Matthew Kresal revisits a new beginning for the Bond franchise.
It took fifty-three for Casino Royale to make its way to the big screen from Eon. Ian Fleming's first Bond novel had proved elusive for them despite having been been adapted for the screen twice already. With Pierce Brosnan having exited the role and Quinton Tarintino having attempted to gain the rights to doing it, Daniel Craig's first Bond outing had even more significance attached to it. It's something that makes the results even more remarkable.
Indeed, Daniel Craig's debut as Bond is nothing short of stunning. Many wondered if this blond actor better known for his more serious roles could be an action hero, with the tabloid press giving a lot of attention to the naysayers and fans who called for boycotting the film. The naysayers though were in for a surprise. Craig brings a physical magnetism to the part of Bond, something missing for many years, plus he is believable in all of the films action sequences. But what really sells Craig’s Bond is his acting abilities. He brings a very serious approach to Bond. He is everything Bond should be: cold, ruthless, and capable of being a human being. And when it comes to humor, which a lot of fans were worried about, Craig is just as adept. Any doubts anyone had about Craig as Bond should be taken away at the very end of the film where he gets to say "The name's Bond, James Bond" for the first time. Craig’s performance here is the best Bond performance since Timothy Dalton left the role nearly twenty years earlier.
Then there's Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, a Treasury representative sent with Bond on his first major mission as a 00 agent. Green brings a considerable amount of acting ability to this role and she is far from your average Bond girl. While beautiful and truly stunning physically, Green is an actress first and foremost, and she gets to prove it more than really any other Bond girl. It's a rare chance for a leading lady in a Bond film to not only develop chemistry with the actor playing Bond but for there to be a real romance between the two. Green's Vesper is a welcome relief from the stereotypical cardboard Bond girls seen in both of the previous films.
Mads Mikkelsen, then a relatively unknown Dannish actor who was to make a bigger splash in NBC's Hannibal, makes an impressive Le Chiffre. Bond villains generally lack either believability or acting ability, especially all too apparent in Die Another Day. But here we get arguably the most realistic villain of the series to date. Le Chiffre is a villain: he is after all the man who serves as financier to the world's terrorists. Yet there is a surprising amount of humanity in him. His deformed eye that weeps tears of blood and his sense of both menace and humor make him the most three-dimensional Bond villain, and even at times sympathetic.
The supporting cast is also great. Judi Dench returns as M, the head of MI6. Her scenes with Craig have a sense of menace to them that surpasses similar scenes with Pierce Brosnan in both The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. Dench had more or less inhabited the part of M for a decade by this point, but in this film she once again makes the role her own. Jeffrey Wright makes a brief, but welcome, appearance as CIA agent Felix Lieter, a character missing since Dalton’s era. Caterina Murno seems to be little more than window dressing as Solange, a girlfriend of one of the villains, but she leaves one wishing we'd seen more of her in this film.
The script is also perhaps the best to be written for a Bond film. Based on the novel by Fleming, the movie's plot is an update of the that 1953 novel for the age of terror. Much of the film's first hour or so is new material, filling in some of the background and giving Bond a stronger tie-in with Le Chiffre's needing to be at the casino, but once Bond arrives at the casino it remains faithful to the basic plot of Fleming's novel. The result is perhaps a lower key Bond film in comparison with, say, Die Another Day, but the more realistic plot and the lack of gadgets doesn't hurt the film at all. The love story, the first in a long while, is a nice addition. The lines are well written and time is taken to actually develop the plot to its fullest. I think Fleming would be proud of this third adaptation of his novel.
The action sequences of this film are stunning. From the gritty black and white fight in the opening, to the running sequence in Madagascar, to the attempted bombing of Miami international airport, to the stairwell fight and the gunfight in the falling house in Venice at the end. All the action sequences have a sense of realism missing from the series for a long time. They are not just exciting and well shot but also give Bond's character a sense of tough vulnerability as he bleeds and gets injured. Rarely has an action film managed to work character development into its action sequences so well, but here it is manged with what almost seems to be no effort at all.
There's also strong work behind the camera as well. Martin Campbell, who directed Brosnan's debut in Goldeneye, does another stunning job in this film. Working with cinematographer Phil Meheux (who also did Goldeneye, and cameos in the film as a Treasury official in M's office) and Editor Stuart Baird, Campbell created a visual style that brings a new sense of style to the series. From the excellently done black and white teaser detailing how Bond got his 00 number, to the shaky hand held sequence during which Bond is poisoned, and the darkness and shadows in the brilliantly done torture sequence, there is a sense of realism. The sets and costumes also help thanks to production designer Peter Lamont and costume designer Lindy Hemming.
The music score by David Arnold is the icing on the cake. No longer having to adhere to the typical Bond score, Arnold creates his best Bond work to date, surpassing even his work on Tomorrow Never Dies. The score uses the Bond theme sparingly, working instead with variations and new themes that build to it. As a result, when the iconic James Bond Theme comes back in full force at the end you welcoming it back (indeed I remember it getting a round of applause when I first saw the film in a cinema back in 2006). The score also makes good use of a new love theme and sparingly uses electronics, that had hampered the previous Arnold score in Die Another Day and The World Is Not Enough, to a lesser extent. The opening title song song, You Know My Name by Chris Cornell, is a welcome addition to the Bond theme songs. and is a vast improvement over the last two or three previous offerings.
With strong performances from the entire cast, one of the best scripts for any Bond film, strong direction from Martin Campbell, terrific cinematography and a great score by David Arnold, Casino Royale delivers. This film was meant as a Bond reboot, and it has more than done that. But in the process of rebooting the series the filmmakers possibly delivered what was the best Bond movie to date, and a film which the entire Craig era would be judged by.
Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.