It’s been nine years since Casino Royale was released and I can still recall the excitement and shock. I remember sitting in a movie theatre in November 2006 and being stunned at the achievement unfolding before me, feeling sheer delight at how good this Bond film was. From the black-and-white pre-credits sequence in which Bond ruthlessly makes his first two kills in order to acquire his 007 status, to the interruption of the climactic car chase with Bond crashing and then being tortured, this was James Bond as I had never seen him before. Or was it? The tone was noticeably more serious, the acting more nuanced, the dialogue crisper and more about witty exchanges than one-liners, the small dramatic moments given as much attention as the big action scenes—but it was still recognizably Bond. That, in my estimation, is the film’s true achievement.
Readers following the Three Brothers’ James Bond 007 Retrospective this year will know that I described For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights as “soft reboots” (and Anders examined GoldenEye as a kind of reboot). I would argue, though, that Casino Royale is the only true “hard reboot” in the franchise’s history. While Bond aficionados generally recognize the significance of Casino Royale, my impression is that Skyfall has largely superseded Casino Royale in the popular consciousness as the “serious” James Bond film. I do not wish to diminish the achievement of Skyfall, but Skyfall exhibits the thoughtfulness of an old man reviewing his accomplishments and considering his legacy. Skyfall affirms the traditions of the 007 canon, and the service of Queen and Country, as it reworks the conventions in order to enrich and sustain them. Casino Royale is an attempt, rather, to “make it new,” to begin again. But, as the film affirms in both its narrative and its aesthetic, there are no clean breaks.
Casino Royale stands near the beginning of the film industry’s twenty-first century craze for “rebooting” established properties, a program which arguably began with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. If a remake often carries with it the suggestion of lazily repeating something that worked, a reboot suggests freshness, a clean slate, a return to some “purer” original state. As in the case of the Batman films, to reboot a movie franchise also suggests wiping away earlier missteps. So, in the case of the 007 series, what were the mistakes Casino Royale was meant to correct, and what is the original state being returned to? The answers to my questions are actually more complicated than the simplified narrative that rebooting a franchise is meant to imply.
The fact that long-time Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade worked on the screenplay for Casino Royale demonstrates that the film, in spite of any desires to start fresh, is not a clean break from the previous films, and that the notion of a reboot is perhaps just as much a marketing narrative as a production agenda. Purvis and Wade wrote the previous two Brosnan films, and, after Casino Royale, have worked on the other Craig films (including the upcoming Spectre). Already, their involvement complicates the idea of Die Another Day as a complete disaster that the producers knew had to be remedied. I do believe that Die Another Day is a bad film, the franchise’s gaudy low-point and equivalent to Batman & Robin, but it was still a significant commercial success, grossing over $400 million worldwide. Nevertheless, critics and fans did express dissatisfaction with that film’s excesses and blunders, such as the too-obvious product placements and the awful CGI. In our Bond reviews, we’ve tried to pay attention to the historical and cultural contexts surrounding each film as well as to the fantasy-reality tension present in each movie’s formal aspects and content. Hopefully this has helped show that Albert Broccoli was always ready to tailor each new Bond film to the present moment and the audience’s perceived desires—essentially developing each new film based on reactions to the previous one rather than on some overarching game plan for an extended series. His daughter, Barbara, and Michael G. Wilson have largely followed suit (although one can detect a bit more of a Marvel Studios-like strategy throughout the Craig films, which we will address in our Daniel Craig roundtable).
Perhaps sensing backlash against the more over-the-top fantasy elements of Die Another Day (such as the invisible car and Bond surfing the tidal wave), producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson brought writer-director Paul Haggis in to work on the script for Casino Royale, which was touted at the time as being less interested in gadgets and more faithful to Fleming’s Bond as portrayed in the original novels. The film came out after Haggis’s early 2006 Oscar victory for Crash, so Haggis was a recently lauded talent at the time of release. His involvement in the production brought an unprecedented prestige to the series’ script writing, and, whatever his contribution (he says his most significant contribution was to the third act), signalled a difference in approach to audiences.
