Casino Royale (2006)

Posted: January 11, 2021 in James Bond

And so, we go from what’s widely perceived to be one of the worst Bond films, to what’s widely perceived to be one of the best. Whatever your view of Die Another Day and Casino Royale, you can’t deny that they feel like two wholly different kinds of films. One utterly ridiculous, the other utterly grounded. Of course, this isn’t new for the franchise. Look at OHMSS sandwiched between YOLT and DAF, or more relevant the gritty For Your Eyes Only following Moonraker. Only Roger Moore could go into space, but even he couldn’t stay there.

Time for the usual full disclosure. Whilst I wasn’t one of the “Bond can’t be blonde” muppets (Rog isn’t exactly dark haired, is he?) I was disappointed in the casting of Daniel Craig, and should I ever meet the fellow I plan to sincerely apologise, because, whilst the quality of his films has been variable, he’s been a superb Bond all the way.

Returning to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a moment, it’s interesting to note what else Casino Royale shares with that film. Not only do both feature genuine romance for Bond, they’re both also incredibly faithful (to a point) adaptations, and both feature a tragic death. Beyond this both are not only great Bond films, but they’re also great films full stop. For Craig this has on occasion somewhat hamstrung him, because after such an assured debut the only way was down—George at least began and left on a high.

We can always hope that No Time to Die will, eventually, provide a suitably great swansong for Craig, but only time will tell.

Back to Casino Royale. Things are different from the off, with no gun barrel intro and a black and white pre-title sequence set in chilly Prague and not so chilly, well it’s Pakistan but we never really find that out as all the cricketing preamble is wisely excised. All that remains is a framed cricketing print that gets knocked off the wall during the fight. Bond’s conversation with Dryden is succinct but loaded with information, yet never feels expository. Bond isn’t a 00 agent yet, and to become a 00 requires two kills. Though it quickly becomes apparent to Dryden that Bond already has one, and he’s to be the second.

There’s an interesting contrast between the two kills. The fight in the rest room is brutal and hot blooded, the discussion between Bond and Dryden cold blooded and polite, and Bond’s reaction to each death is very different. When he thinks he’s killed Dryden’s contact, Bond is in shock, and Craig does a wonderful job of portraying a whole host of conflicting emotions here. Bond is almost proud, yet horrified. You can’t quite decide if he’s about to punch the air or throw up, perhaps the perfect response to a first kill.

His execution of Dryden, and it is an execution, is calm by comparison, almost blasé, with Dryden not even getting to finish his homily that a second kill is always…

“Yes. Considerably.”. Interesting to note the flash of a family photo as Dryden topples back. A wife and child perhaps. Nice touch.

We flash back to Pakistan where it seems Bond’s first kill wasn’t quite dead. James quickly resolves this and we get the most imaginative gun barrel in the franchise, followed by titles that, for my money are the best in the series. Exceptionally cool, especially the bullet holes in the 7 of Hearts that morphs into 007 Status Confirmed. Chris Cornell and David Arnold’s fantastic ‘You Know My Name’ playing over the top is just the icing on the cake.

Casino Royale is a long film and, in many respects, an oddly paced one. Two of the big action sequences, after all, arrive early on. Bond’s pursuit of the bomber in Madagascar and his interception of the second bomber at Mimi Airport. Both are excellent, although the free running segment does go on a bit (and is it just me, but does the embassy guard already seem to be examining the bomber’s passport and radioing his superior before the bomber runs up to him?). Both showcase Craig’s physicality, and when he runs through a wall you genuinely believe he can do that. If I had a preference it’s for the Miami section, if only because Bond uses his wits a bit more here. That the film still works despite front loading much of the action is testament to how well the casino scenes are done. Here it’s helped by the source material, even if much of Fleming’s plot is jettisoned (no Bulgarians blowing themselves up) it’s also helped by the arrival of Vesper, and by having Bond and Le Chiffre finally face off.

Now at times I’ve been a little sniffy about the characters. Not the actors. Green and Mikkelsen are superb, but as villains go Le Chiffre always seemed to lack agency. Having him use his inhaler the first time we see him isn’t a great start, and he seems at the mercy of events rather than driving them forwards. He’s very nearly murdered by his own associates before Bond can get close enough to win the game after all. Similarly, Vesper suffers the same issues she does in the book, she’s a little insipid, at times you wonder what it is about her that Bond loves so much, and like the book she seems to go from hating Bond to falling in love in the time it takes to turn over a card.

