Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
CLICK HERE TO READ MY CASINO ROYALE PRE-RAMBLE
Ahh, Mister Bond, it's good to have you back! I can now safely say that I no longer regret not being alive to see the classic Connery Bonds upon their initial releases. Shaking up a proven formula for success is always a risky proposal, and thankfully Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have chosen to take the road less traveled - to eschew the Moonraker-ish excesses that play so well to audiences and return to the character's Flemingesque roots. Usually this spells box-office disappointment, but thankfully this time the world was finally ready for the real James Bond.
For a while I was actively rooting for Jason Isaacs to get the role post-Brosnan, not just because he's a good actor, but because he looks quite a bit like Hoagy Carmichael (who Bond resembles, according to Fleming in the Casino Royale novel). A few years ago, I never could have imagined the creepy, half-wit sociopath from 'Road to Perdition' inheriting the iconic tux and Walther PPK (or even a Walther P99), but boy was I thankful to be proven wrong. Unlike some of the more ardent complainers, I was sold on Daniel Craig as Bond once they aired the official announcement with a dramatic boat trip down the river Thames. The press went to town on his 'ugly' looks and blonde hair, but as long as he pulled the job off I was pleased as punch.
I was more worried about Martin Campbell taking over the directorial reigns again, as his Goldeneye is my least favorite Brozza flick. But during the media Q and A panel, he sounded like he was sincere in his wish to do the Fleming novel justice. Which is an understatement, as he did the novel and the entire Bond canon justice by delivering one of the best 007 features of all time.
The finished product takes a while to get to the meat of the novel, and repeat screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis (along with some much publicized help from Crash and Million Dollar Baby engenue Paul Haggis) wisely expanded the simple story to create the longest Bond film to date. It being a 'reboot', a lot of legwork needed to be covered, and the film begins in Prague (spy central!) with an effective black and white pre-titles sequence detailing the mission in which Bond earns his double-oh stripes. To make matters worse, he's ordered to off someone within his own branch of the British government, thereby denying him the sanity-stabilizing self-justification of killing 'one of them'. A brutal brawl within a men's bathroom plays like a down-to-earth version of a similar scene in True Lies (one of the many Bond-alikes to crop up in the spy's absence from the silver screen in the early nineties).
If Bond's lack of suavity puts off some people during that messy hit, he makes up for it during the second kill, an act which his victim attempts to describe as being easier to stomach. Bond interrupts the man's consolations with a quickly placed bullet to the head, followed by the insta-classic line "Yes, considerably". During these opening moments it's clear that the Martin Campbell directing this film is light years ahead of the same hired hand behind Goldeneye and the recent Zorro movies. The skewed overhead angles during the turncoat's elevator ride are perhaps something Sam Raimi could conjure up, but kudos to Campbell for finding his own style. The choice to open in black and white was another classy move. While not a nod to the original series (which was in color from the get go), it does seem to imply that this is taking place even before the time of those films (even though it's officially a new universe altogether), and indeed if the film was made shortly after the book was written it would have most likely been lensed in a monochromatic hue. And it does tie into the filmed source of the novel, which was originally adapted as a black and white live-for-television piece on the series Climax!
Another class act was to postpone the opening gun barrel scene until the end of the teaser, so that the first element of color we see is the traditional curtain of blood once Bond wastes his opponent. The clever use of juxtaposition from colorless to color perfectly leads into the kaleidoscopic credits segment - which I consider to be Daniel Kleinman's finest 007 titles sequence to date. Since this is a portrait of Bond in the rough, the usual bevy of semi-nude female silhouettes is forgone, replaced instead by vicious fight scenes in which the victims are represented as stacks of playing cards that fall apart once bested by Bond. Other trappings of playing card art appear (the guns fire card suits instead of bullets), as do roulette wheels and a brief glimpse of Eva Green's visage superimposed over the face of a Queen. The Chris Cornell song You Know My Name is amazing, and goes down as one of the best songs in the Bond portfolio. When he's screaming the title of the song at the end of the sequence as Daniel Craig saunters out of the shadows towards the camera with gun unholstered, I get goosebumps every single time. It's almost enough to make me forget the Madonna song from Die Another Day.
