James Bond Retrospective: Casino Royale

When we last saw James Bond, he was in a bit of a stagnation. When producers decided to reboot Bond, they decided to go back to the source material: Sir Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. Fleming wrote Bond as a blunt instrument, a device to carry out the fantasies of the reader and a tool for the British government within the story. In this episode of the James Bond retrospective we will:

  • Start from square one and examine how a film reintroduces us to a character we’ve already known for over forty years.
  • Look at Craig’s impact on the character, right from the start.
  • See the foundation for Bond as we know him today.

You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. This week it’s…

Casino Royale (2006)

If all the Bonds were food, Connery would be a nice roasted poultry with wine, Moore would be a tender lamb, and Craig would be a beefcake.

This film is very close to that source material. Most of the differences lay in the modernization, but the characterization is strong. This reboot was controversial at the time. Abandoning the legacy and continuity of such a beloved and iconic character felt like sacrilege for some, and yet…

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way:

The Plot

After losing all of the money, Vesper starts to think that maybe all of the room service calls were a bad idea.

Le Chiffre is a banker known for holding the money of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. Le Chiffre also has a nasty habit of taking his client’s money and gambling with it. After meeting with one client, he orders his stock broker to short an aerospace manufacturer known as Skyfleet, betting against the market.

James Bond has recently been promoted to the title of 007, with a license to kill. He’s on a mission to find out how a terrorist organization funds their pursuits, and winds up murdering a bomb maker in an embassy in Madagascar. Bond is immediately in trouble for doing the worst possible thing for diplomatic relations, and M scolds him. She sends Bond away, but Bond still follows the trail.

In the Bahamas, Bond locates Greek official Alex Dimitrios who is connected to the bomb maker. He takes money from Dimitrios in a game of poker, then seduces his wife. His wife reveals Dimitrios will be gone all night, as he is on his way to Miami. Bond follows him, and murders him. Dimitrios gave a bag to someone, and Bond realizes that there is a bomb that’s going to go off. Bond tails the suspect, who breaks into an airport. Bond finds the bomb and tricks the man into exploding himself instead of the newest Skyfleet plane. That bomb would’ve made millions for Le Chiffre, but instead Le Chiffre has lost it all.

M gives Bond his assignment: Le Chiffre is desperate to make money back for his clients, so he’s running a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond’s job is to bankrupt him at poker, so Le Chiffre comes running to Britain for safety, in exchange for all of his information.

On the way to Montenegro, Bond meets an MI6 treasury agent named Vesper Lynd. They don’t get along, seeing right through each other. Bond foregoes their aliases at the casino, figuring that Le Chiffre probably already knows Bond’s name and the fact that he works for MI6. They meet their contact, René Mathis, who promises to help him however he can.

The poker game starts rough at first, but Bond figures out Le Chiffre’s tell. During a break in the game, Le Chiffre is attacked by terrorists demanding their money. Bond attacks the terrorists in a stairwell in self-defense. Vesper is traumatized by the murders, and he consoles her.

Le Chiffre busts Bond in the game, fooling him with a false tell. Vesper is pissed and refuses to buy back in, but another player at the table is secretly a CIA agent named Felix Leiter. Leiter knows he’s going to lose, so he offers to buy Bond back in.

Bond starts to beat Le Chiffre, but someone had poisoned his drink. After a brief moment of cardiac arrest, Vesper resuscitates him and Bond is back to playing. The stakes raise, and the moment when everybody on the table is all-in, Bond wins the hand with a straight flush. Le Chiffre has lost.

Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper and Bond, revealing that Mathis was a plant. He tortures them for the bank account number and password. Bond won’t give it to him. A member of the secret organization breaks in and murders Le Chiffre. Strangely, they let Bond and Vesper live.

MI6 arrests Mathis, Vesper and Bond transfer the winnings over (Bond made the password “VESPER”). They fall in love. Bond promises to retire for Vesper, saying that whatever is left in him that’s not a killer, belongs to her.

Vesper leaves Bond alone one afternoon and Bond receives a call from M. The money was never deposited. Vesper lied and took the money. Bond tracks her down and catches her giving the money to henchmen. After a shootout, Vesper drowns in a collapsing building with the money nowhere to be found. M reveals after the fact that Vesper was compromised: she had a lover whom the organization threatened to murder if she didn’t work with them. She must have agreed to trade the winnings over for Bond’s life. Bond has learned a lesson not to trust anybody. M offers Bond more leave so he could mourn, but why? “The bitch is dead.”

Vesper left one breadcrumb for Bond, the man extorting her named Mr. White. Mr. White receives a phone call, he wonders who it is before he is shot in the leg. He crawls to his doorstep, looking up. For the first time in the film, the Bond theme swells up and the words “The name’s Bond, James Bond.” are uttered. Cut to black, as the theme explodes with an orchestra.

A Closer Look

I’m glad that even dark torture chambers have great atmospheric lighting with contrast. It’s important to really hammer home the pain and torment.

