When Daniel Craig made his debut as James Bond with Casino Royale in 2006, it was about more than just a new actor taking over an iconic role.
It was a significant reboot (for the better) of a franchise that for too long had been running on fumes.
Casino Royale was distinctive for what it lacked.
No cheesy puns.
No Q with an arsenal of high-tech toys.
No queue of pliant young women eager to fall into our hero’s arms.
In compensation we got something 007 movies hadn’t delivered for nearly 40 years: a sense of discovery.
The film finds us at the start of 007’s career, giving us a Bond who’s feeling his way, who’s learning to deal with a secret agent’s life of betrayal and solitude, who hasn’t yet developed his ultra-cool persona.
A Bond who, in the words of the dour M (Judi Dench), is a "blunt instrument," too crude for her refined tastes but undeniably effective.
The franchise’s change in direction was immediately obvious. Bond movies have often looked like studio-produced travelogues – overlit, studiedly lush, smugly slick (in keeping with the late producer Cubby Broccoli’s mandate to spend lots of money and make sure it’s all visible on screen).
Casino Royale, on the other hand, had a sweaty, lived-in feel. It was crawling with atmosphere. The black-and-white opening sequence in which Bond eliminates a traitor has the dark shadows and grittiness of classic film noir, and a couple of scenes set in Africa are thick with dust, mud, and humidity.
Instead of the silhouetted naked girls that usually dominate the title sequence of Bond films, this one begins with a stylized spy who is shooting, running, and suavely posing against a background of pop-artish animation based on playing cards. His victims bleed streams of bright red hearts and diamonds.
Plotting has never been the strong suit of the Bond franchise, and Casino Royale is no exception. The basic narrative has Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen), a private banker to the world’s terrorist organizations, squandering his clients’ money and trying to save his neck by earning it all back in a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale.
Bond, armed with a fat stake courtesy of the British treasury, is assigned to take on Le Chiffre at the table, clean him out, and then turn him into an informant.
In Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel the game was baccarat. But transforming the game into no-limit Texas Hold ’Em is a brilliantly effective ploy, given our current fascination with that game. After all, at any hour at least one cable channel is airing a poker championship.
Around this central plot are the requisite chases, explosions, shootouts, and mano-a-mano encounters, including a gut-knotting torture sequence with Bond on the receiving end (if you’ve read the book, you know what’s coming).
All of this has been well choreographed and executed without, apparently, the usual reliance on CG augmentation.
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And there’s a solid supporting cast including Giancarlo Giannini, and especially Jeffrey Wright (actually the second African-American to play CIA agent Felix Leiter; Bernie Casey played him in Never Say Never Again).
But like all Bond films, this one is too long, too convoluted, and too loaded with unnecessary plot tangents. Also, it has more false endings than Return of the King.
What sticks in the mind, though, is not the spectacle or the mayhem but rather Craig’s superb performance and some wonderful writing (from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis). Casino Royale is the first Bond film to qualify as a character study.
Take, for example, the first-rate dialogue between Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynde, the beautiful but vulnerable and rather uptight accountant who’s been sent along to keep track of Her Majesty’s money.
In a great sequence in a train’s dining car, the two ... ahem ... feel each other out, trying to deduce the other’s past by analyzing the "tells" each presents to the world.
Their banter, with its underlying current of disapproval (he doesn’t want a handler, especially a woman; she thinks he’s an egotistic loose cannon) tells us oodles about both characters. And though they never touch, the scene is sexier than anything the Bond movies have yet given us. Up to now, sex with James Bond has been less about eroticism than athletic dominance.
She: "You like married women, don’t you?"
He: "It keeps it simple."
But the glue that holds all this together is Craig, who gives us the most complex Bond ever. He’s got the physique and squashed nose of a street brawler, and viewed from certain angles he looks brutish. His blue eyes burn with an intensity not yet cooled by a more experienced man’s sardonicism.
Then again, we can watch him grow, as when he dons a tailored tux for the first time and examines himself in the mirror, clearly impressed at how nicely he cleans up.
Behind it all you can see the character’s unspoken thoughts and feelings.
After watching Casino Royale we could only be excited at the prospect of watching Craig’s Bond mature and change over the course of several films. Should the owners of the franchise ever recognize that in many ways 007 is a semi-tragic character, they’ve found the actor who can fearlessly push the part to the very edge.
Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- November 3: Casino Royale (2006) Rated PG-13
- November 10: Road to Perdition (2002) Rated R
- November 17: Layer Cake (2004) Rated R
- November 24: Munich (2005) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- November 5: Quantum of Solace (2008) Rated PG-13
- November 12: Sylvia (2003) Rated R
- November 19: Infamous (2006) Rated R
- November 26: Defiance (2008) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.