But actually both of them fared much better in my eyes this time. Green’s chemistry with Craig is off the charts. Their first meeting on the train is wonderful—so good Eon will try to replicate it a few years later, with nought but a pale imitation—as are most of their interactions, the dress/dinner jacket scenes add very little to the story, but I love them. And her acting is spot on. I never noticed before how there’s a fantastic moment when she says goodbye in Venice, just a flicker, subtle as hell but wonderful. She really is saying goodbye for keeps.

It’s debatable how much agency she has, in part because we never quite know when she’s acting against Bond and when she’s not, but if nothing else she feels like she has agency, and she’s certainly a more rounded character than most Bond girls.

At times the poker stuff goes on a bit, and having Mathis mansplain poker to Vesper (and the audience) multiple times is wince inducing, but when the poker scenes work they do so superbly, even if the final denouncement is a trifle contrived (seriously every player gets one-upped by the next in line?).

But this is a film of contrivances, most Bond films are, but they do irk me slightly here. Look at Bond’s detective work in the Bahamas. It’s fortunate that Dimitrios sent that text just as he arrived and was caught on camera, and it’s the first tape 007 looks at. On the plus side I still have a lot of goodwill after Bond smashes the very obvious Goldfinger homage’s Range Rover.

Similarly, handy Bond had a defibrillator in his car.

These are minor annoyances though, and frankly the film is long enough without seeing Bond trek through dozens of tapes.

The car chase that isn’t really a car chase is excellently done, and for those unfamiliar with the novel it must have been one hell of a shock to see Vesper in the middle of the road.

Then there’s the torture scene, where Mikkelsen really comes alive. A slight change from the book but the mechanics are the same.

Mads Mikkelsen is wonderful, but…forgive the indulgence, but I like to think there’s an alternate universe where the weasely Le Chiffre is played by Christoph Waltz, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld is played by Mikkelsen—though could even arguably the best Hannibal Lector we ever had have salvaged Spectre (getting ahead of myself!).

Then we get poor old Mathis’ shabby treatment (I’m sure this will be made up for in the next film) and finally James and Vesper fall in love. Cue montage! Again, the pacing is a little off, because this comes so late in the film, by contrast Bond and Tracy’s courtship happened much earlier in OHMSS, giving their love a little more time to breathe. Still, it’s hard not to swoon over some of the dialogue. “You’ve got your armour back up again.” “I have no armour left, you’ve stripped it from me.” Just divine.

And then, finally, the Venice set piece in a collapsing building. Which is great. Really it is.

You know there’s a but coming, right?

The trouble is, not only does it elongate the film yet further, but it goes against the theme running through the film. Mano a mano. Practically every confrontation Bond has is him vs a single opponent.

Bond vs Dryden, Bond vs the guy in the bathroom, Bond vs Mollaka the free runner, Bond vs Dimitrios, Bond vs Carlos (seriously I never knew his name before today!) in Miami. Bond vs the warlord Obanno (technically there’s his right-hand man but Bond despatches him so quickly he might as well not be there). Then Bond vs Le Chiffre (poker) and Bond vs Le Chiffre (torture). Hell if you take Bond and Vesper’s verbal sparring into account you can even include them.

I mean, for goodness sake the theme hits you over the head right from the start of the Madagascar sequence. Cobra vs Mongoose!

So having Bond kill a bunch of anonymous guys at the end, seems a little lame. I guess they felt the film had to have a final set piece.

Vesper’s death isn’t quite an OHMSS gut punch, but it is still very moving, and Green gets a beautiful death. Glad they included the last line from the novel, shame they had to dilute it somewhat, but I can see why.

And finally we get the line, you know the one I mean, after James has thanked Mr White for saving his life by shooting him in the leg. (Sheesh why don’t you just shag his daughter).

So there you have it. An exceptional film, and one that I feel slightly embarrassed doesn’t sit in my top five (I mean it’s literally number 6 ok!) and I wonder if I shouldn’t move it up a notch or two because damn if it isn’t fantastic. Kudos to Martin Campbell, who also directed Brosnan’s debut Goldeneye.

It isn’t perfect, it’s too long (though god knows what I’d cut) slightly contrived in places, and though my view has changed quite a lot, it still feels a trifle embarrassed to be a Bond film at times. Then again Spectre isn’t embarrassed at all and it really should be (getting ahead of myself again!)

Great set pieces, great acting, a script so polished in places you can see your face in it, a wonderful soundtrack and a truly fantastic Bond. As I said, its main failing is that it’s almost too good, when you set the bar that high following it up can be tricky.

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