Movie Mondays #6 – Casino Royale

As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle holybeeofephesus’s #2 pick, Casino Royale (2006).

By the time Holy Bee selected Casino Royale with the thirteenth overall pick, I had only made one pick myself and was already digging in to my backpocket for another favorite film. The 21st(!) film in the Bond series was already on my short list, so I was quite pleased to see it chosen so early for the Ultimate Playbill. While there were five total Bond films eligible for selection, including 2012’s excellent Skyfall, I’m confident the right Bond film was picked.

One thing I’ll always remember about the release of Casino Royale was the extreme build up of hype and even backlash at the casting of Daniel Craig as the next James Bond. People really didn’t know what to think of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bond taking the reigns of the then 45 year-old spy series. The rights to the original 1967 Casino Royale film were acquired by Metro Goldwyn-Mayer back in 1999, and by the time the studio was gearing up to replace Pierce Brosnan after 2002’s Die Another Day, they were ready to reboot the franchise entirely with the recently won script.

Now with Craig cast as the new lead and Martin Campbell back in the director’s chair after helming 1995’s Goldeneye, the Bond franchise was ready to venture into unexplored territory. It really was a hard reboot of the franchise, with James being introduced between cuts of him acquiring his first two kills to obtain his double-O status from Mi6. The ruthless bathroom fight scene is one of the grittiest melees in the Bond canon. Juxtaposing this scene with that of his more stealthy second kill shows us we will still be getting our fair share of old school espionage. It perfectly sums up the new era of Bond, complete with the classic down-the-barrel shot the series is known for. By the end of the introduction, we know we’re in for something totally different, but this is still a James Bond movie.

It's not a Bond film without one these.
It’s not a Bond film without one of these.

What makes Casino Royale succeed as one of the strongest Bond films are the many risks it takes. A more heightened sense of realism is one of the most noticeable changes. We don’t see James hamming it up a la Roger Moore (no “re-entry” jokes to be found here), or putting on “asianface” and rappelling into a volcano to fight a bunch of ninjas. This film takes itself much more seriously (and appropriately), though there is still great comedy to be found throughout the film. I particularly love one line spoken by M, delivered masterfully by Judi Dench. Near the beginning of the film, after discovering Bond destroys the embassy building in Madagascar, she rants on saying “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” It’s not only a fantastic bit of humor used to follow up her spiel, but it also pushes the audience to be more forward-thinking. This Bond film is in a new era, whether we like it or not.

In terms of plot, there isn’t anyone trying to build a human master-race in space or satellites with death rays. Instead, Bond picks up on the trail of a terrorist financier named Le Chiffre, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who fulfills his destiny by playing a Bond villain, and tries to bankrupt him by beating him at a high-stakes game of poker. While fighting over invisible funds isn’t quite as interesting as taking down someone with three nipples and a golden gun, there is a darker, more sinister presence growing throughout the film as Bond learns more about his enemies, and, most tragically, his lover.

eva green
Best. Bond Girl. Ever.

I have been joking with some of the other Idlers about this particular section of the write up, in that I could go on and on about my infatuation with Eva Green, but I will try to be as brief as I possibly can. Vesper Lynd is the best Bond girl in the franchise, and it’s not even close. From the moment she enters the frame, each of Eva Green’s scenes with Bond become some of the biggest highlights of the film. Their first dialogue where they meet on the train to Montenegro would have Aaron Sorkin giving a standing ovation. Their back and forth banter, sizing each other up while giving background to who they are and what they stand for, is witty, sexy, hilarious, and leaves you wanting more. The look Bond gives as she walks away is the face any guy has given who knows he’s found “the one.” Bond has met his other half, and he knows it right away.

Besides helping to further characterize Bond and bring out his vulnerable side, Vesper’s role serves a far more important purpose to the Bond franchise as a whole, and that is redefining the idea of the “Bond girl.” It’s no secret that women in the Bond movies have gotten a bad rep since the the birth of the series. Women in these films have been treated simply as another car or cool watch for Bond’s amusement, or as Vesper so eloquently puts it, “as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.”

In Casino Royale, this is not the case. Vesper becomes someone we actually care about, because as the film progresses, Bond’s infatuation with her becomes more and more clear. After preventing the Ugandan warlords in the hotel from nearly killing him and Vesper, Bond finds her in a state of shock. He comforts her by sitting down next to her fully clothed, adjusting the temperature of the water. It’s one of the most simple, touching moments in the a series severely lacking in quality scenes that effectively humanize the protagonist.