I think it’s important to emphasize the cultural landscape at the time of this film. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) put a pin on the campy aspects of Bond way better than Bond’s humor ever could. When Brosnan films went goofy like Die Another Day (2002), they failed miserably. This is also in contrast to a contemporary spy franchise that innovated with intense action and a grounded reality. I’m of course talking about The Bourne Identity (2002). Looking at both those films in the year 2002, it’s clear which one was decaying and which one was creating the standard for spy films going forward.

So is it fair to call Casino Royale a Bourne clone? No. I think perhaps in terms of action, but what Bourne really did was make the people involved in the Bond franchise question themselves. Casino Royale seeks to bring that grounded approach, but it also has a secret weapon to separate themselves from the competitors: Bond himself. If you look at Bourne, or another contemporary, Ethan Hunt (from the Mission Impossible franchise), those protagonists are static in heroic ways. They may have troubled backstories and difficult choices, but they’re ultimately good people that are very competent at their jobs. Bond has also been a static character, but he’s also beautifully flawed and human.

Goldeneye (1995) also sought to revitalize the character. It examined him, but it didn’t feel like grounding him. The reflection throughout was based on our idea of Bond, not the character himself. It had supporting characters question the viability of the character (and the franchise itself) in a modern world. This film instead tries not to examine character, but establish character. How?

The easiest thing to point out is actually his vulnerability. Bond was practically a superhero in some films. Capable of the most incredible stunts, never making a mistake. The dude casually goes to space stations and destroys doomsday weapons. It was always a stretch to think that Bond was never in any real danger. Here? Every single aspect of the film wants to treat Bond as expendable, sloppy, and very likely to die. In response to M, he says “As I understand, double-O’s have a very short life expectancy.” During the action scenes he makes mistakes, he lacks grace, but more importantly, he gets hurt. One action scene literally kills him for a moment, his cardiac arrest. His face suffers scars, as does his personality. M and Vesper see through his demeanor and see a fragile little boy. The torture scene (my favorite of the franchise) poses a direct threat to the one thing we associate with Bond’s image: his masculinity. As his manhood is repeatedly beaten, he doesn’t falter. Then, Le Chiffre reminds him even if he never gets the money and Bond dies broken, MI6 would still welcome him with open arms. Bond is a cog in a machine, less important than the man he’s chasing. Insignificant, yet his conviction is what’s invincible. Bond’s genitals don’t make the man, and this is the first film that proves that.

But other spies can be vulnerable, what makes Bond truly special is that personality. It’s not just chugging martinis, it’s his boldness, his instincts. What’s never been seen before is his brutality and aggressiveness. This Bond is a wild animal, barely deserving of that formal tuxedo. These are beautifully communicated in every scene, a fantastic example is the parkour chase at the start of the film. The bomb maker runs through the city and construction site with grace and agility. Bond chases him down with endurance, unrelenting and forceful. The fugitive jumps over the wall; Bond breaks through it. Bond treats killing like a nasty product of the job. He acknowledges it’s killing him inside, but it gets easier every time he does it.

How does a film with such momentum handle a card game taking up a quarter of the run time? It pits Bond as a man of instinct versus Le Chiffre, a man of numbers. Is the game all luck, or do you win from instinct? Bond follows that instinct multiple times throughout the film, even if it’s to his detriment. He has Vesper dress in a revealing dress in hopes his opponents would be distracted, but he is the one that can’t take his eyes off of her. Tension replaces action, and a real blossoming romance between Bond and Vesper is a focal point rather than an obligation because Bond has to sleep with someone.

When he’s stealthy, he’s still obnoxious. His method of breaking into a Bahamas resort security room is to be an asshole and back someone’s car into a chain of other cars, causing countless alarms as he tosses the keys away. His type of woman? Committed, so he doesn’t have to commit to them. He admits to the casino his true name for no purpose other than to admit he’s a spy. When asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred during a particularly heated moment, Bond asks, “Do I look like I give a damn?” The film is willing to abandon tradition for the sake of the scene and the character.

This film utilizes a lot of what we know of Bond, but it completely abandoned all the baggage. The film is a character study, a departure from the formula because the formula stopped working. The most beautiful part about this character study is that he FAILS. The mission is a bust. Le Chiffre dies, the bad guys walk away with the money, Bond has been duped by the love of his life who is now dead. The one silver lining is that Bond has learned his lesson and has become more than his own flaws. If the price of saving the world is losing yourself, you just watched a man pay that price for the rest of the franchise.

What’s Good?

You say luck isn’t a thing in Poker, but it’s really easy to say that when you just get royalty and aces or every hand you get ends in a flush or straight. Or both. I don’t know, maybe I’m just an amateur.

Daniel Craig knocks it out of the park. Every actor in this film is amazing, but Craig deserves all the credit he can get for showing every possible aspect of Bond. He does the standard smiles and one-liners, but also shows a vulnerable side at multiple points. I’d recommend watching his scenes with Vesper, and watching his torture sequence to see a showcase of Craig’s vulnerability. His edge? His brutality? Why, that speaks for itself.

