls, the mould of the Bond formula is being broken. Gone is the United Artist/MGM logo, and in its place is the Sony/Columbia girl, and she’s in black and white. Within the first five minutes, Casino Royale becomes the first Bond movie to employ monochrome as well as flashbacks. Technically James Bond isn’t even 007 the first time we lay eyes upon the wiry form of Daniel Craig: he’s on the verge of promotion, and the quiet methodical elimination of a double-dealing MI-6 agent is his ticket to the next pay grade. The verbal sparring in the elegant setting is cross-cut with a brutal knock-down bathroom fight that climaxes with a nifty re-imagining of the classic gunbarrel intro. From the word go, all the rules of a James Bond film have been rewritten.
Chris Cornell of Seattle sludge-rockers Soundgarden may seem an unlikely choice to pen and perform the theme to a Bond flick, but acquits himself surprisingly well in the task. The track picks up the momentum of the film’s teaser, with a brassy punch to the eardrums and a real sense of forward momentum. In retrospect, the choice of the oft-shirtless belter behind “Big Dumb Sex” and “Spoonman” to wrap his vocal cords around a 007 theme isn’t a terribly shocking gamble (nor is it a cynical ploy for MTV airplay like the producers would have gone for in the heady days of Duran Duran). If anything, it may suggest that Cornell is our generation’s Tom Jones.
The Villain And Their Plan
In previous filmic incarnations, the role of Le Chiffre had been essayed by Peter Lorre and Orson Welles. Iconic figures both, but neither left a terribly memorable mark on the character of the First Bond Villain. These days, Mads Mikkelsen is known around the world for his own particular reinvention of another famous fictional character, but he was barely a name outside arthouse circles or his native Denmark when he stepped into the role of criminal syndicate banker and gave us a villain just as merciless and focussed as our newly cast hero.
Le Chiffre is, as the name implies, a master manipulator of numbers: asthmatic and with a tear duct that leaks blood, not to mention a possible light dusting of Aspergers, he can calculate the percentage probability of his opponents’ hands in poker. He also gets in over his head tying up African warlords’ ill-gotten spoils in complex stock market schemes, short-selling airline stock and then attempting to sabotage the company by arranging for their prototype airliner to be publicly bombed. Foiled by Bond in his grand plan, he hastily arranges a high-stakes card game in Montenegro with the goal of scoring an easy hundred million. As long as nobody outplays him or (in what we have to admit happens) Bond simply gets dealt a much better final hand.
Gone are the megalomaniacal lunatics of the seventies and eighties. Casino Royale brings us a venal, almost cowardly antagonist, with a one-track mind less consumed with actual greed than the shame of losing. When he learns that his stock market scam has gone up in smoke, his fear is palpable on the screen. Ambushed in his hotel room by the Nigerian “freedom fighter” whose money he’s just lost, Le Chiffre is willing to let his girlfriend’s arm be hacked off with a machete rather than stand up to his attacker. Only when he’s absolutely at his lowest, cleaned out for good at the Texas Hold ‘em table, does he take lashing out into his own hands, subjecting Bond to the most cringeworthy torture the series had yet devised. Le Chiffre doesn’t have a terribly dignified death (it’s even offscreen) but his characterisation is one of the finest in the entire franchise.
Prague, Madagascar, London, the Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro (though all of the exterior Montenegrin scenes were filmed in the Czech Republic) and Venice. Bond earns more frequent flier miles in this outing than just about any other. Personally I’ve always thought that visiting America is the death knell for a Bond story. Except for Goldfinger, every time Bond steps off the plane in the lower 48, the story goes down the drain (see: Diamond Are Forever’s trashy Vegas, the half of the moronic A View To A Kill that’s set in San Francisco, or the Joel Silver-esque Florida Keys sequence in License to Kill). Maybe it’s just general North American prejudice, but to me Bond belongs in European capitals or far-flung second- or third-world locales; anything else is familiar enough to see on the teevee. Still, the Miami sequence in this film, set entirely at nighttime, has a slick pop and hustle to it, feeling glamourous but not travelogue-y.
It took three movies for the rebooted franchise to get back to first principles and bring in Q branch, so special gadgetry is light on the ground this time around. Special note must be made of Bond’s cell phone, which seems to have more computing power than NASA and lets him track a text message around the world to the nearest square centimetre of the globe, as well as the Aston Martin with the defibrillator in the glove box. Still, as this is a 007 that gets by largely of razor-honed brute force, the exploding pens aren’t missed.
