Matthew Kresal looks back at a new beginning for Bond.
After 2002's Die Another Day, the forty plus year old James Bond franchise was at a crossroads. With that film having celebrated perhaps all the wrong elements of the franchises history and the world rapidly changing in the wake of 9/11, it was clear that the series couldn't continue on the path it had been on. In was in this atmosphere that a sorting of long-standing rights issues occurred which lead to the series undergoing its first serious reboot in its long history as Eon Productions turned to a new lead actor to bring to life Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel: 1953's Casino Royale. All things considered, the results were pretty remarkable.
Take Daniel Craig's debut as Bond which is nothing short of stunning. It's easy now to forget the sheer amount of naysayers who seriously wondered if this blond actor better known for his more serious roles could be an action hero. The tabloid press gave a lot of attention to these naysayers and fans who called for boycotting the film, but they were all in for a surprise. Craig brings a physical magnetism to the part of Bond that had been missing for many years, plus he is believable in all of the films action sequences. But what really sell Craig’s Bond is his acting abilities. Craig brings a very serious approach to the character. 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 about Craig as Bond, they 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 is the best Bond since Timothy Dalton left the role nearly two decades 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 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 was a welcomed relief to the stereotypically 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 role of M for a decade by this point but in this film she once again makes the part 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 films plot is an update of that 1953 novel for the age of terror. Much of Casino Royale'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, and Fleming would, I think, 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 sequence 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. They all 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 action sequences but the sequences here manage it with 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 work on Bond 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 welcome 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 the 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 titles song, You Know My Name by Chris Cornell, is a welcomed addition to the Bond theme songs and is a vast improvement over the last two or three.
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 accomplished more than that. In the process of rebooting the series, the filmmakers had possibly created the best Bond film yet and one that the entire Craig era would be judged by.
Matthew Kresal 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.