Once the goosebumps have settled the film unveils the first threads of the main story, as Bond and a colleague are tracking a bomb maker in Madagascar. Sebastian Foucan, the co-creator of the sport Parkour (who has since adopted a stricter version called simply 'Free Running') appears as the scarred terrorist Mollaka, which means one thing - an awesome chase sequence is about to ensue. Bond is a buff juggernaut in these scenes, and one is strained to imagine Pierce Brosnan essaying the same feats without eliciting laughter. The action moves from a 'snake versus weasel' pit fight into a nearby construction site, and the combatants (perhaps with Mollaka as snake and Bond as mongoose?) quickly scale girders and climb up into the vertiginous heights above.
This incarnation of Bond is an energetic beast, a brutish counterpoint to Foucan's graceful maneuvers. When a spent handgun is thrown his way, he catches it and whips it back at his prey. When Mollaka slips through a tiny opening in a wall, Bond smashes through the wall Hulk-style. He later waltzes right into a foreign embassy and snatches the bomb maker right from under the nose of an official before unleashing unholy hell on the entire facility. He is the ultimate embodiment of the man Fleming originally intended to be a 'blunt instrument' of the British government, a line which is later appropriated to sum up M's feelings towards Bond's inability to think beyond his immediate mission. At the beginning of the Madagascar mission, Bond scolds his partner and reminds him that they need Mollaka alive. However, by the end of the segment Bond has painted himself into a corner, and he allows the target to be killed when his ego can't take the thought of being bested. It's M who has to remind him later that all he stopped was one mercenary, while the shadowy organization behind the events lurks on unmolested.
What we do learn of that organization (which is clearly being set up as a less-fantastic variation on SPECTRE, a very welcome move indeed) is that one of its key players is Jesper Christensen's Mr. White, a taciturn mystery man who introduces Casino Royale's villain Le Chiffre to arms dealer Steven Obanno (Isaach De Bankole) in Uganda. Mads Mikkelsen is a fantastic Le Chiffre, and follows in the footsteps of Peter Lorre and Orson Welles, both of whom had essayed the character before. Mads looks like an older, menacing McCauley Culkin, and portrays much of his villainy through his steely glare. He's a great Bond baddie, and the screenwriters chose well in deciding to keep him a Benzedrine addict like in the novel. The character also has another remarkable physical flaw - his left eye is damaged and a deranged tear duct weeps blood occasionally (usually at an appropriate moment of heightened tension). Mikkelsen's icy demeanor is perfect for a master poker player - he even refuses to cry for mercy when gangsters are about to lop off his girlfriend's arm with a machete in one later scene.
Le Chiffre's emotionless antagonist is the perfect foil for this early, easily flustered incarnation of the Bond character. Though for all of his failings to think things through to their endgame, he proves to be an overly capable master of espionage, and manages to break into M's house in order to hack her laptop for a bit of unofficial reconnaissance. For all of the confusion it's created, I'm still glad they decided to keep Judi Dench on as M, and she actually gets to play a slightly different M than in the Brosnan films, at least in her attitude towards Bond. She can see the potential in him and is trying to lead him in the right direction, and if the series progresses nicely, their relationship could easily build into one similar to that of Bernard Lee and Sean Connery in the early 007 films, as opposed to the more abrasive parlays of Goldeneye. The scene in M's house once again reveals the style of humour to be found in the film, as M sharply cuts off Bond when he announces that he knows the 'M' nomenclature is actually an initial for her true name. Craig and Dench's chemistry is great, and when she yells "Utter one more syllable and I'll have you killed!" it's more in the style of a frustrated parent than that of someone who truly dislikes the other person.
Bond uses the information he pilfered from M's laptop to track the origin of a call retrieved from the bomb maker's cellphone. In a great return to the feel of classic Bonds, the film recycles Thunderball's locale of Nassau in the Bahamas, and Bond covertly flies there to infiltrate the Ocean Club on the aptly named Paradise Island. Though score creator David Arnold holds back full usage of the Bond theme until the end of the film, he lets the four note backing vamp of that theme to titillate the audience as Bond's plane lands, but soon shifts gears into a brassy orchestrated version of the Chris Cornell song. Our Bond being a work in progress, he initially drives a test version of the Ford Mondeo, hardly the car for an ultra-suave superspy. Indeed, once he arrives at the club he is mistaken for a valet assistant, a role Bond quickly uses to his advantage. The distraction he causes by ramming an older gentleman's Range Rover into a row of parked cars was truly hilarious, topped off by the badass Bond hurling the car keys over his shoulder nonchalantly as he strolls away from the mayhem.
