Directed by Martin Campbell
November 14, 2006 (London) / November 16, 2006 (United Kingdom) / November 17, 2006 (United States)
At the beginning of his career, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is assigned to bankrupt terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a very high-stakes poker game at the titular Casino Royale. Wow…
Daniel Craig performs the part well. Casino Royale is definitely a change in direction for the Bond films as this is more of a serious spy thriller than it is a fun action film. Even under Connery, who prior to this was the most serious of the Bonds, the movies still had an element of fun in them which was made even more prominent under Roger Moore. People praised the jettisoning of the tropes of earlier Bond films. I counter that is what made fans keep coming back for nearly a half century. Only one of the cinematic superspies has had any staying power and I believe those tropes that critics disliked (but paying fans obviously liked) were the reason he 007 had so many movies sitting in the back of his Aston Martin.
I missed the fun of the character and his ancillaries. James Bond was an escapist male fantasy. He was the man every woman wanted and the man every man wanted to be. He was in charge of the situation at all times even when he wasn’t. Daniel Craig’s 007 instead is damaged even before he meets Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Since this is a reboot of the franchise there is no real explanation of this damage. It is alluded to it being because he is orphaned and implied it may have something to do with him having to kill to get the 00 status as well. Huh? Why is Bond getting a conscience over killing baddies?
I found the title song and accompanying opening meh. “You Know My Name,” composed and performed by Chris Cornell, lacked the sexy and/or action underpinnings of previous themes. The credits sequence was designed to acknowledge the 1953 first edition of Casino Royale, which is fine, but it lacks the female silhouettes that the films were famous for and instead uses the card motif via hearts to emulate the love story in the film. Admittedly this was an origin story, but we could not get something alluding to the previous sequences? Certain things set Bond apart and to remove them removes unique aspects of the film. It moves the end product towards being like so many other movies. It edges towards being generic.
A big indication of the new Bond is the scene where Le Chiffre tortures Bond to get the bank code to the accounts. Bond has been tortured in one way or another over the years, but it was always something that would not happen in the in the real world. The laser in Goldfinger is a prime example of this but here we get James Bond tied to a chair with a heavy rope smashing his crotch. Yay realism?
Gone is the world threatening supervillain with quirky henchmen. Instead they are replaced with Le Chiffre who is a banker with a largely terrorist clientele that Bond must bankrupt in a high stakes game of poker. For a series that has been action oriented for decades that is a big change. It felt like a downgrade for the character.
Gone too are the cool gadgets that Bond would be issued. No jetpack. No repelling cable in the belt buckle. No remote-controlled car. We do not even get a watch with a laser. Gone is the escapist fun that helped it to last so long. We get a medical kit in his glove box.
The action of the film was very frontloaded. Most of the excitement was in the beginning of the movie with the latter half of the film focused around the card game at the titular casino. We get a fist fight in a stairwell there but until the finale in the sinking building it is mostly just people sitting around playing cards. Bond films are generally action films, and this was another change of direction. Previously gambling played a part but here it is a focus. He would play cards to size up the villain or engage in conversation with a character but here playing poker is his mission.
This is a much more serious spy thriller than any James Bond film before. I have very mixed emotions on that. Change can be good, but I am not sure if you can sustain for another 50 years a spy film series that is as downbeat as this movie is. People can only deal with a downer for so long before they up and leave if they have the option and when it comes to movies people always have options. The more audacious aspects are what has kept the film series going for so long.
The story they present has plenty of twists and turns and a few shocking moments. It is quite possibly the most densely packed plot of any film in the series up to that point. There is a great deal going on in here. Previously the plot was straightforward and there was just enough going on that you would remain invested but not so much going on that you would lose track. One thing leads to the next and so on with a few elements moving throughout. Here there are so many little things thing meet only really at the very end.
Green and Craig play well off each other and their banter and interactions rank right up there with the finer of the 007 pairings. They are a good 007 couple, but they are not some great love story. Their romance fits better with the usual one-off trysts of old. He has feelings for her, but it is not some great romance. I just did not feel that.
Casino Royale is not a bad first outing for an actor seeking to act and not necessarily be an action star. It does lack the flourishes of the previous Bond adventures which are what made the series different from others and I dare say what has made it last for over 50 years. If you liked anything before it you will enjoy this one but may worry by the end the things you enjoyed about the older films are gone. It is an entertaining story that definitely changes the direction of the Bond series. I am not so sure it is change for the better though. This is an “if you want.”