For the love of entertainment
After two truly awful entries, Bond producers had a crucial decision to make. Because as terrible as The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day were, the fact of the matter is that they were incredible successes at the box office. Shaking the series up was essential from a creative standpoint, but they risked losing a lot of money in the process. Plus, Pierce Brosnan was very public about the fact that he wasn’t ready to let go of playing James Bond yet.
Still, producers decided to take the plunge. First, they decided to adopt more of the tone of the critically and commercially successful Bourne action movies (which happened to be more in line with Bond’s darker, more realistic origins, anyway). Second, the rights to Casino Royale were finally secured by Eon, the studio behind the official Bond franchise. Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel and adapting it was a dream of original producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli. Fleming had sold the rights to that novel separately when he was trying to get James Bond on film, meaning Eon could never get control of them. Royale was instead infamously adapted for television with an Americanized protagonist who went by Jimmy Bond. Seriously. It was also adapted into a 1967 parody with original Bond girl Ursula Andress taking on the role of Vesper Lynd. With the rights procured at long last, Barbara Broccoli (who had inherited control of the series from her father) couldn’t resist the opportunity. In doing so, she was able not only to reboot the franchise, but to realize her father’s dream of bringing Casino Royale to life in its true form. Broccoli also made a smart move by bringing back director Martin Campbell, who had successfully launched Pierce Brosnan’s Bond career with GoldenEye.
Casting Daniel Craig as the new 007 caused an immediate uproar from fans who, of all things, could not abide the idea of a blonde James Bond. Seriously. Little did they know, they would have to eat their words when Craig proved to be exactly what the franchise needed.
Daniel Craig makes a fast and furious mark on the series earning his 00 stripes with two brutal kills in the opening sequence, then executing an astonishing acrobatic chase sequence that perfectly blends Bourne‘s gritty realism with this franchise’s usual focus on suave flights of fantasy. It also sets up Craig’s Bond as a true renegade–not to mention something of a brash and reckless recruit. For once his inability to color within the lines feels like a real character trait, not just an affectation put on by an actor trying to look cool.
Bond goes on to discover that Le Chiffre, banker to the world’s terrorists, is behind everything–and 007’s meddling costs Le Chiffre to lose a lot of someone else’s money (more than $100 million). To get his client’s money back before they can kill him, Le Chiffre sets up a high stakes poker tournament in Montenegro. M gets Bond into the game because they’re willing to bet that 007 can bankrupt him–forcing Le Chiffre to cop a deal and spill all his secrets in order to survive. It’s an utterly ridiculous conceit that somehow works because producers wisely allow Vesper Lynd, the representative from the Treasury assigned to oversee their money, to point this out. Also because the movie is an effortlessly smooth ride, stylish, and well acted.
Of course Bond eventually triumphs over Le Chiffre, who kidnaps 007 and Vesper. They escape when some of Le Chiffre’s clients show up for revenge and inexplicably leave both Bond and Vesper alive. After recovering, Vesper tosses off the necklace that had been given to her by an anonymous lover from her past–signifying that James can make his move. They transfer the winnings back to the government and 007 sends M a resignation notice. He intends to get out with Vesper while he still has a soul to save.
Just when it looks like James and Vesper are headed for happily ever after, it turns out that she didn’t transfer the money back to the government at all. She sneaks away from James in Venice to deliver the money, and when Bond follows things erupt into a shootout that actually sinks a building into the canal. James tries to save Vesper but she refuses allow him to rescue her from drowning.
Turns out Vesper’s old boyfriend had been kidnapped by the organization Le Chiffre was involved with. They were attempting to blackmail her into getting them the money to save him. Bond is understandably bitter about this revelation, but M kindly throws him a bone and points out that the only way Bond and Vesper could have survived the shooting that killed Le Chiffre would be if Vesper had made a deal to get them the money if they spared them. Being a smart girl, Vesper would have had to know that making this deal was tantamount to a death sentence–agreeing to give up her own life to save James.
Having learned not to trust anyone, Bond spends the final moments of the film arranging a bloody meeting with the mysterious man who had been arranging Vesper’s money transfer, Mr. White. Their confrontation–and the ensuing investigation–would form the plot of Quantum of Solace.
It’s a glorious return to the Bond of Sean Connery without any of the camp theatrics the series had devolved into. The big reason Daniel Craig is such a successful Bond is that like Connery, he understands that Bond isn’t just a suave ladies man who can perform stunts–he’s a ruthless, reckless, uncaring man. I mean, let’s face it: Bond is kind of a dick. He goes around the world using people and sleeping with any woman that moves. No regrets, no cares.
The fun thing about Casino Royale is that we get to see part of how James Bond got to be that way. Vesper’s betrayal will have long-lasting ramifications for how willing he is to really get emotionally involved with people on his adventures. Plus, Daniel Craig wears not one but two skimpy bathing suits. I’d love to credit this as a refreshing reversal of gender expectations in this franchise, but I’m too busy drooling.
