Casino Royale: The Film That Transcended Bond

Why the best Bond film is more than just a Bond film.

Our film begins as we fade in on the streets of Prague in the evening hours in black and white. Steam rises from the sewer grates as a car pulls up and a man exits.  Glancing from side to side he quickly heads into an office building and rides the elevator to the top floor. He moves with purpose and there is a glint of fear in his eye as he enters his office. As he reaches his desk we suddenly hear a voice from the shadows: “M really doesn’t mind you earning a little money on the side, Dryden. She’d just prefer if it weren’t selling secrets”.  As the line is uttered the camera pans around to reveal a man seated in the corner, shrouded in shadow, with a cold menace radiating from his eyes. Dryden pauses and delivers the line that changed the course of a franchise: “If the theatrics are supposed to scare me, you have the wrong man, Bond. If M was so sure I was bent, she’d have sent a Double-O.” And with that, everything changed.

In that one moment, and in the moments that follow as we see James Bond brutally and efficiently collect his first two kills and claim his status at 007, Director Martin Campbell, Daniel Craig, and the entire team behind Casino Royale sent a very clear message: this isn’t your dad’s James Bond.

After 44 years and 20 films the Bond franchise was in desperate need of change. It reached magnificent creative highs with the first three films Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger, but the quality began to drop almost immediately as the franchise became over reliant on gadgets and quips as it slowly became a parody of itself. By the time Casino Royale reached theaters in 2006 the franchise was in danger after a string of flops. A major course correction was needed and the crew behind this film was happy to provide it.  By starting over from the beginning of Bond’s career and by choosing to adapt the first story they were able to strip away all of the excess that was weighing down the franchise, go back to basics, and simply focus on telling a good story, and they absolutely delivered.

It’s important to note how far removed Casino Royale feels from the Bond films that came before it. Not only does the film do away with many of the hallmarks of the franchise, it does so while not even attempting to hide it’s disdain for what had become of the Bond franchise. It sneers at the gadgetry, the swashbuckling, and the horrible puns, taking the time to fire multiple shots at how ridiculous the films had become. It is a film that strips Bond down, both figuratively and literally as it tears away at the tropes to produce a Bond unlike anything that had come before. There are no fancy gadgets, no giant space lasers, no diabolical plot to end or take over the world. No the stakes of this film are much lower, much more human. While the film contains three magnificent set pieces, each of which could easily be considered an all-timer for the genre, they all are motivated by, and move the plot forward by serving a strong narrative purpose. The core of the story is brilliant in it’s simplicity: After Bond’s interference causes a villainous money man named Le Chiffre to lose over a hundred million dollars of his clients funds, Le Chiffre plans a high stakes poker game in Montenegro in hopes of winning the money back. Mi6 sends Bond, backed by the stunning Treasury representative Vesper Lynd, to infiltrate the game and insure that Le Chiffre does not win, in hopes that they can then turn him by offering him protection from his clients, gaining valuable information in the process.

Craig is a revelation in his first performance as 007. His is a cruel Bond, with a chiseled physique, icy blue eyes, and a menacing presence. All of the suits, dinner jackets, and cultural refinements only serve to barely mask the violence buried mere millimeters beneath the surface. This is a man that looks like he could kill with his bare hands, and on a couple of occasions he does just that. His combat style is brutal and precise, dealing out death with devastating fury. It is however in the quieter moments when Craig truly shines.  His conversations feel like pitched battles, with him constantly maneuvering for the upper hand. He is one moment exuding the easy charm that has clearly gained him access to many a lady’s bedroom, and the next his every word drips with venom. Perhaps what is most shocking about his performance is how little regard his Bond has for human life. Very early in the story the film establishes that Bond cares little for his fellow man, and considers almost any amount of collateral damage to be acceptable as long as the mission is completed. He is closed off to the world and takes steps to insure that he always keeps others at arms length. It is because of this that the tragedy that occurs when he finally lets someone in is so visceral. Craig’s performance provides layers to Bond never seen prior. He is at times calm and sophisticated, but also produces a gamut of emotions previously foreign to the character. He is manic, reckless, charming, terrifying, wrathful, and sorrowful all in different measures. It’s a performance unlike any that came before it.

