Musings on Bond at 50: Casino Royale

Posted: 31 October 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

By breaking all the established rules of the franchise Casino Royale guarantees a future for James Bond 007.

I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.

Casino RoyaleCasino Royale blows the cobwebs off the ailing James Bond franchise in a tale of love, betrayal, and morality as Ian Fleming’s legendary creation is reborn as a blunt instrument in the War on Terror. From the experimental pre-credit sequence to the final pan-up from the wounded Mr White to the gun-toting 007 the film chronicles the evolution of Bond from an neophyte agent into an experienced one forged by blood and heartbreak.

Despite being a massive financial success Die Another Day was justifiably subjected to critical mauling due to its poor script, over reliance on technology and poor CGI. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson didn’t feel engaged with any of the story ideas that were under consideration for a fifth Brosnan film and reached the decision that the series had reached a creative impasse. It was time to follow a well-worn maxim of Cubby Broccoli’s, “When in doubt go back to Fleming”. The most acclaimed films in the series are the ones that adhere to the ethos and/or story elements of Bond’s creator. The rights to Casino Royale, the very first James Bond story from 1953, had recently become available to EON Productions. Broccoli and Wilson took the monumental decision to scrap 40 years of continuity and start afresh. James Bond’s early days as 007 would be chronicled as he confronts the villainous Le Chiffre in a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale.

The series had gone back to basics with grittier and more character-based outings after the previous technological excesses of You Only Live Twice and Moonraker but rebooting completely was a massive risk. Out went gadgets, girls, Q, and Moneypenny. In was a twenty minute poker game and an emotionally vulnerable 007 who finds himself in a serious relationship. Research commissioned by MGM indicated that the proposed sweeping changes could doom the series. Perhaps the biggest risk of them all came with the decommissioning of the highly popular Pierce Brosnan. The four films featuring Brosnan’s 007 had grossed over $1 billion but with the actor approaching 50 and already established in the role retaining him would have undermined plans to show an unexperienced Bond at the beginning of his career. Many fans consider that Brosnan was sacked from the franchise he helped to save. In truth he was never signed up for a fifth film as his original contract for four films had expired with Die Another Day.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale - Bond promoThe vilification heaped upon Daniel Craig following his casting as the sixth James Bond is astonishing to anyone with regard to common decency and politeness. His height was criticised. His hair colour was criticised. His acting was criticised. Before a single second of footage had been shot Craig found himself labelled as the worst 007 ever. Entire websites were dedicated his unworthiness to follow in the illustrious footsteps of the likes of Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. EON Productions released a photo of Craig in a Bondian pose with tuxedo and silenced pistol in an attempt to silence the uninformed naysayers. The unfounded criticism likely spurred the actor on to prove his critics wrong. He quit smoking and gained 20 lbs of muscle with the assistance of a personal trainer. The last laugh belonged to Craig as he was rightly hailed as the best James Bond since Connery upon the release of Casino Royale.

The tenacity and physicality of Daniel Craig’s Bond is best summed up by the moment he crashes through the dry walling at the Madagascar construction site during his pursuit of the terrorist bomber. He is unstoppable. Once a target is in his sights he chases it down to the disregard of anything else. That is also his weakness as he provokes potentially disastrous ramifications for himself and MI6 with his narrow minded actions and disregard for consequences. A defining moment for Craig’s Bond and awareness of the bigger picture comes during his horrific torture by Le Chiffre as he realises the terrorist would indeed be welcomed with open arms by the British Secret Service even after murdering one of their agents.

No elaborate near-operatic fights in Casino Royale as Bond uses every brutal trick in his arsenal to survive confrontations with his enemies. The killing of Fisher in the toilets and the battle with the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorist in the stairwell at Casino Royale plainly demonstrate the horrific nature of Bond’s world. The unrealistic days of Roger Moore delivering a quip after a narrow escape from death are gone. Bond is a man doing a dirty job and trying not to be regretful or emotional afterwards. As performed by Daniel Craig James Bond was once again the blunt instrument wielded by a government department.

I suppose you’ve given some thought to the notion that if you lose, our government will have directly financed terrorism.

Casino Royale - Le ChiffreBesides the infusion of realism another factor in the success of Casino Royale was a return to extensive overseas location filming. A major flaw of the Pierce Brosnan era had been the excessive use of studio backlots and UK locations doubling for foreign climes to save time and money. With filming in the Bahamas, Italy, and the Czech Republic, Daniel Craig’s Bond was afforded the style of authentic backdrops not experienced since the end of the 1980s.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be bestowed upon Casino Royale is that despite all the 21st century trappings it would sit comfortably alongside the work of Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Peter Hunt in the 1960s catalogue. Martin Campbell is the only director since the three aforementioned to effectively capture the vital Fleming sweep of propelling the narrative from one chapter/scene to the next. Wooing Campbell back to the franchise after his work on GoldenEye makes him the only director to have introduced two 007s to the world. The opportunity to genuinely go back to basics and dump all the ill-judged humour was too great an opportunity for Campbell to pass up. As with Brosnan’s debut the director’s passion and energy drove the production along. The director infuses tension and horror in a way never experienced before with the cinematic Bond. For a few seconds it seems Le Chiffre’s girlfriend will indeed lose her arm to the savage contact of a machete. Not since Licence To Kill has the world of Bond been this brutal and the filmmakers need to be applauded for taking such risks.