Thankfully, Casino Royale also went on to become the franchise’s biggest moneymaker yet (Skyfall later took the title away). Looks like changing things up paid off big time.
Notable Moments: A lucrative endorsement deal with BMW meant that Bond’s classic Aston Martin fetish had to be sidelined during the Brosnan movies. With Royale, producers brought it back. Moneypenny was deliberately omitted from the franchise reboot because the character was deemed too dated. Q was similarly dropped because producers wanted to get away from CGI spectacle and gadgets–which the character had become emblematic of. Royale is the first Bond movie since Live and Let Die not to feature Q. The departure of both characters would prove to be short-lived, however–both were retooled and re-introduced in Skyfall two movies later. Producers decided to keep Judi Dench as M because they were pleased with what she had done with the character during the Brosnan years. It was a smart move, because her M was the first to have a real presence in the series, and her relationship with Craig’s Bond would have enormous pay-off in Skyfall. In other news, when Bond orders his martini during the tournament, the ingredients he asks for are actually for what is known as a Vesper martini–a real-life nod to Fleming’s original Bond girl. It’s a sly little Easter egg. And M debuts the first of her male assistants with Villiers. She would have another male assistant in Quantum of Solace before Moneypenny rejoined the series in Skyfall (and Dench’s M bid a sad farewell to the franchise). Finally, for the first time in the series the traditional opening gun-barrel sequence got a twist. This time the action where Bond turns, points the gun at the camera and fires came from the opening sequence itself–it wasn’t artificially staged. That also means that it’s the first time 007 isn’t dressed up for the gun-barrel sequence. There’s also a more stylized version of the gun barrel and more literal animated blood dripping down after the shot is fired.
Gadgets: Only one: a defibrillator secreted in the glove compartment of 007’s car, part of a medi-pack also capable of connecting to an MI6 medical team that could remotely diagnose any complications–such as poisons. No outlandish gadgets for this Bond incarnation.
Ally: 007’s contact in Montenegro is Rene Mathis, a suave older agent played by Giancarlo Giannini. He’s not really a man of action like 007, and for once they don’t really pretend that he’s intended to be a more active man. He’s essentially a fixer assigned to clean up Bond’s messes, and at that he excels. Except that he might actually be working for Le Chiffre. Whether or not he actually was is left up in the air until the next movie (spoiler alert: I placed him in the ally category based on how that turns out). We also get re-introduced to Felix Leiter, Bond’s old American CIA pal, now played by Jeffrey Wright. Leiter was last seen in the Bond franchise getting maimed by a shark in 1989’s Licence to Kill, sending Timothy Dalton’s 007 on a quest for vengeance. This Leiter will have more to do in the future. For now, all he gets to do is lose at cards and put up the funds to get James back in the game when his arrogance gets him kicked out.
Bond Girl: From the moment Vesper Lynd shows up on the train to Montenegro, the chemistry is electric. It is genuinely enjoyable to watch Eva Green go toe to toe with Daniel Craig. Vesper toys with James just as hard as he toys with her. Bond girls have gotten Bond’s number before, but never quite like this. Producers frequently use a scene from From Russia With Love to audition Bond girls, and if I had my way I’d replace it with this one. It’s the ultimate chemistry test. Vesper is steely and relentless, sarcastic and playful, and in possession of a seemingly endless pool of resolve. And it’s all an act to cover up deeper hurts from her past. Essentially, she’s a less lethal version of Bond himself. It’s easy to see why he would fall for her so hard–and vice versa.
There’s a vulnerable side to Vesper that makes her so much more interesting than all the cardboard-deep Bond girls producers had been throwing at audiences for decades. The scene where she breaks down, sitting fully clothed in the shower after witnessing Bond brutally kill two goons they came across in the hotel stairwell, is light years beyond anything the series had done with a Bond girl since Diana Rigg’s Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. And when Craig’s Bond kisses her fingertips and comforts her, there’s a genuine tenderness.
Casting Vesper Lynd was crucial to the success of Casino Royale. In Bond lore, she’s the ultimate Bond girl: the one who made Bond the cynical, unfeeling man we know. She sets the tone for the entire series. Essentially, producers needed an Ursula Andress–an actress who embodied a Bond girl so well that she created the mold for the entire franchise. But they also needed a Diana Rigg–an actress who could get under Bond’s skin and make you believe that he would give everything up for her. And like Rigg’s Tracy, they needed a Vesper whose death would break 007’s cold heart and send aftershocks to ripple throughout his adventures to come. So what do you do when faced with this seemingly impossible list of requirements? Cast Eva Green, it seems. Because she nails it.
