October 14th, 2005. For the common man and woman, it was an ordinary day.
For James Bond fans, it was a huge day. An event. A milestone day in the then 43-year franchise history.
Little known actor Daniel Craig was announced as the sixth actor to play James Bond 007. After the somewhat self-indulgent and sloppy Die Another Day in 2002 that forced Pierce Brosnan to hang up his Walther PPK for the last time, the franchise needed a shake-up. A restart. A reboot.
Where best to go when you need to remind yourself, and audiences, of the core character of James Bond? The Ian Fleming novels. After a legal agreement to the rights for Casino Royale were made between Sony and MGM (swapped for the rights to Spider-Man), the green light was given for work to commence on adapting the first James Bond novel for EON Productions. Bear in mind this would be the third screen adaptation, following the often-forgotten 1954 black and white American TV feature starring Barry Nelson, and the 1967 spoof starring David Niven. But now it was time to inject Casino Royale into the official 007 EON canon, making sure this instalment was grounded, hard-hitting, and back to basics in the same guise as Batman Begins after Batman & Robin.
Casino Royale takes what we know of the Bond franchise, turns it upside down, shakes it violently, pushes it around, knees it in the face, throws it down a flight of stairs and kicks it in the head before setting it back down ready to tackle a new era of spy film and a new era of 007. It’s James Bond, but not as we know it.
Craig overcame a barrage of shameful, toxic adversity following his casting to tackle the most iconic role in cinema and biggest of his career; the debut of a new James Bond. Craig can easily be compared to the 4th 007 actor Timothy Dalton, who harnessed the Fleming-vibe of making Bond darker and more dangerous in 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s Licence To Kill. But after the wake of the loveable, family friendly Roger Moore, Dalton’s exceptional interpretation just wasn’t what the world wanted from their Bond. How times change.
With sparse CGI work and re-hashed plots, Casino Royale took things down a notch from the chaotic Die Another Day to give us more real stunt-work, more well-crafted sets and practical locations and a gritty, darker story akin to the Cold War-era of espionage Fleming wrote about in the 50s and 60s. This interpretation of 007 is more faithful in that he is more human than we have seen for decades. He feels. He bleeds. He makes mistakes and rash decisions, but these are all important to the new take on the character and his development into the secret agent we have seen come full circle in 2021’s No Time To Die. Craig’s Bond was taking a journey, and we were invited along from the beginning. It’s a wonderfully fresh prequel to an established character given to us in 1962 via Sean Connery, but at the expense of over-looking the change of actor in the title role, it’s wonderful to see. Craig makes Bond his own; any covert nods or winks to previous portrayals are immediately shot down; “Do I look like I give a damn?”. The amount of emotional and physical stress Craig puts his 007 through is remarkable to see in making this James Bond more relevant and real in the 21st century of realistic action films.
The mainstream introduction of Eva Green gave her the screen time and platform she deserved as a great actress capable of equalling her male co-stars in terms of sexuality, dominance, and assertiveness. As a modern-day Bond girl, she looks the part with a fine balance of sex appeal, self-respect and the crack of fragility that is crucial to the sub-plot between her and Bond, making her one of the most memorable and important Bond girls in the series.
Other co-stars do a sterling job with their roles, thankfully avoiding the Bond clichés of good and bad, and rather coming across as people simply trying to do their job in a dangerous world where lines are always blurred between the heroes and villains. While our main villain Le Chiffre, the wonderfully sly Mads Mikkelsen, may not be the egotistical, world dominating psychopath of the golden era of Bond films and that villainous flamboyance has gone, it’s refreshing to see a villain dressed in immaculate suits with a subtle but effective physical defect. He’s a villain who could easily hold power in everyday society playing with stocks and shares for his own evil gain. A terrorist financier, born out of the ashes of 9/11 in this modern world.
Le Chiffre’s bubbling frustration and humanity is excellent to see as he goes up against Bond in the Casino Royale poker game which offers a real sense of the Fleming novels; a confrontation based on hero and villain out-smarting and out-thinking each other without guns, bombs, or explosions – it’s all about the power of the mind and who can hold their nerve in a well-paced and engrossing middle act.
We are also given room to breathe in the action sequences and globe-trotting as a whole, thanks to the direction of Martin Campbell, who also brought us 1995’s GoldenEye, so he knows how to bring Bond back to basics for new audiences. We actually see the nerve-shredding stunt work and the brutal fight scenes with camera and editing work that doesn’t cause headaches like more recent films tend to do with “shaky cam” and “super-fast editing” that moves so fast you can’t keep up. This is a visual treat to see something made so well that we can actually feel and see happening. You can take in the passion and detail put into making it look and feel so real across sun-kissed locations such as the Bahamas and Venice that deserve their screen time as much as anything else.
What else complements a Bond film? The score. With a faithful orchestral soundtrack that blends old and new themes thanks to veteran composer David Arnold, it is a mix of fast paced thrills and bombastic brass against soft strings or gentle piano for the more sombre moments. The locations, the beautiful girls, the evil villains, the subtle technology, the action, and dry humour; it’s all here, just not layered on thick to meet your expectations. You need to pay attention and follow a carefully laid out story, as this film treats you like you’re watching Bond for the first time rather than assume you’re just going to love it no matter what with all the usual tick boxes thrown in.
EON made a very risky choice re-introducing James Bond after such a lull in 2002, and while the story is quite intense in parts and it does run long to help step up character and story, it still delivers more than you could ever wish for a relevant, exciting, and current James Bond film. Casino Royale removes minor flaws from the past and fixes them to go higher, bigger, bolder, and better than ever before.