Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twenty-Three: Casino Royale (2006)

However the Daniel Craig era of James Bond ends up being appraised in the years that follow his departure from the role, it is clear he has changed – probably forever – the expectations of the public, and of EON Productions, of what could be and should be realised from the character.  Pierce Brosnan’s run had been popular and profitable, but his Bond was limited in scope and ambition.  The character was always perfectly attired, with hair that never moved.  He was the best at everything he attempted, and he was required to look good, pass muster in action scenes, and provide a passable delivery of the required quips.  The James Bond series provided comfort food for its fans, with rinse and repeat adventures – with minor variations in locations and plot – building on decades of tradition.  Providing a shifting timeline, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond is the same character who battled Dr No, the same man who married Tracy, and the same Bond that saw the end of the Cold War.  After 2002’s Die Another Day, however, everything would change.

We are used to a world of reboots now: we’ve had multiple Spider-Man continuities, several Batmans, and the concept of starting afresh is well accepted in Hollywood.  As such, it is almost impossible now to understand what a risk 2006’s Casino Royale was: from a non-standard casting choice in Daniel Craig, to a story that jettisoned 44 years of continuity to return James Bond to the start of his career as a 00-agent.  Only Batman Begins existed at that time as a comparable resetting of a legacy character.  Even this is a poor comparison, as there had been only four Batman films in the previous continuity, the style and standards of which had varied enormously, and with many of the more famous antagonists having been killed in that timeline.  Of course, with that film having been released in the summer of 2005, it arrived long after EON had committed to the idea of restarting Bond.  This was a far braver move that anyone not there at the time could possibly understand today.

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As a property, ownership of Casino Royale had been around the houses somewhat.  As the first novel, Ian Fleming had been able to sell an option long before EON came along to buy the rights to his later works.  First adapted in 1954, by CBS, for television, the rights had long been held by Sony – and adapted by them in 1967.  As the whole Kevin McClory affair (discussed in the Thunderball and Never Say Never Again articles) had shown, studios were somewhat reluctant to commit to James Bond projects, when ownership of the IP had resided with EON for so long.  Consequently, once the Fleming properties had been exhausted, the Bond series moved on to original stories. though sometimes repurposing some aspects of the continuation novels, albeit in oblique form.

MGM, partners of EON, held a trump card, however: Spider-Man.  For convoluted reasons, MGM held a share in that character: something Sony would need to overcome if they were to launch a series of films based around the Marvel icon.  By 1999, as the final Kevin McClory case collapsed, with the settlement attesting to EON’s full ownership of the cinematic character of James Bond, Sony were ready to negotiate over Bond – a character the courts had suggested it would be unwise to launch any rival adaptation of – while EON were now determined to own everything related to their character: buying up, in the coming years, Never Say Never Again and the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale, starring Peter Sellers and David Niven.  MGM sold their stake in Spidey, while Sony reciprocated by allowing EON to take control of the Casino Royale property.  When Die Another Day was met with critical derision, and left a take on the character at the apex of another cycle of bloat, this left the house that Cubby built to adapt the only Fleming novel yet to receive any kind of big screen treatment in the official series.

Although initially looking to put Pierce Brosnan in a fifth entry, EON’s negotiations with their long-time leading man ceased in 2004.  Shocked to find himself out of a job, after a four financially successful films, Brosnan reportedly reacted somewhat badly, with relations between him and the studio taking some years to heal.  The same year Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby, and joint head of EON with her step-brother Michael G. Wilson, happened to see Daniel Craig in the Matthew Vaughn film Layer Cake.  Immediately identifying Craig as her first choice to play 007, the studio still undertook the necessary due diligence, interviewing over 200 actors worldwide.  The final five (Craig, Henry Cavill – then 22, Goran Visnic from ER, Avatar‘s Sam Worthington, and Alex O’Louglin from the Hawaii Five-0 remake) were invited for a day’s testing and filming at Pinewood.  By this point, GoldenEye director Martin Campbell – long coveted by EON to return – had been attracted to take the reins, and was on-board to take part in the casting process.  Campbell was known to prefer Cavill, while EON chose Craig, as they believed that, at 37 years of age in 2005, he would be the right choice for a newly-minted 00 that was, nonetheless, a veteran agent.  Barbara had got her man.

Announced in October of that year, his first press conference was not wildly successful.  Craig was filming The Invasion with Nicole Kidman at the time, so he was slight in build, with long, floppy hair.  With mischief making questions about his romantic entanglements from some of the ‘journalists’ in attendance, Daniel looked uncomfortable – replying to the question of why he wanted to play the role with “why not?” – and not yet looking remotely as he would appear on screen as Bond.  Newspapers responded with scorn, referring to ‘James Bland’, mocking the choice of a 5ft 10 blond man as the traditionally dark and handsome six-foot plus spy.  This carried on to coverage of filming itself, as papers insinuated Craig could not drive a manual transmission car, and reported with ill-disguised glee when Craig had his teeth damaged in a fight staged for the film.  As the crew worked across the UK, the Bahamas and Croatia to create a film that would feature no Q, no Moneypenny, and a Bond with no history in the 007 position, the pressure was on.  Nothing less than a terrific Bond film would be enough.