By all rights, Vesper’s arc should be fairly impossible to portray. She’s ruthlessly opposed to both Bond and the plan at hand in the beginning, even as she’s intrigued by 007. She’s tough. Then her vulnerable side comes out. Then she betrays Bond–in fact has been playing him all along–but even in betrayal she is sacrificing herself for him. Then she refuses to be saved, leaving a ghost to haunt him for the rest of his life. And even with the betrayal, it has to be clear that she loved James and that he loved her. By pulling it off, Eva Green easily makes Vesper Lynd one of the top all-time best Bond girls–if not the greatest.
Supporting Bond Girl: The smaller Bond girl role is something of a throwaway with Vesper rightly taking up the spotlight, but Solange (played by Italian beauty Caterina Murino) is a perfect way of introducing just how cold and calculating Bond can be. Her abusive husband is the key to connecting Bond with Le Chiffre, setting the movie’s entire plot in motion. But in order for that to happen, Bond needed information about the husband. So he seduced the unhappy wife, pumped her for information even as they began getting naked (and she admitted to knowing what his true motives were), and abandoned her with a serious case of blue balls as soon as he found out her husband had mysteriously left for Miami. As if blue balls weren’t bad enough, once 007’s excursion to Miami lost Le Chiffre all of his client’s money, Le Chiffre came for revenge–torturing and killing Solange. And when her gruesome death is revealed to Bond, he doesn’t even seem all that remorseful. Solange was a means to an end. Remember what I said about Bond being a dick? Remember, Connery’s Bond once used a woman as a human shield when an assassin approached him from behind. In her short arc, Solange lets audiences know that we’re back to that ruthless version of Bond.
Villain: With his asthma and an eye deformity that makes him bleed tears, Le Chiffre is perfect for the canon of Bond villains–most of which have some oddball characteristic that sets them apart. The good thing about Le Chiffre as played by Mads Mikkelsen (and his menacing voice) is that there’s depth beyond the physical abnormalities. So often Bond villains are a collection of tics and eccentricities that add up to nothing. It’s disappointing. Mikkelsen has physical presence and gravitas to spare (it’s no wonder he went on to play Hannibal Lecter in TV’s Hannibal). It’s also refreshing to have a villain who isn’t in possession of an underwater lair, megalomaniacal aspirations, or heading up a vast criminal organization. Not to mention that there’s no doomsday device–an overused trope in the Bond franchise. And yet, one can’t deny that Le Chiffre essentially boils down to a pawn. He’s setting the plot in motion, but there’s a more nefarious person out there pulling the strings–personified by Mr. White. It’s similar to how so many of the early Bond villains ultimately answered to the then-unseen Blofeld (who finally made an official appearance in the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice). In that sense, Le Chiffre is really just setting the stage for bigger things to come. Unfortunately, the bigger things to come turned out to be kind of lame in Quantum of Solace. Quantum just wasn’t a good enough stand-in for SPECTRE in the end. But that’s a story for next time.
Henchman: I guess we give it to Le Chiffre’s girlfriend, Valenka, but the most nefarious thing she does is poison 007’s martini. I mean, it almost kills him, but she’s not exactly Oddjob. The only other purpose she serves is to set up the dangerous situation Le Chiffre has found himself in when two goons show up in his hotel room and threaten to cut off Valenka’s hand if they don’t get their money. It makes his ultimate death at the hands of Mr. White more believable, but it doesn’t exactly make Valenka a memorable or even intriguing character. Fun fact: Le Chiffre’s left eye is deformed, and his girlfriend Valenka seems to deliberately hide her left eye with her hairstyle throughout the movie.
Theme Song: First of all, it is with enormous satisfaction that I tell you that there isn’t a shadowy naked woman to be found in the opening credits of Casino Royale. Opening credits in Bond movies had overused that idea a long time ago. Seriously, virtually every Bond movie post Dr. No had employed nude or near-nude women–some dancing, some staring into space, some inexplicably doing gymnastics, and frequently either pointing guns or having guns pointed at them. It was past time to let it go. Let’s please have more of these stylish pop art animatics.
Unfortunately, Chris Cornell‘s “You Know My Name” carried the tradition of totally un-memorable Bond songs into the Daniel Craig years. At this point, there hadn’t been a good Bond theme since Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye” in 1995. On the one hand, it’s nice that producers got a male singer for the first time since A-Ha did the Bond theme for The Living Daylights in 1987. To be fair, “You Know My Name” fits perfectly into Cornell’s rock style–and being a legendary rocker from both Soundgarden and Audioslave, Cornell is a worthy candidate for the job. It’s just that “You Know My Name” is neither a bad song nor a great one. It’s forgettable and strictly middle-of-the-road. There have been worse Bond themes, but there have also been many better.
Iconic Moment: Casino Royale‘s biggest moment would have to be Vesper’s tragic demise in a collapsing building on the Grand Canal in Venice. It’s a well-staged action sequence with a heavy emotional payoff–one that would reverberate into the next movie.
Grades: Movie: 5/5; Bond Girl: 5/5; Supporting Bond Girl: 2.5/5; Villain: 4/5; Henchman: 1/5; Theme Song: 3/5