Like most origin stories, “Casino Royale” makes for great storytelling. Unlike most origin stories, however, it is executed with near perfection.
Bond. Daniel Craig.
Talk about an introduction. Steely eyed. Brawler. Cold-blooded killer. Rugged good looks. A man’s man in every sense of the word. And in case you missed the opening black-and-white sequence where we see the kills that made Bond into 007, then you surely were grabbed by the throat in the ensuing parkour-inspired foot chase. This Bond outdoes every other incarnation. If you thought Sean Connery was a tough bad-ass in the 1960s, Daniel Craig contemporizes Bond beyond my wildest expectations.
He is a bull in a china shop, with a stunning physique, roguish charm and just enough bravado to generate lethal overconfidence. His smile is irresistible. He cuts a devastatingly handsome figure in a suit and tie. And he’s damn good at what he does. It’s the little moments that really stand out as far as character go. Posing as a valet, he not only delivers a deserving smashed bumper to an arrogant tourist, but does so with the deliberate intent to draw security away from the hotel he enters. He perfectly sizes up Vesper (Eva Green) when they meet on the train, noting every little detail about her. And even though his manhood is at risk, he not only refuses to give up the account password to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), but mocks him in the middle of being tortured! He plays poker, knows his alcohol, knows his caviar, can seduce with a smile, figures out M’s password, and most of all … is a true romantic.
But this Bond is also vulnerable. He makes mistakes – BIG mistakes – driven by his own arrogance. He misreads Le Chiffre and loses a huge hand, and has to beg Vesper for more money. When have we ever seen Bond beg for anything? Yet we don’t mind because there’s a lot at stake – his ego being one. And we want him to buy back in, which is why we accept that moment. He also fails to take out his earpiece when kissing Vesper in the hallway is the giveaway that gets him into a deadly fight with Le Chiffre’s financiers.
It takes a second viewing to truly appreciate Craig’s more tender moments in the film, as he truly falls for Vesper. There is so much action and so much happening that it was easy to lose concentration in these quieter moments. This time around, I was also informed by Vesper’s ultimate betrayal, so every scene with her and Bond take on a whole new shape. Bond really falls for this woman. He wants her. He wants to be with her. He throws everything away to be with her. The desperation he has to save her at the end is astonishing and her death surprising and tragic.
Physically, he resolutely chases down the bomber long past when anyone else would have, using a bulldozer, brazenly entering an embassy, punching out an official, shooting the place up, before blowing it up. He puts every ounce of himself into stopping the airplane bombing, utterly sacrificing his body to prevent the explosion.
For all the charm, wit, grace, and general bad-assery of Connery’s Bond, the original never went as far as Craig’s Bond does. When I was growing up and watching Bond for the first time in the late 70s, I wanted to be Roger Moore. Today, I want to be Daniel Craig.
Story and Characters
This is a truly great screenplay from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis. Every little detail is presented with just enough exposition for us to understand what’s going on, with only the tiniest explanations offered when needed (non-poker players probably appreciated those explanations). Every scene logically leads to the next. Character motivations are clearly presented. The plot unfolds simply and elegantly. There are no cackling villains. It’s simply about money, terrorism, and blackmail. Oh, it’s also about love. And betrayal. And tragedy. And the odd affection between M and her new charge.
Every character is given just enough screen time for us to understand who they are and what they do, and what the stakes are for each of them. How great is it that Le Chiffre is attacked in his hotel room? When have we ever seen a Bond nemesis in that position? And that he has no problem sacrificing his girlfriend’s arm? And that she sticks by him after all that?
Every supporting character is so perfectly cast – from the airplane terrorist to Dimitrios to Le Chiffre to Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter. This is a great role for Wright. Whereas Felix was always Bond’s chummy CIA pal, ready to do anything for him, Wright plays it just as he should – with his own agenda. He’s no saint. Green may be the best actress of any Bond girl. Judi Dench delivers as always.
Someone needs to explain to me why director Martin Campbell doesn’t get more work. His filmography is not impressive, yet “GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale” are masterful. In this case, the film is very reminiscent of how John Glen directed “For Your Eyes Only.” There is not a single wasted shot. Every single shot is perfectly framed and executed. The camera is always moving, not in a distracting way, but with the energy you want in an action film. He knows when to quiet things down, too, and let the actors do their thing. Simple static shots take precedence in romance scenes and when Bond is being tortured. He obviously gets plenty of help from Director of Photography Phil Meheux, who also worked on “GoldenEye."
Another reason the film holds together so well is the editing. I haven’t spoken much about editing as it’s an art form in itself. However, the film is so perfectly paced, with every shot adding to the story, and with the geography of every action scene crystal clear. This is due to one of our greatest living editors, Stuart Baird.
I could go on and on, but instead, I’ll leave you to watch the film a second time to discover the story’s nuances, and a third time to admire all the technical aspects. This includes David Arnold’s thrilling score.
Conclusion ... and about “Quantum of Solace”
“Casino Royale” is a triumph in every way. It’s a nearly flawless film. For me, the only slip-up was a mediocre theme song. That’s it.
I rate “Casino Royale” FOUR STARS.
Now, I began this series two years ago by reviewing “Quantum of Solace.” Everyone seems to hate that film, despite my spirited defense. I won’t disagree that the editing makes an irritating jumble out of many of the action scenes. However, the film plays infinitely better if viewed right after watching “Casino Royale.” Everything Bond does in that movie makes sense. The revenge angle is palpable. The theme of trust between Bond and M is better informed. And it may also help to know that the film was shot during the writer’s strike, so it perhaps did not have as polished a script as we’d like. However, it is a solid movie and deserves a second look.
I rate “Quantum of Solace” THREE STARS.
James Bond Will Return in “SKYFALL”
I can’t wait. You’ll be reading this review about a week before I am able to see the film, which looks awesome in the trailers. After the “Skyfall” review, I’ll do a final article with the best of the films from the Dalton-Brosnan-Craig era, and that do a final “Best Of” survey of the entire series. Stay tuned!
"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"
"For Your Eyes Only"
"From Russia With Love"
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
“The Living Daylights”
“Tomorrow Never Dies”
“Quantum of Solace”
"Diamonds Are Forever"
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
"Never Say Never Again"
“Licence to Kill”
“The World is Not Enough”
“Die Another Day”
"You Only Live Twice"
"Live and Let Die"
"A View To A Kill"