Chivalry isn’t dead as long as Bond draws breath.

It’s this scene in particular that makes the other scenes the two share near the end all the more heavy. The look on Vesper’s face when she enters the different account number to wire the game winnings, effectively stealing the money, is just brutal to see play out as she knows she will eventually lose James in the end.

While Vesper truly did love Bond, her death and actions leading up to it will ultimately transform Bond into the agent we all know him to be. It’s just fantastic characterization on behalf of writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis to not only create a fantastic origin story for one of cinema’s greatest action heroes, but to also do it in a way that vindicates women in a franchise that has grossly mistreated them historically.

So obviously Casino Royale is a very different Bond movie, but what about it still makes it part of the 007 family of films?

What about all the shiny gadgets and cars? Not a whole lot in that first department, to be honest. Q doesn’t show up to give Bond his first plaything until Skyfall, but we do get some sweet whips to ogle. In our first glimpse of Bond at the tables, he wins a gorgeous 1964 Aston Martin off of his target, while later in the film Mi6 provides him with another one, the DBS V12, a model which was built by Aston Martin specifically for the film.

Perks of the job.
Perks of the job.

While James may not have as many cool things to play with this time around, one of my personal favorite traits of Bond films are the various locales he visits, and Casino Royale certainly does not disappoint in this department. We find Bond trekking his way all across the globe, with stops in Prague, Madagascar, the Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, and Venice. Lake Como is thrown on as a cherry on top. How nice!

More job perks.
More job perks.

And of course it wouldn’t be a James Bond movie without some fantastic action set pieces of which there are a handful. The parkour chase scene in which Bond pursues a bomb maker through a construction site is still just as thrilling as the first time I saw it in theaters. The acrobatic free-running on display is by none other than one of the originators himself, Frenchman Sebastien Foucan. In 2006, free running was still extremely new, having coined the term himself in 2003, so this chase scene was many people’s first introduction to the sport, myself included. After re-watching this scene in particular and with the Olympics occurring in Rio right now, it kind of makes me wonder why parkour is not part of the Olympiad when there are plenty of questionable “sports” that aren’t nearly as athletic as free-running.

I'd much rather watch Sebastien Foucan than, say, dressage.
I’d much rather watch Sebastien Foucan than, say, dressage.

Another one of my favorites set pieces involves Bond’s car. Upon Vesper’s capture by Le Chiffre, Bond takes off in hot pursuit of him in his Aston Martin. He sees her tied up in the middle of the road and in order to prevent himself from hitting her, abruptly turns at the last second, flipping his car. This stunt was actually performed with a driver inside the vehicle and was later confirmed by Guinness to hold the world record for number of flips (seven total rotations!) made by a car while being filmed in a single shot.

Since we have the benefit of hindsight, how does Casino Royale stack up against the other Daniel Craig Bond films? Many will argue that Skyfall is Craig’s greatest performance in the role, and I can entertain that idea. Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva will likely go down as one of James’ greatest foes. Bond’s relationship with M is expanded upon brilliantly, and in more than any other film before it, explores the mystique of Bond’s parentage.

I don’t think I would offend many people when I say it’s far better than its immediate successor Quantum of Solace, an entertaining film in its own right but one that has a rather convoluted and oftentimes boring plot. Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Craig’s run of films is his last, that being Spectre.

It’s not so much that it was a bad movie as it was really just a slew of missed opportunities. The threat of Bond’s greatest villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his nefarious organization Spectre, hung over each of the films leading up the film that shares its namesake. The resurrection of Spectre was something many people were hoping would happen, and when it did, the film went out with more of a whimper than a bang. Most noticeable was the poorly written Blofeld, who I was prepared to be blown away by after learning he would be played by Christophe Waltz. After seeing Waltz play already-legendary villain Hans Landa in our other Ultimate Playbill selection Inglourious Basterds, most were ecstatic to see Waltz at the head of Spectre. After watching it though, not so much.

So does this in any way affect the great payoff of Casino Royale? Kind of, not really. I still very much enjoyed re-watching and taking it in as its own film. I’d say Spectre’s shortcomings more negatively affect Skyfall, simply due to the two films adjacency on the timeline.

Would I have enjoyed Casino Royale if Blofeld’s character had been everything I’d hoped he’d be? Yeah, probably.  But there is still so much that Casino Royale accomplishes on its own and what it does for the Bond legacy as a whole that makes it stand head and shoulders above the rest the films.