The ensuing scenes are a treat for any Bond fan - there's a poker game in which Bond faces off against Simon Abkarian's unctuous Alex Dimitrious, a middleman in Le Chiffre's scheme. The game ends with 007 winning his opponent's classic 1964 Aston Martin DB5, a nice nod to the silver ride from Goldfinger and Thunderball that was once considered 'The Most Famous Car In The World'. This leads into another scene worthy of any in the classic Connery outings, in which Bond lures Dimitrious' wife Solange (Caterina Murino) into his newly acquired car for a ride over to his place, which just happens to be at the same hotel he's leaving. After spinning the car around the entrance rotary, he squeals to a stop right back where they started, the joke perfectly capped by a valet rushing to the door, welcoming him back to The Ocean Club.
Bond's attitude towards women does evolve throughout the film, and when we meet him initially he seems to take a particular delight in defiling married women only. It's an interesting move, and shows that not only does Bond not believe in love or commitment, but that he tries to shatter other couples' commitments whenever possible. Murino is a great Bond girl, and is cast as a return of the 'sacrificial lamb' character. Once Bond learns that her husband has flown to Miami on a business deal, he quickly orders caviar and wine 'for one' and ditches her to run off to America.
What follows is a tensely scripted mini-epic as Bond attempts to stop the replacement bomber from exploding a super sized aircraft at Miami International Airport. In true commitment to providing spectacle, there's a brief scene set against the BodyWorlds exhibit in which human corpses are preserved and displayed without skin in most cases. (One key display has a group of skin-free gentlemen playing a game of poker.) Craig's fit shape is necessary for the scenes at the airport, since he has to run, leap, and fly onto vehicles without a second to catch his breath. Most of the action takes place as the men battle over control of a gas tanker, and it comes off as a bit of an homage to both Raiders of the Lost Ark and License To Kill. One great visual that I had never seen before involves an incoming jet that must abandon its landing plans due to the car chase on the tarmac, and the powerful wake of its engines powering up again sends cop cars tumbling through the air like unwanted children's toys.
Amazingly, after all the trouble Bond goes through to save the day, we learn that he never completely understood why he was doing what he did - he was merely following the threads of his original target in Madagascar. Returning to the Bahamas, he is forced to face the aftermath of his actions. By destroying Le Chiffre's plan (which involved betting his investors' money in a high stakes stock market gamble that didn't receive a payoff due to the thwarting of the bombing attempt), Bond personally sealed Solange's fate. M notes his lack of compassion to her murder, and points out that his ego still remains a monster problem. She has him implanted with a tracking device and finally spills her intel regarding Le Chiffre.
The concept of what follows is the same as in the book - Le Chiffre has lost most of his investors' money (though his investors are now Ugandan warlords instead of the Russian government, and his loss is caused by the stock market as opposed to a failed brothel), but the script adds one more element that really helps the story. With Le Chiffre near bankrupt, he decides to hold a high-stakes game of Texas Hold 'Em poker at the Casino Royale in Montenegro - M, after learning of Bond's gaming skills from his peer Villiers (Tobias Menzies), opts to send him in with government funds in an effort to fully bankrupt Le Chiffre, which in the book will create a situation in which the villain's own side will have him murdered. In the film however, the idea is to break the man and bring him in alive to either pump for information or use an double agent. While Bond does know the basics of the plan, the full meaning of this last goal of the government eludes him until Le Chiffre points it out to him later.
The trip to the casino is a great scene aboard a train, a possible nod to From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me (minus fist fights), but it felt to me like it was straight out of North By Northwest, one of the templates for the Bond film series. It's here that Bond is introduced to the minder of his money, the enigmatic Vesper Lynd. Kingdom of Heaven's Eva Green is great as the bitingly cynical femme fatale, and will go down right next to On Her Majesty's Secret Service's Diana Rigg as the other most important woman in the series. Their biting repartee is full of cracking good dialogue, as the duo immediately begin verbal sparring as they try to size one another up. Vesper, it appears, is highly critical of her mission, and feels that there's a very good likelihood that the outcome will result in the British government directly financing a terrorist organization. Bond tries to allay her fears with assurances of his superhuman gambling skills, but once again his ego is recognized as a potentially fatal flaw.
The scenes in Montenegro feel as if they fell right off of the pages of the novel and onto the screen. Giancarlo Giannini (who was the best part of the otherwise dreadful Hannibal) plays Bond's contact Rene Mathis (who introduces himself using 007's traditional verbal cadence as Mathis, Rene Mathis), who brings a playful glee to the proceedings, much as Pedro Armendariz did in From Russia With Love. EON producer Michael G. Wilson (who has a habit of making Hitchcockian cameos in most of the Bond films) has a fun part as the corrupt chief of the local police, who is framed by Mathis with some clever photoshop skills that we never get to see.
