Casino Royale (2006): Best James Bond Picture?

The risks taken by the producers of “Casino Royale,” the 21st picture in the James Bond series, involved not just casting the iconic role with British actor Daniel Craig (the first Blond Bond), but also with the film’s narrative and style, which deviate substantially from the previous installments, going back to the roots of the series, in 1962.

The new Bond saga delivers the basic goods, while trying to do something different, place emphasis on Bond’s character as a young man, and stressing the romantic elements, hoping to explain his later evolution as a cool and sophisticated super spy and womanizer.

The whole movie walks a strenuous line between being an actioner, under pressure to conform to the conventions, actions, and gadgets of the previous installments, and a new effort with a fresher take on Bond as an (anti) hero, his supervisor M, the villains and women in his life, and the whole socio-political context in which he operates.

The challenge of basing the story on Ian Fleming’s first novel, which was published in 1953 at the height of the Cold War era, while updating the tale to the present, with references to 9/11 and its impact on global economy and terrorism, is met with mixed results by the screenwriters, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who also co-scripted “The World Is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day”) and Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, who may have contributed to the dialogue, which is sharper and wittier than that in former Bond films.

The new emphasis in “Casino Royale” strips the Bond franchise back to basics by tracing his early career. The first mission of 007 leads him to Le Chiffre (the Cipher, played by Danish movie star Mads Mikkelsen), a banker to the world’s terrorists. In order to stop Le Chiffre, and bring down the terrorists network, Bond must defeat his nemesis in a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale.

Along with a new type of villain, there is also a new type of a Bond girl, Vesper Lynd (played by London-based French actress Eva Green), a beautiful Treasury official who is assigned to deliver Bond’s stake for the game and watch over the government’s money. What ensues is a twisty tale of love and betrayal, with nearly every character being duplicitous and two-faced. Rather shrewdly, the revelations of the characters’ true identities and loyalties are disclosed in the last reel.

As Bond and Vesper go through a series of lethal attacks by Le Chiffre and his henchmen, a mutual attraction develops between the couple, leading them both into further danger and events that will forever shape Bond’s life, professional career, and sexual politics.

Casino Royale is more character than plot-driven, an element that might disappoint the franchise’s hardcore fans. This chapter contains a lesser number of explosions, chases, and action set pieces than those seen in the previous Bond pictures.

Overly long (running time is 144 minutes) and deliberately paced, particularly the second half, which depicts one prolonged poker game, “Casino Royale” displays tension between the routine elements of a James Bond picture and the attempt to do something utterly new. Whether this tension is positive or negative would largely depend on the viewers’ expectations and open-mindedness to a “new” kind of Bond experience that in many ways is deliberately old-fashioned.

The old-fashioned quality recalls the first two or three Bond films, particularly “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” movies for which both star Craig and director Martin Campbell have professed fondness. A layer of modernist treatment is then placed on the narrative in its contemporaneous references to the post 9/11 state of affairs, specifically the global economy (a clue: stocks prices are at stake).

This duality is most evident in the villain’s character, Le Chiffre, a man with no real name, an amoral criminal mastermind with a thirst for hard currency. Deviating from the usual Bond heavies, Le Chiffre is not a megalomaniac madman looking to take over or blow the world. With the exception of his eyes (each a different color), Le Chiffre comes across as a smart, elegant, civilized, and soft-spoken villain, very much in the mold of Hitchcock’s suave villains (played by the likes of James Mason or Tony Perkins).

To achieve the film’s dual quality, helmer Campbell, who had introduced Pierce Brosnan in his Bond debut in the 1995 “GoldenEye,” has shrewdly cast all the roles with accomplished actors that form a truly international ensemble, consisting of Italian Giancarlo Giannini in the crucial role of Mathis, Bond’s associate, and the very American Jeffrey Wright, as Felix Leiter, a mysterious CIA agent who offers to help Bond buy back into the poker game.

But the movie belongs to Daniel Craig, who gives a stunning, utterly compelling performance as the new international man of mystery. Displaying screen charisma, cool attitude, and the devilish adventurism of the young Steve McQueen (to whom he bears strong physical resemblance), Craig draws on his impressive theater and screen experience, approaching the role as an actor. Tough, reckless, and muscular, Craig is the best Bond actor since Sean Connery, who had originated and defined the role. (At this point, Craig is committed to two more Bond pictures).