After the scathing criticism of the excessive CGI in Die Another Day, and mindful of the acclaimed realism and grittiness of The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, the new Bond film once again featured action sequences performed for real as far as possible. From the astonishing free-running sequence filmed in the Bahamas (with stuntmen genuinely atop cranes hundreds of feet off the ground) to the battle in the collapsing Venetian house, Casino Royale employs practical stunts to a massive degree. None more so than the rolling of Bond’s Aston Martin DBS with the assistance of an air-cannon. Three Aston Martins valued at $300,000 each were wrecked during the stunt, which resulted in an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records after one car completed seven full rolls after being flipped.

The destruction of the Aston Martin directly parallels the original novel where Bond’s Bentley crashes. Not since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a film adhered so closely to the source material – though the screen writers cleverly updated some of the elements to make them more relevant for the 21st century setting. Main antagonist Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is recast as a banker for international terrorists as opposed to the Russian Secret Service but his scheme to win at Casino Royale remains the same. Baccarat is changed to the more widely known Texas hold ’em and the assassination attempt on Bond during the game now comes via poison rather than shooting. The most important plot element retained from Ian Fleming’s novel is Bond’s journey into emotional coldness courtesy of his love for Vesper Lynd and her unveiling as a traitor to the British Government.

The job’s done and the bitch is dead.

Casino Royale - Bond and VesperVesper Lynd is one of the most important characters in the Bond literary canon. Her love affair with and subsequent betrayal of 007 in Casino Royale defines his future emotional coldness. Bond’s journey is at the heart of every film and this one explains his reluctance to love. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is the one most successful of the Bond leading ladies as, in common with Tatiana Romanova and Tracy Bond (the other best female characters), she comes across as a genuine person who falls in love with 007 despite the danger and wariness. Her decision to sacrifice herself to the minions of the terrorist organisation displays proper love for Bond and even though part of the agent acknowledges the fact he knows that he can’t love again in the same way for fear of a similar betrayal.

For all its successes Casino Royale misses in some pretty important areas – most particularly the unforgivable absence of Miss Moneypenny and Q. Their non-inclusion was supposedly because of the concept of Bond being at the beginning of his career and there not being room for them. M has Villiers as her secretary throughout, so why not make the character into Moneypenny? At several points there is technical backup for Bond so why not compress that into one character and name him Q? Casino Royale misses the golden opportunity of Bond’s first flirtation with Moneypenny, his first briefing in M’s office, and his first encounter with Major Boothroyd inside London’s Q Branch. The templates for such scenes were laid on the first three Sean Connery films and never repeated so well.

Judi Dench’s continuing presence as M comes dangerously close to rendering the entire reboot concept null and void. The raison d’être of the film is the establishment of a new timeline for 007 in order to free him from the constraints of the preceding 40 years, yet here is M looking exactly as she did before. The uninformed viewer will simply assume that the Daniel Craig era is a continuation of the old era and not a new beginning. Saying that Judi Dench shouldn’t be in a film is akin to blasphemy but this is one occasion when it should have been so.

The “origin” story for the Aston Martin DB5 is quite ridiculous. The vehicle shown is a left-hand drive rather than the right-hand drive model shown in Goldfinger. Also, the Aston Martin was never Bond’s car – it was issued by Q Branch. Did the producers decide to shoehorn in one of the icons of the franchise simply to reassure cinema goers that in the absence of the famous theme tune and opening gun-barrel sequence this was still a James Bond film? How much would it cost Bond to ship the DB5 home from the Bahamas?

Whatever perceived faults there may have been Casino Royale was a huge success and is the best entry in the series since Goldfinger in 1964. Garnered with enormous critical acclaim it became the highest grossing Bond film with takings of $596.4 million. After too many years in the wilderness Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 was finally back!

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 Casino Royale
4 Licence To Kill
5 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
6 GoldenEye
7 The Living Daylights
8 The Spy Who Loved Me
9 Thunderball
10 Dr. No
11 For Your Eyes Only
12 You Only Live Twice
13 Tomorrow Never Dies
14 The World Is Not Enough
15 Die Another Day
16 Octopussy
17 Moonraker
18 Diamonds Are Forever
19 A View To A Kill
20 Live And Let Die
21 The Man with the Golden Gun

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