So, full disclosure: I never liked the idea of a reboot of the Bond franchise. Yes, Die Another Day was a disaster, but I felt it wrong to write off the past twenty films because of one horrible entry. It seemed like a simplistic ploy to “reinvigorate” the franchise and get people excited for Bond again. Having said that, Casino Royale is one of the best films of the franchise and in lesser hands it could have been a mess, but bringing back Martin Campbell after GoldenEye was a genius move. His stylish, and grounded, direction does reinvigorate the character, and, even though I feel they abandoned the idea of the reboot rather quickly in subsequent entries, as a stand-alone film, Casino Royale is quite masterful.
I remember seeing this in the theatre, and trying to keep an open mind, but was still miffed that MY Bond was being done away with and some poseur was taking his place. I was pretty won over by the end of the opening credits. The opening in black and white is a great throwback to espionage films of the 60s like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the fight sequence had a visceral, brutal quality to it. I wasn’t so much a fan of the grainier cinematography of the bathroom brawl, but I’ve always favored hand to hand combat to excessive gunplay. Any lingering doubts were gone after the title sequence. Not only did it manage to deliver a great theme tune by Chris Cornell in the vein of the late 80s themes that had always been my favorite, it was a musical reassurance that this was Bond. The animated title sequence was a loving homage to Dr. No’s title sequence and even managed to incorporate a failed idea from DAD: plot elements that propel the story forward, in this case, Bond’s designation as 007.
I will say that four films in, Daniel Craig still does not FEEL like Bond to me. This could be due to the fact that his era of films did such a great job at setting up that he was NOT the Bond we had watched for the past forty years, but the man who grew into that Bond. I’ll touch on this in his later films. Here however, Craig absolutely shines in the role. He has that twinkle that reminds me of early Connery, where he can be deadly serious but also disarmingly charming. The only real scene where I didn’t buy his performance was the torture scene. It seemed too out of character in the midst of that sequence to make a joke about Le Chiffre scratching his balls, and more likely an addition to the script to lighten the mood of the scene.
Craig also has crackling chemistry with Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. I wish I had not read the novel in this case because unfortunately you know the twist that is coming even if the film tried hard to point you in a different direction. But even if you don’t get the gut punch of her betrayal, the relationship that has built up between the two is still strong enough that you’re hoping perhaps this story will take a different track rather than towards the inevitable conclusion. His comforting her in the shower, her saving him from poisoning and the consummation of their relationship during his recovery all work because of how well these actors play off one another. From their antagonistic yet flirty introduction all the way to him being forced to watch her sacrifice herself to save him. The elimination of Tracy Bond from his timeline had been one of the biggest contentions I had with a reboot but this relationship serves as a great successor as the pain that drives him forward in the franchise.
The rest of the supporting cast is quite excellent as well. Dame Judi Dench is still a delight as M, the only holdover from the previous timeline. Here, her character is portrayed differently from the Brosnan era, but it works in the context of a younger, inexperienced Bond. Now she is the hardened veteran versus the bureaucrat from the earlier films. My only contention is that Bond should be even less likely to push her in ways he never did his male superiors. He breaks into her home and uses her credentials to sift through intelligence. It just seems out of place and more as if the writers want them to be on equal footing rather than with a clear chain of command.
Giancarlo Gianni is a delight as Mathis, a character from the novels making his film debut. With a Bond early in his career, it was nice to see a older mentor watching Bond’s back on this mission. He also plays the role with an affability that’s impossible not to like. Jeffrey Wright also makes his debut as Felix Leiter, the first we have seen him since Licence to Kill. Leiter makes a welcome return to the franchise and I wish more time had been spent building that relationship. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen is sufficiently menacing as Le Chiffre. He isn’t given much to do given how the plot shakes out, but Mikkelsen gives a strong performance that makes him memorable and whose influence will be felt going forward.
The music is fantastic and the action sequences such as the parkour chase and stairwell fight are beautifully choreographed and shot. There’s not too much cutting so you can actually see what is going on and have a sense of space. The image of Craig’s Bond as a blunt instrument can best be summed up in the former when he literally bursts through a wall during the chase after his quarry deftly slides through a narrow window. The end sequence with the sinking villa in Venice was also excellent. An interesting location for the final action sequence, it was a reminder that smaller set pieces can still carry the requisite tension and captivate the audience versus Bond just mowing down dozens of lackeys with automatic weapons.
I’m going to give Casino Royale an 8/10. It was a bold move to do a reboot and I’m glad that the writers, director and actors gave it their all rather than just relying on a cheap gimmick to drum up interest in the franchise. Craig proves himself more than capable to lead Bond into this new era and with the film ending on the promise that he is not finished with Mr. White’s organization, we get a serialized storyline that up until this point had been exceedingly rare in the franchise. Sadly, the promise didn’t seem to be held up very well in the succeeding films, but you can’t fault this film for their failings.
1) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
2) From Russia with Love
3) Casino Royale
5) For Your Eyes Only
6) The Living Daylights
7) The Spy Who Loved Me
10) Dr. No
11) Licence to Kill
13) Live and Let Die
14) Tomorrow Never Dies
15) You Only Live Twice
16) The World is Not Enough
17) The Man with the Golden Gun
18) A View to a Kill
20) Diamonds are Forever
21) Die Another Day