It’s October 14th, 2005. We’re in London.
A blonde-haired, blue-eyed actor rocks up aboard HMS Belfast facing the world’s press. It’s Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, soon to prove wrong the naysayers and that vocal minority who will pooh-pooh his legitimacy as the sixth actor to take on 007 in the Eon series.
15 years later, Craig’s debut outing, Casino Royale, is cemented as a modern classic with emotional and physical punches galore. Not to mention that it’s also a standalone exemplar of filmmaking and a victorious addition to Eon’s rich 007 canon — quite a considerable achievement for a franchise of 25 entries approaching its 60th anniversary faster than a Roger Moore eyebrow raise.
Yet the road to Casino Royale was far from smooth. Columbia’s acquisition of the story’s rights in the 1950s prevented the first Bond adventure from being adapted by Eon. CBS’s 1954 TV play following Barry Nelson’s Americanised ‘Jimmy Bond’ and David Niven’s kooky 1967 psychedelic spoof were both wanting as faithful adaptations to “the spy story to end all spy stories” until a 1999 court settlement granted the rights to Eon Productions.
By that time, Pierce Brosnan was still James Bond, spearheading a tenure that favored the fantastical. This was especially true for the series’ ruby entry Die Another Day, infamous for its CGI tsunami kite-surfing and invisible Aston Martin. Needless to say, the overall flippancy of the series seemed at odds with a world seismically changed after 9/11. To Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, it was clear that 007 needed more than his martinis to be shaken, not stirred. A reboot was needed — a chance for the franchise to return to its roots, to the original gritty imagination of author Ian Fleming, who had worked on covert operations during WW2.
Like the novel, Casino Royale would act as an origin for the world’s most famous super spy, but not quite as we had ever seen him before. Here is a younger, more brutish Bond, a blunt instrument who throughout the film will be sharpened by tragedy and woe. No traditional gun barrel is present in the opening shot (pun most definitely intended). Instead, we enter a rather moody, monochromatic world angled at Dutch tilts, redolent of the dirty, crooked game of espionage. For the first time, we witness Bond attain double-0 status through the murder of two double agents: one is battered, drowned, and shot at, and the other silenced by a silencer, the latter killing promising that the savage we have witnessed is indeed a stealthy sophisticate in the making. Cue Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”, a rock anthem drenched in adrenaline. As we head bob, we wonder if the name “Bond. James Bond” is all we’ve ever known about cinema’s icon.
Director Martin Campbell affirms that there is more to Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than this swinging ‘60s epithet. Like his stellar entry directing Goldeneye — when Bond was dismissed as “a relic of the Cold War” and initially seen to be at a loss without his regular international nemesis — Campbell turbocharges 007 into the 21st century, this time facing the threat of modern terrorism.
In Casino Royale, Bond must beat Mads Mikkelsen’s slimy Le Chiffre, a banker to the world’s terrorists, in a game of poker at Casino Royale Montenegro. Should Bond lose, MI5 will have directly financed terrorist organisations and orchestrated millions of deaths.
Here is certainly a resonant threat for our times, as well as for Fleming’s. The author, who lived in a post-war era shadowed by the atomic bomb, asserted in an interview that “we have a lot of dangers that some lunatic might get hold of weapons and start threatening the world.” Fleming’s fear of non-state extremists is the same fear we share today. Campbell did not need to reinvent Bond; he needed to return to Fleming’s prescience.
Such dangers are translated through the langue of action, with Campbell crafting set-pieces that are just as characterful as they are exciting. Bond’s foilings of two bomb-makers are staged on such a scale that they would be the grand crescendos to any nominal blockbuster. In the first sequence, a kinetic camera keeps up with a thrilling foot-chase through a Madagascan construction site, with Sébastien Foucan’s (the very founder of freerunning) Mollaka diving and darting with balletic energy, displaying the slipperiness of such modern dangers. Craig’s Bond smashes and crashes after him, evoking the reckless but persistent force that this younger, more inexperienced man possesses. In another scene, while defending an airport, Bond himself is bruised and bloodied, but throughout the film, he proves to be a reassuring presence for our times, having terrorized the terrorists that invade our own reality. Here, 007 excels in encouraging a wounded West to feel that we are not so entirely at the mercy of such pestiferous evils.
