Tuesday 6 April 2021

Bond Begins: Looking Back at Casino Royale

As Daniel Craig nears the end of his tenure as 007 with No Time To Die, I wanted to take a look back at where his stint as Bond all began in Casino Royale – which, for my money, remains the best Bond has ever been, before or since.

Wind back the clock to 2002 and the character of James Bond is starting to look a little long in the tooth; despite being a financial success, Pierce Brosnan's fourth attempt at cracking the code, Die Another Die, has just been panned by critics for its madcap story and overuse of CGI. And just a few months earlier, Doug Liman and Matt Damon crafted a taut, tense espionage film for the new millennium in the form of The Bourne Identity

To relaunch James Bond into the 21st century, longstanding producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson turned to New Zealand filmmaker and fellow Bond vet Martin Campbell, who had already revived Bond once, albeit to a lesser degree, in 1995's Goldeneye. 

Perhaps fittingly in what is the series' 21st official entry, Casino Royale marks the moment that James Bond turns a corner and 'comes of age'. In stripping away Bond's lengthy backstory and trimming everything down to the bare bones, the series was able to get back to basics. A spy, a mission, a girl, a villain; Casino Royale was still a James Bond film through and through, only it had dispensed with all the gadgetry and guff that caused previous entries to feel bloated and silly.

Who can forget the remote-control BMW M Series from Tomorrow Never Dies, complete with roof-mounted rocket launchers? Or the invisible Aston Martin which can practically park upside-down inside an Arctic ice palace? As much as I love and cherish Pierce Brosnan's four-film tenure as 007, you have to admit that, by the time Eon had reached Die Another Day, that the series was well and truly off the rails and plunging headlong into a deep ravine.

Instead, Craig's Bond is a bare-knuckle brawler. He shoots first and quips later – if at all. He doesn't give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred. It's a refreshing take on the iconic character, after years of gradual escalation in stakes and silliness. The action here is concise and crunchy; bones break and faces become bloodied. The prologue in particular, a flashback recounted in stark black and white, sets the tone for what's to come.

That's not to say Casino Royale is entirely bereft of humour – this isn't the Bourne series, even if that's where the producers are clearly taking inspiration. There's warmth and heart for days in this film, and a lot of that comes down to how real and human the characters feel – especially Bond and Eva Green's Vesper Lynd.

Let's be honest, would Casino Royale have worked even half as well without the striking presence of Green's sultry treasurer? Intelligent, self-made, resilient and oozing with sarcastic wit, she's easily the best female character to have graced the Bond series – something which is apparent right from her very first scene with Bond aboard the high-speed train to Montenegro. 

Her icy exterior at first rebuffs Bond, cooly exchanging quick-fire quips across the dinner table – “So as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government’s money – and off your perfectly-formed arse.”

But that's not to say she’s a heartless robot – her vulnerability starts to show after aiding Bond in a brutal stairwell fistfight, and the eventual love that blossoms between them is made even more gut-wrenching when we discover she was working to undermine Bond’s mission the whole time, an emotional twist that turns Bond from a na├»ve rookie into a hardened killer. Plus, she has a pretty rocking drink named after her too.

Among a great many surprises, Casino Royale treats us to one of James Bond’s most human villains; a man who makes some poor financial choices, and compensates by putting up a stoic front to try and redeem himself.

Le Chiffre is suave, deadly, deceitful, and a master of high-stakes poker – but a critical weakness is ever-ready to gnaw away at his resolve. He’s not above sacrificing his girlfriend’s arm to African warlords, yet when deadlines close in, and debts have to be paid, he is impatient. Afraid, even. And Mads Mikkelsen hides a steely peril behind his cold, bleeding eyes. You know right away that this isn’t a man to be trifled with.

When you get down to brass tacks, Casino Royale is one of the only Bond films that strives to be an actual film first, and a quote/unquote Bond film second. Bond has an actual arc with a beginning, a middle and an end; he actually grows and changes throughout the film, unlike Bond films of yore where Bond would simply quip and grin his way through every adventure without learning a damn thing. 

Craig has starred in four, soon to be five, films as 007 – but none of them compare to Casino Royale. In terms of raw energy and aggression, the filmmakers knocked it out of the park on their first attempt. Reinvention is always a risk – particularly when you're dealing with one of cinema's most iconic characters. But with Casino Royale, they bet the house and came up trumps. 

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