Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this month, the Bond Reloaded series takes a look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This time, Daniel Craig gives the franchise a new, hard edge in Casino Royale.
After the career of Pierce Brosnan in the signature tux of James Bond began to wane, Eon noted that the franchise was in pretty bad health. After 40 years of constant action and quips, the series needed a slightly darker edge. As a reaction to the popularity of the Bourne franchise, Bond was taken down a route into grit and brutality.
For that, they needed a new man to wield the weaponry and deliver the one-liners. Brosnan announced that he was stepping down in 2004, which led to a massive hunt for the new Bond. Many people who would go on to become big names were considered for the role, including Dougray Scott, Sam Worthington and future Superman Henry Cavill. The latter only missed out on the role as a result of his age.
Daniel Craig, best known at the time for his role in Layer Cake, initially turned down the role, feeling that the series had descended into formula. However, when he read Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis’ script for Casino Royale, he decided to step into the role that was set to make him a household name. Looking back, it couldn’t really have been anyone else.
Back to black
Casino Royale was a reboot of sorts for the Bond franchise, resetting the chronology with Bond earning his stripes as a 00 agent in the pre-credits sequence, shot in gorgeous black and white. From the very beginning, there’s a definite sense that this is something completely different for Bond. The film even holds the signature gun barrel sequence until the end of the pre-credits action – marking the moment Bond earns his stripes as an agent.
The film opens with a jaw-dropping parkour chase, in which Bond runs down and ultimately kills a bomb maker. This action sequence holds up even today as one of the best in the history of the Bond franchise, proving to be the perfect illustration of effects supervisor Chris Corbould’s desire to return the world of Bond to practical effects after the CGI focus of Die Another Day. It’s a perfect sequence, which does a great job of establishing Craig’s Bond as a blunt instrument, who doesn’t care about doing things elegantly.
"Why is it that people who can’t take advice always insist on giving it?"
From there, Casino Royale is divided into three clear acts. The first sees Bond tackle a small-time member of an organisation seemingly led by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), averting a bomb attack at an airport. The second segment has Bond battle Le Chiffre in a high stakes poker game, with Treasury official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) overseeing him. Finally, the third act covers the aftermath of the game, as Le Chiffre pursues Bond to try to recover the prize money that was supposed to rescue him from a debt to some fellow criminals.
Director Martin Campbell, returning to the franchise after delivering a great opener for Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, is on top form once again. The action is tight, throughout, focusing on close quarters fight scenes in which every blow leaves a mark. By the time Bond flips his Aston Martin DBS in the third act and an entire Venetian building collapses into a canal, Casino Royale has cemented itself as a defining moment in the way Bond action sequences work.
It helps that Daniel Craig looks born to play the role of James Bond. He slots into Bond’s skin as if it was made for him, imbuing the character with an icy cool and a smug confidence. Craig’s Bond is immediately a considerable degree more intense than even Timothy Dalton’s ruthless incarnation, which makes it all the more remarkable when he becomes the first Bond since George Lazenby to fall head over heels in love.
An ace in the pack
Normally, the prospect of Bond falling in love would be as unconvincing as Jaws’ relationship at the end of Moonraker. However, Craig’s Bond immediately meets his emotional and intellectual match in the shape of Eva Green’s accountant Vesper Lynd. From the very first scene in which we meet Vesper, verbally sparring with Bond as he attempts to flirt on a train, it’s clear that she is a complex human being with layers of mystery hidden below her attractive exterior. By the time those mysteries pay off at the climax, she has cemented herself as one of the best Bond girls ever written.
The scene in which she first softens to Bond, when he comforts her in the shower after she witnesses his brutal killing of two armed henchmen, is one of the few occasions in which a James Bond movie pauses to explore the consequences of violence. Eva Green does a great job of playing the scene in a sort of homage to Lady Macbeth. It’s a scene in which plenty is said without a single line of dialogue and we learn more about Bond’s relationship than we have perhaps since his wedding in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond’s walls are high, so it takes quite the woman to break them down.
"Sometimes we’re so focused on our enemies we forget to watch our friends."
But in order for the new Bond to succeed, he needed a ruthless villain. Casino Royale delivers, with future Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen conjuring up a sinister amalgam of Bond villains past. There are few things more sinister than a man who regularly weeps blood, but Mikkelsen somehow manages to make that the least terrifying aspect of the character. The scene in which he brutally tortures Bond with a rope to the testicles is one of the most uncomfortable and violent scenes in Bond history and cements Le Chiffre as an iconic bad guy.
It’s also nice to occasionally see a Bond film that doesn’t just press the reset button when the credits roll. Casino Royale started an ongoing story thread for the Daniel Craig Bond films that runs through even to SPECTRE. Whilst the self-contained adventures of Bond’s past were entertaining, it’s nice occasionally to see Bond’s actions have wide-ranging consequences and to take a look at the bigger picture.
And that’s Casino Royale’s legacy in a nutshell. It was one of the first films to truly explore the consequences of what James Bond does when he pulls the trigger, whether it was with Vesper shuddering at the horror she had just witnessed or the fact that the central thread of the movie extended out into the future. For the first time, audiences got the sense that Bond did not operate in a vacuum. Like all of us, he is part of a wider world and, in the era of shared universes and sequel fever, this was the perfect time to drop that bombshell.
Rolling the dice…
Just as with Die Another Day four years earlier, the premiere of Casino Royale was attended by the Queen and Prince Phillip. The film also became the first Bond to be shown in Chinese cinemas, albeit with some small edits to a mention of the Cold War and additional dialogue to explain the rules of Texas hold ‘em poker. The film soared to almost $600m at the global box office, becoming the biggest box office hit of any film in the Bond franchise, until it was surpassed by Skyfall in 2012.
Casino Royale was also a hit with critics, receiving near universal acclaim on its release. It still bears a near perfect 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect score and described Daniel Craig as “bloody damned great” in the role. He also praised director Campbell and the writers for stepping outside the usual conventions of Bond films. Entertainment Weekly ranked it as the fifth best movie in the entire Bond canon. Negative reviews were rare, but The Observer’s Tim Adams criticised the film for timeframe confusion and for being tonally unsure.
"I hope our little game isn’t causing you to perspire."
For my money, Casino Royale is one of the best films in the Bond franchise and remains a prime example of a major creative risk that paid off. It’s now almost impossible to imagine Craig being anything other than excellent as 007 himself and Vesper Lynd has entered into the pantheon of classic Bond women, with far more to do than be ogled by Bond. On top of that, the action scenes were the best they have ever been and the plot really motors, despite the bum-numbing runtime. This is vintage Bond.
Next time, Daniel Craig tries to get to the bottom of the wider conspiracy in Quantum of Solace.
What do you think of Casino Royale? Did Daniel Craig banish the memories of Brosnan’s later films? Let me know in the comments section.