The trappings of Bond's style begin emerging one by one - M has supplied him with a Walther pistol and a shiny new Aston Martin DBS (without the usual gadgets, but with a small medical center packed in a futuristic glove compartment), but it's Vesper who supplies the clothes, paired with the classic dialogue "There are dinner jackets and there are dinner jackets. That is the latter" when Bond bristles at his attire being criticized by a woman.
The ensuing casino scenes are the meat of the story, and are wonderfully executed. The game of chance in the novel was baccarat, but perhaps it was a smart, audience-friendly decision to change it to Texas Hold' Em poker, due to the latter game's current popularity both in play and on television. Several short stings of action break up the cardplay, but during the game itself the tension is palpable, heightened by the quiet and lack of an overbearing score. It's scenes like these that illustrate the allure of the Bond universe to fans, for while on one hand the air is rife with danger, sweat and anxiety, it also equally appears as a classy, graceful and highly glamorous affair.
Mathis and Vesper sit on the sidelines and add color and information to the events. We're also introduced to another element of the novel that most Bond fans never expected to encounter on film - the creation of Bond's Martini, a potable concoction he later decides to name a Vesper. The first major break in gameplay is a lead-in to Le Chiffre's encounter with Obanno and a machete-wielding thug, who have traveled to Montenegro to demand an immediate refund of their investment. Bond and Vesper are drawn into the mix, and a brutal fight in a stairwell ensues, which becomes a strong character moment when Vesper's cool demeanor is shattered when she's forced to watch Bond's animal side commit murder before her eyes.
The ensuing scene in which Bond later finds Vesper huddled fully clothed in a full-blast shower is another masterstroke. When 007 crawls in next to her and sucks the imaginary blood from her fingers, its a terribly human moment that is rarely glimpsed in a Bond film. But for all of his confidence, we learn that he's only that way when he's on top of the situation. After deciding that he's discovered Le Chiffre's 'tell' (the undeniable, unstoppable physical trait that appears when a person is bluffing), he makes a hasty move that all but destroys his mission. We then see a Bond never glimpsed in the other films - a flustered, beaten, ego-driven ball of emotion who completely loses his cool.
Many have criticized the film for a line in which Bond brushes off a bartender's query of "Shaken or stirred?" with an angry "Do I look like I give a damn?" They state that this is proof in the pudding that this rebooted Bond has destroyed the charm of the character, and turned him into an angst-ridden terminator. Of course this is myopic, not to mention remarkably stupid, as it is clearly the screenwriter's attempt to point out that the Bond we're watching has many of the same fineries as the one we're used to, but that he's still evolving into that character. The Bond of Casino Royale is not dismissing the importance of the 'shaken not stirred' trademark - he does care about it, but only when he's in control and feeling superior. We get to see Bond lose his cool, and once again not grasping the bigger picture of the drama he's wrapped up in, he decides to murder Le Chiffre and satisfy his bruised ego.
Thankfully, Felix Leiter enters the picture, played here by Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat, Lady in the Water). I've always enjoyed the Leiter character (especially in the Fleming books), and applaud his return to the series. Joe Don Baker's Jack Wade character from the Brosnan outings just wasn't cutting it for me. Now that Bond's proven his worthlessness to Vesper (who will no longer finance his losing), it's Leiter who steps in to save the day, and offers to bankroll Bond's gambit with CIA money in exchange for allowing the Americans to get all the glory in taking Le Chiffre in.
Thus the film returns to the green baize table in the Salon Privee as Bond rebuilds his fortune. This is punctuated by a very intense scene in which Bond's own martini is used in an attempt on his life. Craig is again brilliant in bringing the character down to earth - he makes the audience feel that Bond's number could truly be up even though our brains know that it can't possibly be true. The deflated look on Le Chiffre's face as the triumphant Bond returns to the poker table with the line "That last hand nearly killed me" is simply priceless.
Much like in the novel (and also similar to the structure of Tolkien's Return of the King), the story is nowhere near over by the time the villain is officially bested by our hero. Craig and Green share another nice moment in a beautifully shot, gold-drenched restaurant. It's a calm before a storm, for instead of celebrating a job well done with a night of alcohol fueled hedonism, Bond deduces that danger is still present, and races off in his Aston Martin to chase down Le Chiffre and an abducted Vesper.