Indicative of the effort to present a new Bond is the fact that the iconic line, “Bond, the name is James Bond,” is the last line of the picture. Craig’s Bond still drinks Martinis, but you can take the following exchange as characteristic of his cool rawness. Asked by a bartender, “Shaken or stirred, sir” Bond’s laconic reply is, “Do I look like I care”

You may also find the new picture self-reflexive, showing a healthy dosage of humor in its choice to display Craig’s Bond in a sexy black swimsuit, while emerging out of the water–not once but twice–a clear reference to the iconic image of Ursula Andress in her white bikini in “Dr. No.”

At 38, flaunting a shapely body, formed extensively in a gym, Craig is the kind of actor who looks equally comfy in tuxedo, west suit, and a silk robe, all of which he sports in the movie with great panache. Gliding up and down, the camera caresses him lovingly, and he knows that.

Characteristic of the narrative’s fine balancing acts are the secondary characters, prominent among which is Vesper, Bond’s love interest. As interpreted by Eva Green, she comes across as a smart, bright, and educated woman, not just a bimbo or sex object. Vesper not only features more prominently as a character, but she’s constructed as a noirish femme fatale, with idiosyncratic quirks and an agenda of her own (that can’t be revealed here).

In her fifth appearance as M, Judi Dench gives a strong, witty performance as Bond’s tough supervisor, the head of MI6, the British Secret Service. Like Vesper’s, M’s role seems largely expanded, compared to her previous appearances. For one thing, this may be the first Bond picture in which M is seen outdoors, and she has three or four crucial scenes with her employee, in one of which he breaks into her house.

Don’t get me wrong, there are two other women that are in the familiar mold of the Bond franchise. The beautiful Italian actress Caterina Murino plays Solange, the alluring, discontented wife of Dimitrios, one of Le Chiffre’s associates, with whom Bond has an affair, leading to one of the film’s most brutal sights, when Solange is tortured and killed.
Solange is introduced in a campy way, wearing a skin-tight bathing suit while riding a white horse on the beach….

There’s also the blonde Valenca (Sarajevo-born Ivana Milicevic), who plays Le Chiffre’s cool and glamorous girlfriend. Like the women in previous Bond films, she’s mostly a decorative figure with one or two lines of dialogue.

Though it provides an opportunity for at least two elaborate chase scenes, the terrorist plot is not entirely convincing, partly due to the fact that it’s not well integrated into the main text. Far more important is the detailed relationship between Bond and the new villain, Le Chiffre, which occupies at least half of the movie, including a brutal torture scene, in which Craig is beaten in the nude.

It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to the long poker scene, which inevitably pays tribute to Steve McQueen’s famous poker scene in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968). In “Casino Royale,” the poker game lacks the erotic charge of McQueen’s picture (the women, Vesper and Valenca, are in the background). But it takes concentration and some knowledge of poker to truly enjoy this prolonged sequence, during which Bond goes through a near-lethal cardiac arrest.

Despite the plot revelations made, the last reel is rather weak, and it feels as if the picture has too many endings–or doesn’t know when and how to end–yet another indication of wanting to continue the Bond legacy and at the same time deviate from it.

A vet of good and bad romantic adventures (“The Mark of Zorro” film series among them), Campbell also shows problem with giving “Casino Royale” the proper pacing and rhythm, some of which derives from the nature of the story. Hence, the poker game is necessarily deliberately paced, with long silence sequences in which the camera, zeroing in on the players’ faces and gestures, does the job.

However, quite often, the chase scenes (one, well-staged in the beginning of the picture, the other less so toward the end) and other action set-pieces appear out of nowhere, as if done out of obligation to fulfill audiences’ expectations based on the previous installments of the franchise.

Despite these problems, at the very end, when Craig delivers the iconic line, “Bond, the name is James Bond,” though you still hear Connery’s signature rendition in your imagination, you realize that a new Bond–and a new star–is born in the shape of Daniel Craig. If my reading is correct, Craig is here to stay for a long time.

Commercial Appeal

I have no doubts that “Casino Royale” would be a global hit, though how big it’s tough to predict. The most commercial successful Bond pictures have been “Die Another Day” (2002), which grossed $432 million worldwide, and “The World Is Not Enough” (1999), which amassed $361 million.

Single pictures of other action franchises that have done well at the box-office include Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible II” (2000), which grossed $546 million; earlier this year, “Mission: Impossible III” was more popular internationally than domestically, and Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne saga, “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), which grossed $289 million.

Speaking of Bourne, the “other” cool agent on our screens right now (played by Matt Damon in a pragmatic, unglamorous way), it will be interesting to track the evolution of the British versus American spies, and of the actors who play them, who are both accomplished and roughly the same age.