James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns his double O status with two kills and M (Judi Dench), believing he is not ready, reluctantly sends him on a mission. In Madagascar, he trails a suspected terrorist. But their cover is soon blown and the bomber runs, causing Bond to chase him through a construction sight. Eventually, Bond secures the bomber’s cell phone and finds a cryptic text message. ELLIPSIS. The same phone leads him to the Bahamas and puts him on the trail of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier for terrorists. After Bond thwarts one of his plans, and Le Chiffre loses a lot of money belonging to a lot of dangerous men, the villain sets up a high stakes poker game at Casino Royal in Montenegro. The buy in is $10 million with an additional buy in of $5 million; there is a potential $150 million to be won. If Le Chiffre wins, he saves himself and continues to operate. M sends Bond to play; he must win and bankrupt the villain. A treasury official, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers”) tags along, to keep an eye on the money. Before long, the game comes down to a match between Le Chiffre and Bond, winner take all. Along the way, Bond falls in love with Vesper and they soon share a holiday in Venice. But neither can get away from trouble for long.
“Casino Royale”, directed by Martin Campbell (“GoldenEye”) and written by, among others, Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby”, “Crash”), marks a remarkable return to form for the venerable franchise. But as I stated to my companion, all three of the former major Bonds had their memorable turns as the deadly secret service agent. With the exception of Sean Connery, these films were usually followed by a series of forgettable entries. “Moonraker” anyone?
“Casino Royale”, based on the first book written by Ian Fleming, has inspired the filmmakers to return to the secret agent’s roots. The famous pre credits sequence features a brutal fight between Bond and his first kill, the first kill qualifying him for double o status. Throughout, there are references to how he is not ready for the assignment, how unrefined he is, how egotistical. And Craig fits this bill perfectly. He isn’t the suave man of the world we are used to in this role, but we see how he may grow into the character. One can almost imagine Craig becoming more refined, more charming and more suave, becoming Sean Connery. Craig is very good as Bond, bringing a raw physicality to the role matching his so called ‘raw nature’.
There are some terrific action sequences, most of which are in the first hour or so of the film. As Bond chases the suspected terrorist through Madagascar, they quickly invade a construction sight and Bond’s quarry keeps him on his toes. If you have seen some recent martial arts films or the recent “District B13”, a French film produced by Luc Besson, you will recognize the technique used by the suspected terrorist. It is called “free running”; basically, the character ricochets down walls, elevator shafts, hoping back and forth, using railings, walls, etc., barely making contact before bouncing off again. It is a unique and interesting addition to the film, as it creates a sense of free flowing movement. This stuntman is actually doing this stuff and he appears to be doing it very fast. It is all the more unusual because Bond isn’t doing it, relying on pure luck to keep up with the fast guy. Eventually, they end up grappling high above the ground on a tall crane. Because this style is used sparingly, confined to one sequence, the scene seems unusual and interesting, providing a more unusual moment. When an entire film is filled with this, it just seems a bit silly. Campbell was right to confine this to one scene.
As Bond follows the leads, he romances women, visits exotic locales and the filmmakers have some fun with the origins of the legend. For instance, in the Bahamas, Bond enters a poker game with one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen, Alex Dimitrios. Soon, Dimitrios puts his 1964 Aston Martin into the pot. I don’t think I need to tell you what happens to the car. There is also an amusing reference to Bond’s signature drink.
Soon, Bond is on his way to Montenegro and meets Vesper Lynd. Craig and Green seem to have a lot of fun verbally sparring with one another. And Green shows some Bond girls can hold their own against the formidable secret agent. Upon their arrival, Lynd fines an evening gown provided by Bond. Then, he finds a tuxedo provided by Lynd, each thinking they have one-upped the other. This is followed by some verbal sparring which provides an amusing look at their new, growing relationship. Convincingly, they also let romance bloom. And, of course, their romance makes them more vulnerable to others.
Once they reach Casino Royale, the story becomes more relationship driven. We see a romance develop between Bond and Vesper. We watch the interplay between Bond and Le Chiffre. We watch the British agents work with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) and we meet Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), another participant in the high stakes game, who, late in the film, reveals to Bond he works for the CIA. I get the sense both Giannini and Wright will make further appearances in the next few films. Leiter is a recurring character throughout the books and Mathis is set-up to make a return appearance.
But the real game is between Bond and Le Chiffre. Mads Mikkelsen is almost great as the villain, because he builds his menacing persona with quiet stares (using a scarred eye) and a level tone. This is not the villain of yesterday, no more Blofeld with his diabolical plots to contaminate the gold in Fort Knox, no more Drax and his plan to build a colony of perfect people in outer space, while he destroys all plant and animal life on Earth and no more Stromberg and his plan to build a colony of perfect people under water, while he destroys the rest of the Earth. Le Chiffre makes money by providing banking services for terrorists and rebels. Without him, their money will be more restricted, causing them problems. And Le Chiffre recognizes the dangerous sort of person he is dealing with, which is why he sets up the game in the first place. He needs to restore the $101 million of his client’s money he lost. When things don’t go exactly as planned, he becomes even more determined to keep his clients happy and things take an unpleasant turn for Bond. This leads to a slightly surprising scene in a Bond film, surprising because it is more in line with the overall tone of the film.
Some people may be a little put off by the last hour, as it is very relationship heavy, but this made the film all the better for me. How refreshing to see such a thing in a James Bond film. In recent entries, the relationships have been relegated to the villain and their connection to the story, with a woman along for the ride. The one exception to this would be Michelle Yeoh in “Tomorrow Never Dies”, who proved to be the equal of Bond. In “Casino Royale”, we learn about Bond’s induction into this line of work, some of his relationship with his boss, M, and a relationship that will prove very significant in his life. The only more significant relationship depicted in the films has been his relationship with his wife, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and that doesn’t last long.
“Casino” Royale” is a very good, almost great entry in the series. But it is too long. Most Bond films are over two hours; too much story to go with the requisite action scenes for the films to be short. And at almost 2 and a half hours, “Casino Royale” contains the requisite story and action scenes, but it feels long. I think this is because the action scenes are almost entirely in the first hour. Campbell tries to interject some action throughout; after the first session of the poker game, there is a well staged fight in the stairwell of the hotel and at one point, Bond has another kind of fight for his life. But these are brief moments. When you compare them to the two action sequences earlier in the film, they appear all the more brief.
“Casino Royale” is the first Bond book written by Fleming, but this is not the first time it was filmed. In the late 60s, a big budget, big star filled comedy using the same title, was made. Well, it is a disaster. Many directors were brought in to try to save the project, and keep the budget under control. That didn’t happen. In the end, each director is credited with a specific part of the film. John Huston, one of the directors, makes a cameo as the head of the British Secret Service. They soon meet Sir James Bond (David Niven). Later, James Bond (Peter Sellers) and little Jamie Bond (Woody Allen) make appearances; it seems the British Secret Service wants to keep the name alive, so they licensed not only the double o status, but the name as well, when the original Bond (Niven) decided he was going to retire. William Holden, Sophia Loren, Orson Welles and more have cameos. Yes, the film is as big a mess as it sounds.
“Casino Royale” is certainly the best Bond film since “For Your Eyes Only” and maybe even earlier. I only hope the filmmakers will continue to use Craig’s abilities in the best way to enhance the character and the franchise for future Bond films.