In fact, Casino Royale was the first Bond film in years to be based on a Fleming novel; the studio had finally acquired the rights to Fleming’s first book in 1999 (see my review of 1967’s Casino Royale for an account of who possessed the rights to the novel previously). The film’s close relation to the novels makes Casino Royale something of anomaly this late in the 007 movie franchise’s history; it’s undeniably of its time, preoccupied with early twenty-first century concerns such as global terrorism, but it’s also harkening back to the old Cold War spy novels that started it all, forging connections with the first two, and more serious, espionage-oriented Connery films.
The final film boasts an elegant structure, and one unique in the Bond canon. The first hour functions as a kind of Bond origin story: we see Bond acquire his 007 status and work on an early mission, making mistakes and being scolded by M. The first act is also action-heavy in relation to the rest of the film, and, while it has a noticeable edge (recalling the tone of the Dalton films), it is still a fairly straightforward Bond narrative. Bond works to uncover connections between various terrorists and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who is a kind of banker for international criminals. Bond must seduce a woman (Caterina Murino) and foil a plot, and only after an hour into the film do we finally get to the actual Casino Royale storyline. Le Chiffre has been playing the markets with his clients’ money, and after a big loss (which 007 precipitates), Le Chiffre must attempt to win $150 million back by hosting a high-stakes poker tournament at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond, the best poker player in the British secret service, is being staked $10 million with the possibility of an additional $5 million buy-in by the British treasury, represented by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).
As Roger Ebert noted, the final chapter of the film seems to pick up where all previous Bond films leave off. There are a few cryptic scenes (and I’ve always felt, fragmented) revealing what supposedly happened the night Bond was tortured, and a few sweet scenes with Bond recovering and falling for Vesper. We see Vesper and Bond on the beach and sailing through Venice in love, and these moments recall the endings of innumerable Bond films. But then Vesper notices a sinister looking man with a black eye patch, and a final chapter springs up. Vesper, it turns out, has been playing Bond to get the money in order to save her love, even if she has really fallen for Bond. The novel coldly, and famously, ends with Bond observing, “The bitch is dead”; although the line is present in the film, Haggis reworks the novel so that Vesper betrays Bond, which makes him want to kill her, but then he must eventually try to save her, only to have her kill herself. This makes the ending less cynical and more tragic, the only moment in the series akin to the great ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The fact that Casino Royale has real emotional stakes makes it stand out from the majority of Bond films.
The characterization of Vesper, played by Eva Green, is one of the film’s greatest achievements. Vesper is one of the few fully-formed female characters in the Bond canon, Diana Rigg’s Tracy probably being the only other romantic interest in the same league. Like Tracy, Vesper is Bond’s intellectual equal, as evidenced in the scene where they size each other up, and her assertive wit rivals her natural beauty. Honey Ryder might remain the quintessential “Bond girl,” but no one remembers her much for what she says. Vesper is just as memorable and appealing for what she says as how she looks. In this sense, Vesper transcends the formula of the Bond girl at the same time that she helps explain Bond’s subsequent relations with women. The absence of female silhouettes in the opening sequence has always stood out to me; if this Bond film seeks to objectify women less, though, Vesper’s eventual betrayal of Bond helps to explain (not justify) the character’s misogyny. (This is also just one example of how Casino Royale functions in relation to the previous films. Obviously, it set out to restart the timeline, but in effect, as it strikes out in new directions those directions tend to double-back and underscore previous aspects of the character and canon.) At one point, Bond says that Vesper has stripped him of his armour; he recognizes that his job is killing his soul and he says he wants to quit while he still has some soul left. These are rare moments in the series in which we actually see Bond’s real emotions, and they are moving, not only for their delivery but also for their rarity in the canon. The eventual betrayal leads him to put on his armour, his emotional detachment and calloused treatment of women, once again.