Sadly, the Aston Martin is destroyed in a breathtaking crash sequence - which leads to the moment fans of the novel were all wondering about. Yes, the bottomless chair does appear, and contrary to Martin Campbell's suggestions at the early press conference, Bond's torture at the hands of Le Chiffre is graphically explored in the film. I, like plenty of Bond fans who came at the novels after enjoying the films, started reading the novels in chronological order and found myself completely thrown when this scene appeared. In the book, Bond is tied naked to a chair with no seat, and his genitals are repeatedly thrashed by Le Chiffre's carpet beater, an act that leaves the spy in the hospital for a considerable amount of time and almost robs the sex-fuelled character of his manhood. This chapter of the novel felt completely alien to the filmic Bond canon, and my first thought was "There's no way they could do this in the movies!"'
I was proven wrong. EON's dedication to the source material was confirmed by this excruciatingly intense scene, which they do manage to lighten with some gleefully dark humour. There are some changes, as the location is moved from a sunny villa to a dark, rusty derelict seagoing vessel. Also, Le Chiffre's demise no longer takes place at the hands of Russian Smersh agents, as here it is Mr. White who steps in to put an end to things.
The film continues as Bond convalesces, tries to ferret out the motives of the turncoat who burdened his success, and eventually woos the unwooable Vesper Lynd. It's here that most audiences expect the end credits to roll, but they have forgotten that this is not yet the Bond of the previous films, who always wraps things up in the arms of the beautiful woman. Casino Royale is not yet done with the molding of his character, and follows the exploits of Bond and Lynd as they fall in love and eventually travel to Venice after 007 decides to quit the employ of MI6.
Green is fantastic in these scenes, and she injects Vesper with the correct amount of subtle anguish and torn feelings. Bond never reads her emotions correctly - when Vesper fully realizes just how much he cares for her she breaks down in tears, but it's also out of regret for what she's about to do to him. When he incorrectly announces that Mathis was trying to sabotage his efforts, Bond doesn't notice the stare in her eyes that says she was the real guilty party. The script punctuates this with Bond's acknowledgement that everyone on earth has a 'tell' except for her.
Vesper is a fascinating Bond woman - she does things that are wrong, but for reasons that we all can understand. She tries to fall in love with Bond and escape her past, but cannot - likewise, he also learns that he cannot escape his ties to MI6. Realizing that the character-based events that wrap up the novel could use a little action to maintain the interests of a modern movie audience, Vesper's betrayal leads to a game of cat and mouse resulting in a blistering shootout inside an unstable Venician river house.
The Bond films are no stranger to Venice (From Russia With Love, Moonraker), but instead of romance and high-tech gondola chases we are left with betrayal and the destruction of an antique piece of architecture. Craig properly portrays Bond's fragile, torn psyche and wavers between his love for Vesper and his rage at her actions. Instead of the novel's quiet, bedroom suicide, Vesper here faces a horrific drowning death, and Bond has to deal with his impotent inability to save her. A distraught Bond frantically performing CPR on Vesper's waterlogged body is a smashingly effective counterpoint to his emotionless disinterest in Solange's death earlier in the film.
The wrap-up with M is perfect, and once again shows that the filmmakers seem to be crafting her as Bond's mentor as opposed to tormentor. The geek in me was exploding with anticipation of the novel's closing line of "The Bitch is Dead", and Casino Royale once again delivered in spades. I wasn't however expecting the adrenaline rush that follows, as Bond tracks down the man who masterminded Vesper's actions and subsequently walked away with the winnings from the casino game - Mr. White.
Most reboots and origin stories have the effective 'character reveal' relatively early on in the story (i.e. following Batman's assault on Falconi and his men in Batman Begins, or the image of Brandon Lee in full greasepaint standing at the shattered window of his abandoned apartment in The Crow), but Casino Royale does something different. As elements of the Bond character fall into place, we're teased with pieces of the iconic James Bond theme, and it does weave itself into the score when Craig first dons his tuxedo in his Montenegro hotel. However, the film saves the official introduction to the character until the very last scene, in which Bond fires a silenced round into the leg of Mr. White, who is forced to crawl across his gravel driveway to the feet of the shooter.
And then it happens - we're treated to one of the most amazing moments in cinema history as the complete James Bond is revealed, standing on a staircase with an assault rifle held aloft in one hand, dressed in the same style suit that Connery once filled in the sixties. David Arnold finally lets the classic twangy theme song rip as the aloof figure of Daniel Craig answers his victim's query as to who he is. What other answer could there be but... Bond. James Bond.