Whereas most directors would fail at the tremendous challenge of making a card game exciting for the big screen, Campbell understands that the film’s poker match is more than just a gamble. What we see on screen is a spectacular war between freedom and terror, a clash of ideologies — the fate of the modern world up for grabs. Close-up shots of Craig’s piercing blue eyes and Mikkelsen’s weeping tear duct affirm the adage that we learn most about characters when they are under pressure: revealed are each man’s determination to best the other and the fear each has if they don’t. As Bond quips, “you play the man,” not the hand he has. We see Bond’s resourcefulness, followed by a tempest of tension and angst that imbues the shifting of casino chips on the table, making them feel like armadas being sent along a green baize sea by their admirals. Indeed, these quiet moments ring the loudest.
Such scenes of introspection make Casino Royale so special. If you manage to avoid a cardiac arrest at what can only be described as a blood-curdling stairwell fight with a nasty sword-swinging rogue, you will remember how the film then dares to slow down, nestling comfortably with the anomie of murder. Bond heads back to his room, reflecting on his near-death experience. Despite being a double-0, every kill is a dirty job. He washes the blood off his crisp white shirt and looks in the mirror, knowing he can’t do the same for his stained soul. Again, we see Craig’s blue eyes, piercing one second, pools of self-loathing the next. Throughout the film, the gaze of our hero fluctuates, expressing an internal dialogue: is this path of an assassin the one for him? And in this mirror scene, the camera holds, beat after beat, refusing to be any generic action movie that will skip to the next explosion. We stay with Bond and feel his pain, never more so than when he comforts Eva Green’s Vesper in the shower in one of the most touching and real scenes in the series, devoid of lascivious subtext and aided by David Arnold’s gentle orchestral score, brassy and bold in the style of John Barry but able to offer a softer, tender delicacy at times like this.
Green is bewitching as Vesper Lynd. Beneath a steely exterior, she’s just as witty as she is fallible; there has been no greater match for Bond since Diana Rigg’s Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Her tragic end gives this entry emotional depth like never before as we smart and cry from what could have been. She is the harbinger of this film’s theme — trust — and complements an impressive-looking Bond stepping out of the Bahaman surf, his marble-like exterior acting as hard armour around the cold heart that is set to be broken before it is betrayed.
Indeed, Bond is challenged — physically and spiritually — like never before in this film, particularly in the horrendous testicular torture scene that comes straight from the novel and which is surely the most wince-inducing moment ever committed to celluloid.
It is a test of Bond’s faith, which has always been incorruptible — a key ingredient that has forever been a huge part of the character’s success. But in this film, our hero is the most human he has ever been, and a body, no matter how chiselled, can be broken. Bond’s trust in his cause, however, prevails after surviving a hero’s journey for the first time in the series.
That is not to say that Casino Royale forgets to be — to steal a phrase from Octopussy’s theme “All Time High” — “a sweet distraction for an hour or two”.
Cinematographer Phil Meheux does a stellar job of setting a standard of visual excellence before the much- and rightly lauded Roger Deakins in Skyfall. That precedent is set in Craig’s first film, with an outing that has had no greater vacation vibe since Thunderball. The white sand and blue water of the Bahamas, the Caribbean sunshine, the return of the Aston Martin DB5, and a return to Fleming’s hungry hedonism, including the Vesper Martini — it is all enough to make you grin. The ordering of Champagne Bollinger and caviar makes any 007 fan fist-pump as our hero relishes a true Bondian lifestyle, forever reminding us that life is short and dangerous and one should savour the finer things just as Fleming, who stimulated the reader “even to his taste buds,” did.
Indeed, in every aspect, this is the most visceral Bond film. Every punch and kick counts. Every bead of sweat is seen. We feel the pain of death and the pleasure of living life to its fullest. Casino Royale filled our cup and we drained it dry. It was as tasty as a Vesper.
For some of us, it’s all we want to drink…