Bond’s relationships with women are central to the film. Vesper is meant to shape his romantic engagements to come, and M comes across as a disapproving mother figure to the orphan Bond. M scolds him throughout, and her aim seems to be to forge a hardened agent out of the young man. Vesper exposes Bond’s actual self, but her betrayal eventually leads to Bond doubling up his armour. Both women, in different ways, make Bond the hardened agent he becomes.
Bond’s calloused approach to the first Bond girl Solange, who he uses for information, is an example of Casino Royale taking a familiar convention and re-examining it. When she turns up dead on the beach, M observes that Bond doesn’t seem too concerned. Women associated with villains are used by Bond in earlier films, such as Jill Masterson, the golden girl of Goldfinger, but here the dead body is unglamorous or fantastic. Her dead body is tangled in a beach hammock, even prompting an MI6 assistant to wretch beside Bond.
At the very centre of the film, obviously, is the character of James Bond himself, and, I would argue, no Bond film is as concerned with that character, the inner workings and outer armour, as Casino Royale. The film is fascinated with Bond’s image, how the viewer and other characters perceive him, but also how he perceives himself. Consider the many scenes of Bond in front of mirrors. Throughout the film, Bond looks at himself, and other characters (and the viewer) look at Bond. Bond makes his first kill in a public men’s room, drowning the man in a sink in front of a mirror. When Bond thinks he’s killed him and lets his body fall, the camera takes a few extra moments to take in Bond; he pauses and breathes, and the camera just watches him, like in no other Bond film. Later in the film, Bond models the famous tuxedo; Vesper watches him, we watch him, and he also examines himself in the mirror. And after the hallway fight with the African terrorists in the casino (a brutal fight that mirrors Bond’s first kill), Bond washes blood off his face, chugs down a glass of whisky, and then stares at himself in the mirror. Craig nails these moments. His portrayal is of a Bond who wears his ironic wit and seeming callousness as armour to protect himself in the dangerous game of spies and secret agents, yet Craig also does the most to show the inner workings and vulnerabilities of the character.
The pre-credits sequence is a great summary of the film’s thematic interests and stylistic approach to realism. The sequence alternates between glossy and gritty. The glossy black-and-white scene, which often utilizes noirish canted angles, shows Bond encountering a traitor in the ranks; the scene is intercut with a previous incident, Bond’s first kill, which is shot in grainy, shaky, high-contrast black and white. The alternating styles of the pre-credits sequence would seem to indicate the film’s efforts to be both raw, gritty, and more “realistic,” while also evoking the high-quality prestige of a big, classical-style movie production. Subsequent action scenes incorporate both the shaky camerawork and fast cuts of twenty-first century action filmmaking, as well as the clearly defined spatial relations of classical-style filmmaking. Director Martin Campbell did good work with 1995’s GoldenEye, but Casino Royale stands out as a masterpiece of modern Hollywood action filmmaking, drawing on the best of modern techniques and established traditions.
I consider Casino Royale the best Bond film, but, if every Bond film were like Casino Royale, it wouldn’t be very special. In other words, the degree of resonance and effect of Casino Royale very much relies on the viewer’s knowledge of other Bond films. I would argue that Skyfall is more satisfactory for a casual viewer. Casino Royale is the supreme comment on everything that came before in the 007 series, as well as the hand pointing in the new direction. In that sense it does not transcend the franchise, but rather is an articulation of the very essence of the series, as if all the deep ideas and feelings and efforts at realism in all the previous 007 films birthed this film. When Bond stares at himself in the mirror halfway through the film, it is as if the film were staring back at the long history of its franchise, at the same time that the modern viewer is taking in the newest incarnation. Bond as the ruthless killer who bashes a man to death in a washroom or strangles a man in a hotel stairwell has always been there, but it was never visible, nor self-aware, in this particular way. And when, at the end of the pre-credits sequence, Bond turns and shoots, he both ignites and returns to what has come before.
10 out of 10
Casino Royale (2006, UK/USA/Czech Republic/Germany)
Directed by Martin Campbell; screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming; starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian, and Jesper Christensen.