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Casino Royale has a cold open, minus the usual gunbarrel.  James Bond is in Prague to confront the head of section (Dryden – played by Malcolm Sinclair) for that region of MI6.  Once realising his betrayal – selling secrets – has been discovered, Dryden understands he is to be the second kill of the two Bond must undertake to gain 00-status.  Asking about that first kill, we see a flashback to Bond’s brutal first killing in a public restroom in Lahore, Pakistan.  With both kills completed, the extraordinary card game-themed title sequence (eschewing the scantily-clad women common to format, but still very much a Bond sequence) reveals Bond has received his ‘007’ designation.

Post credits, a memorable parkour sequence set in Madagascar sees Bond catch and execute a bomb maker (parkour pioneer Sébastien Foucan taking this role).  Examining the deceased’s phone, Bond follows the source of a mysterious text to the Bahamas, where he identifies Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) as the culprit.  After cleaning out Dimitrios at Poker (taking his money and his 1964 Aston Martin DB5), and seducing his wife, Bond follows him to Miami, where he prevents the destruction of a newly launching aeroplane.  Returning to the Bahamas, Bond is briefed in the field by M (still Judi Dench, despite the reset timeline).  It is believed that the thwarted act of terrorism was masterminded by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), a financier of terrorists, who is believed to have bet against the stock price of that airline, knowing it would drop after its new asset was destroyed.

Bond is then tasked with heading to an invitation-only, winner-takes-all poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro.  There he will be supported by his contact René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), and Treasury official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) – who will be overseeing the Government’s financial stake in the game.  He will also encounter CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) for the first time.  As his relationship with Vesper begins to develop, Bond discovers feelings he never thought he had.  At the same time he must work to destroy Le Chiffre financially, and avoid causing his Government to have directly financed terrorism.

From the moment early set visits revealed a lean, muscular Craig walking into an embassy and dispatching assailants with clinical efficiency while dominating the screen with his deep blue eyes, it was clear the series was in good hands.  Though often mocked for his physical deviations from the literary character, Daniel Craig’s turn is one of the closest approximations of the books’ character ever realised in the official series.  With a distrust of close emotional engagement – expressed through a tendency to pursue married women – this Bond is not the light-hearted, quipping, let’s enjoy life while we can take that was typical of the Moore and Brosnan incarnations.  Craig has an efficiency of movement very reminiscent of early Sean Connery, and something we will see more of in his next entry.

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As for the film, Martin Campbell has performed a miracle in taking a film shorn of so many Bond tropes and yet making it feel quintessentially Bond.  As he demonstrated with GoldenEye, Campbell is a man with a feel for this world.  The smaller plot serves the film, as our focus is less on saving the world, than on seeing James Bond develop into the man we will come to know as his career develops.  Setting a reintroduction around poker (changed from baccarat in the books) serves, as with the book series, to test Bond’s nerve and character in a relatively intimate setting.  This is not the character as a major player in large-scale plot: rather, this allows us a lot of time for close-in study of the man, and the film is all the better for this.

With this story previously missing from the cinematic canon, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service took its place, spiritually, as the film that defined and explained the character: Bond gave his heart over to love (marrying Tracy), and lost that love in devastating fashion.  Hence, James Bond is a man that moves from woman to woman, never really allowing his heart to linger.  In literary canon, this is Casino Royale: Bond opens his heart for the first time, and learns there is more to life than missions that may end in killing.  When he is betrayed, his emotions close over, he eschews emotional entanglements (mostly), and re-dedicates himself to Queen and Country.

That is, in itself, the strongest argument for the reboot angle.  Yes, this could have been set in existing continuity, but it is so fundamental to the development of the man to come, that it is best set as the first – be that an origin story for the new 007-agent, or just simply the initial story in a run.  His relationship with Vesper is the most believable since Tracy, with Bond having to confront these sorts of feelings for the first time, having been raised, as an orphan, into service.  That he is ready to leave the service for her, on what is merely his first mission after gaining his licence to kill, speaks to how much this means to him.  The chemistry between Green and Craig is excellent, and bests anything seen in this series in decades: they take us with them on their journey.

Casino Royale is a magnificent entry.  On a personal note, this film sits behind only the sole Lazenby effort.  Daniel Craig had redefined what was possible with the character – certainly for the scores that had missed the Timothy Dalton films (though Craig is far more comfortable with delivering humour, of which this film has far more than with which it’s ever credited).  With box office of $599 million worldwide, this became the highest grossing film in the series, besting anything from his immediate predecessor, even when adjusting for inflation.  Excited by their new leading man, EON committed to a direct sequel for the first time (From Russia With Love fans may take issue with that statement), and a May 2008 release – a mere 18 months on from Craig’s debut.  With a writers’ strike on the horizon, however, production on the 22nd Bond entry would be severely compromised, with release delayed to the autumn.  With Martin Campbell declining to return, Kite Runner director Marc Forster would take the reins for a deeply troubled production.  Could EON hold on to the goodwill this extraordinary film had garnered?

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Quantum of Solace (2008).

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