Most Inappropriate/Politically Inappropriate Moment
The writers were actually on pretty good behaviour this time around. Though the femme fatale Bond woman does turn duplicitous, and Bond coldly states “The bitch is dead,” at the coda, that’s a line taken directly from the original Fleming novel. The only joke made at Vesper Lynd’s expense is actually a hilarious nod towards the series’ history of nudge-nudge monikers, when Bond tells her that her cover name for their mission is “Stephanie Broadchest.” In a nice touch, and kudos to the production designers, that actually was the name in the passport: the audience never saw it in closeup, but one could take a look at the prop when it was featured in the Bond in Motion exhibit and see that, yup. Miss Broadchest indeed.
The Richard Branson cameo at the Miami airport. Okay, if not that, then the aforementioned torture sequence. Bond is stripped naked and tied to a wicker chair with the seat cut out. And enraged and bankrupted Le Chiffre then goes to town on 007’s wedding tackle with a heavy knotted rope swung at full force. It’s a bit of brutal unpleasantness that perhaps connoisseurs of the novel might not have believed could be included in any screen adaptation, and still seems jarring and unsettling.
“Shaken or stirred?”
“Do I look like I give a damn?”
Cheating here, because it’s a three-line exchange, but it earns a tension-deflating laugh while at the same time upending yet another one of our expectations. Well-played.
How Good Is It Really?
If you watch Casino Royale closely and focus on just the performances, one can’t help but be struck by the utter stillness that’s the default position for many of the characters, especially James Bond. Daniel Craig doesn’t employ the smug leisure of Moore or the Saville Row decadence of Brosnan. Instead he spends much of his time onscreen like a coiled spring, full of potential kinetic energy waiting to be unleashed. Watch him standing while he’s discreetly observing Mollaka the bombmaker, trying to get his hapless partner to stop waving a big “Hi, I’m a spy!” sign around. One second he’s leaning motionless against a wall, the next it’s as if a switch has been flipped and he’s all gravity-defying momentum. In Goldeneye, Brosnan showed his cool by flinching only slightly as bullets ricocheted around him while he set bomb timers; Craig doesn’t even give up that much and barely blinks as bullets crack the glass of the bulldozer he’s commandeered. Stillness is a trait of much of the supporting cast as well: Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter and Le Chiffre himself all have their moments of quiet calm before chaos unfolds. But they’re never static objects on the screen: they may not always give it away, but wheels are always turning with these people. This is a film that cares enough about every character to give them a brain and an inner life.
It’s also a film that invests enough in its star character’s origin story to have him fall in love. And who can blame him? In the luminous Eva Green, this film has one of the all-time great Bond Women, ranking up there with the likes of Diana Rigg, Carole Bouquet and Ursula Andress. Not only is Green a stunner onscreen, she smoulders through every two-handed scene with Craig, and their performances are like wonderful duets. This is something that possibly reveals itself more and more on subsequent viewings. The first time around, I was knocked back in my seat by the non-stop momentum and insane stunts of the film’s first half; on subsequent viewings, I’ve been much more in awe at the dramatic elegance of the quiet moments. Every scene between the two leads is like a perfectly executed small play, with two flinty wits sparring verbally, landing blows and working seduction from countless angles. You believe that these two would fall in love, and part of the joy is watching them (once again, this is a film whose dynamics require intense observation: it’s not a DVD you can throw on while you do other stuff around the flat) observe each other with escalating mutual admiration.
One of my favorite small moments of this is also one of the unexpected beats that surfaces in the context of a Year One story. Bond has just presented Vesper with a wisp of a dress to wear on their assignment, all the better to distract his opponents with. In return, she’s laid out a tuxedo for him. Despite an earlier exchange during the train scene about Bond’s taste in suits, one gathers that it’s his first tux. “There are dinner jackets and dinner jackets. This is the latter.” is one of the great zingers of the script and it hits its bullseye here. Bond changes and steps in front of the mirror. As Lynd looks on (Green wears no makeup in these shots, and is, in the eyes of this reviewer, never more heartbreakingly ethereal than she is here) Bond sizes himself up, and in a slight full-body pause conveys an awed “Wow. Dig me!” This scene alone makes Casino Royale one of the most thoughtfully considered reboots of a beloved character in film history.
I could go on endlessly listing favourite moments, impressive shots and killer performances. It’s sometimes easier as a critic to write about bad movies; earned evisceration is one of the perks of the job. Once in a while though, a great film leads to its own sort of ramble, so I’ll let it trail off here before I really bust the word limit. When the editorial team were assigning reviews I jumped on Moonraker and Casino Royale: one that’s the absolute dregs, and one that soars higher than any other in my opinion, and one that renews my faith in the series every time I watch it.
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