It is also worth noting how much messier Craig’s Bond is allowed to get than any of his predecessors. Unlike prior Bond’s, Craig doesn’t always come out of the fight clean, in fact he almost never does. He is constantly bloodied and banged up, with the injuries from one scene carrying over to the next. After a particularly memorable fight with an African warlord, Bond is forced to change his dress shirt, because the one he had been wearing is drenched in his own blood. This is a Bond that is allowed to be hurt, and no scene exemplifies this more than an astonishingly brutal torture sequence that occurs during the back half of the film. Craig makes you feel every hit he delivers and every one he receives, selling the violence and danger inherent in being a man whose job title is professional assassin.

Mads Mikkleson’s turn as the slimy and villainous banker Le Chiffre is noteworthy as well. Mikkleson plays Le Chiffre as man constantly flirting with the boundaries of his power and control. He gambles on the stock market using his client’s funds, and when that backfires attempts to win it back by playing poker of all things. It is in these scenes at the poker table, with him and Craig seated across from each other that Mikkleson truly shines. There is a manic edge that ever so often bursts forth from the calm exterior for mere fractions of a second. He constantly seeks for an edge, doing whatever it takes in an attempt to win the money that will be his salvation. Human lives mean nothing to him, not even of those closest to him, he cares for only two things in the world, money, and himself.

No accounting of this film would be complete without discussing the performance of Eva Green as the beautiful and brilliant Vesper Lynd. Be warned if you haven’t seen the film there are MAJOR plot spoilers ahead, so stop reading and go watch the movie and then come back and rejoin us.  A running gag amongst Bond fans is how every Bond girl claims to be a “different type of Bond girl”, and they never are. Since the beginning of the franchise the producers, writers, and directors of the Bond films have for the most part been content to just check off a series of boxes to create Bond girls that really aren’t that integral to the story. They show up, demonstrate a special skill or knowledge, maybe their name is a pun or an innuendo (Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole, Dr. Holly Goodhead, Kissy Suzuki, Tiffany Case, Bibi Dahl, Xenia Onnatop, Molly Warmflash), they sleep with Bond, he probably has to rescue them, and they sleep with Bond again. Very rarely do they have any real impact on the character of Bond, and even rarer still do they change him. Even Tracy Bond, the only woman Bond ever marries, had little long term impact on the series, being killed off at the end of the only film she appeared in and then being mentioned only once more in the history of the franchise. Vesper Lynd broke this pattern in a big way. She was smart, sophisticated, and proved to be more than Bond’s equal when it came to wordplay. Eva Green plays Vesper as a woman who, like Bond, keeps her distance from others. She makes it clear very early on that she has no interest in becoming yet another one of Bond’s conquests, never feeling afraid to make her disdain for him known and never capitulating to his will. Because of this when the characters do manage to penetrate through each other’s emotional armor and fall in love, it feels real. This also makes her inevitable betrayal, where we learn she has been working for Le Chiffre’s backers the entire time, and her watery death in Venice, so excruciating not only for the audience, but for Bond as well.  It validates his original belief that he can trust no one and leaves him a hollow shell of a man. When asked at the end if he needs time to recover Bond coldly replies “Why should I need more time, the job’s done and the bitch is dead” and you’re left wondering if he means it or simply wants to mean it. What you know for certain however is that he is a man irrevocably changed.  This was a woman for whom Bond had been prepared to give it all up, to attempt to reclaim what was left of his soul, but in the end he discovers that regardless of what she might have felt for him, she had been using him the entire time.

It’s for all of these reasons and many more that Casino Royale feels like more than just a Bond film. It was a touchstone of early 2000’s action cinema, a film that like Mad Max Fury Road did last year, felt too stupid good to have been a product of the traditional and cynical Hollywood studio system. Across every single measure by which we judge film, it was better than all of the Bond films that came before it, and disappointingly all of the ones that have come after. By deciding to start over, it charted a bold new direction for the franchise, one in which fan service was not seen as something to aspire too, and the only goal was making the best film possible. Sadly, as any of you who have watched Spectre know, this bold new direction quickly had the legs cut right out from under it, but it is still laudable nonetheless. It’s the kind of film that will stand the test of time, it holds up now 10 years after it’s initial release, and will still hold up when revisited in 30 years. It was the film that showed that 007 could still surprise us at the cinema. It was the film that transcended Bond.