He was also a controversial casting option back in the day. Now, we discuss all sorts of possibilities for Bond, but when he was cast the idea of Bond was very set in stone. Blonde hair? Blue eyes? Unthinkable. If Craig was a mediocre Bond, and this were a mediocre film, Bond would still very much have that Brosnan image and Craig would be a pariah. There would be a universal scorn for the idea that Bond is fluid in his image, not just a small voice of die-hard fans yearning for tradition. We’ll discuss Bond’s casting in the modern era another time, however. What’s important is Craig broke expectations so well here that the sky became the limit for the character. After over forty years otherwise, that’s worth heavy praise.

Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright (for Felix Leiter, of all characters), and Judi Dench are all fully realized in their roles. Green in particular has a remarkable chemistry with Craig, and yet also has a delicate performance consistently but subtly hinting at her true nature. Her betrayal is foreshadowed with tact, never a heavy wink. Her terror at seeing the life of an assassin is realistic, and met with no reverence or honor. She is scared at what the murders do to Bond, and it touches him. They challenge each other in beautiful ways and Green makes it amazing every step of the way. One of the best Bond girls, if not the best.

Mads Mikkelsen made a name for himself as well after this film as particularly sinister. The crying of blood is certainly ominous and a gimmick fit for a Bond villain, but his role as a banker with very little physicality or grand schemes is new for the franchise. He huffs his inhaler more than he cries blood, and I think that’s telling of how Mikkelsen is able to ride the line between weak and still empowered.

Dench’s M has taken a full maternal role. M doesn’t oppose Bond as much, she’s annoyed by him, but ultimately wants him to grow. Bond routinely calls her mum and even says “I love you too, M” to himself. This feels like a different M than Dench’s Brosnan outings, I understand why they kept her, however. This M mentions the Cold War as if that was her prime. She’s the relic of the Cold War now, and also has a deeper respect for field agents. Her delivery is still cold and decisive, I couldn’t imagine a better M for how she is characterized. Dench’s M enters a renaissance here, and it will hit its peak with Skyfall (2012).

The theme song is also really great. It’s by the late Chris Cornell, and the lyrics of it remind you just how expendable Bond is. It emphasizes Bond’s identity, and the danger of his job. Better men before Bond have died in service of Queen and country, Bond is just next in line. The visuals are also colorful and unique to the film. The card look emphasizes the game aspect to the film, and an ominous feeling that perhaps the cards of fate aren’t on Bond’s side.

What’s Bad?

At first I was gonna say the corpse in the middle of public in Miami was unrealistic, but then I remembered my visits to Miami…

It’s in the details. If you’re a person that thinks too hard about films, you’re going to be concerned with the film. I don’t normally do this, because if you dissect any of these Bond films you’re going to find holes like these, but there’s not a lot of bad here. Might as well.

The big thing that you’ll notice if you’re one for details is the extreme luck Bond has in cards, and how simple the game of poker we see actually is. Is Texas Hold-Em the most popular card game in Montenegro, or is it just the easiest for a global audience to understand? Bond and Le Chiffre always have amazing hands, where tension isn’t really based on understanding their natures. The film props Le Chiffre as a man that knows probability, and Bond as a man that knows people, but the cards never show any such subtlety beyond the first time Bond figures out his tell.

The second thing you’ll notice is that the passage of time feels awfully strange. Dimitrios leaves on the “last flight” to Miami from the Bahamas, how does Bond catch up with him? The structure of the game at the Casino Royale also feels weird. There’s a lot of time in between the hands and stakes, and only a few hands actually played. I can appreciate how much of a blockbuster film’s run time is actually dedicated to a card game, but the pacing in that span feels poorly made.

Example: so in the first rounds of the game there is a one-hour recess. That recess is when Le Chiffre is threatened by terrorists and Bond has to murder them. Vesper and Bond have to have their heart-to-heart about murder and take a shower and then it cuts to Bond at the poker table because it was just a recess. No hand is played, Le Chiffre and Bond just share a back and forth. Then we go to the morning. Why did we have a recess? Couldn’t the game have just ended before? What would we have lost?

It’s that sort of thing that might confuse a first-time viewer. It’s not smooth in transitioning. Otherwise, I’d say the film is still amazing at pretty much everything else it does. No other complaints.

Looking Forward

Your hostage can’t be a hostage AND a human shield, Bond. Make up your mind.

The Bond franchise as we know it today is all about continuity. The next film, Quantum of Solace (2008), takes place immediately following the events of this film. It also finally tries to acknowledge the legacy it just threw out. The following Craig movies are mixes of homages and explorations of the character that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

The problem? It’s a movie that was rushed due to production troubles. It came out at a very peculiar time and as a result the final product is questionable if not admirable. If this film was Bond becoming Bond, Quantum might be the only Daniel Craig Bond film to be a Bond adventure as we typically knew of them.

What I Drank

Bond disguises his finger sucking fetish as comforting trauma. That damn user.

In the novel, and indeed in the film, Bond has a signature martini that he drinks. It’s not a normal vodka martini, it’s actually a unique cocktail. Here is the recipe: 3 ounces of Gordon’s Gin, 1 ounce of Vodka, 1/2 of Lillet Blanc, and garnish with a lemon peel.

Bond is unsure what to name it, but by the end of it all we come to know this drink as the Vesper Martini. History is made. It’s strong.

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