Today marks the 10th anniversary of Casino Royale. To celebrate, Jake Tropila takes a look back at the film’s release and examines how the character of James Bond has changed.
Following the release of Die Another Day in November 2002, the James Bond franchise found itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, the film stood as a rousing commercial success, having grossed over $400 million worldwide (skyrocketing to the position of highest grossing Bond film ever, pre-adjusted for inflation) and earned a sufficient amount of critical praise, faring better than Pierce Brosnan’s previous two efforts, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough. On the other hand, Bond appeared to be artistically bankrupt. Invisible cars, CGI-enhanced glacier kite-surfing, henchmen with diamonds encrusted into their mugs, Halle Berry spouting “yo momma” jokes, an ice palace, Madonna as a fencing instructor, and a central plot that concerns a five-foot tall Korean soldier masquerading as a six-foot tall playboy billionaire? Egad, it simply just wasn’t Bond!
Alas, many fans now consider Die Another Day to be the nadir of the James Bond Cinematic Universe (JBCU?). I wouldn’t go that far, not when films like The Man with the Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies, and Quantum of Solace are around to rear their ugly heads. But much of Die Another Day is undoubtedly problematic, and it was apparent that Bond’s creative batteries needed some re-charging before he could ever be taken seriously again. By the end of Die Another Day’s run, it was safe to say that James Bond had officially “jumped the shark.”
Historically, James Bond has actually “jumped the shark” twice before, and needed to take the next film to recover. The first time, the series bloated to excess in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, which featured Sean Connery portraying James Bond as he faked his own death, traveled to Japan, underwent a cosmetic procedure to turn himself Japanese, and fought alongside an army of ninjas against SPECTRE in an underground volcanic lair.
After this installment, Connery (briefly) jettisoned the franchise, and the producers rebounded with the much more realistic and exquisitely crafted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a film now highly regarded as one of the finest entries in the entire canon (along with being this writer’s personal favorite).
The second time Bond nearly spiraled out of control was in 1979’s Moonraker. Starring Roger Moore, Moonraker sent Bond on a mission that was literally out of this world, finding the secret agent traveling to outer space in an attempt to beat Star Wars at its own game. No joke, that film climaxes with Bond partaking in a giant space laser fight.
Moonraker dominated the box office that year, but the series course-corrected and Bond was brought back down to Earth (literally) for his next adventure, the gritty and hard-edged For Your Eyes Only. To restore order to the Bond-verse, it was only natural that Die Another Day would need to follow suit.
But how exactly does one go about reinventing a franchise? How do you shake up a tried-and-true formula that, 40 years and 20 feature films later, has proven to be a reliable key to success? And how in the hell could James Bond possibly return post-Die Another Day and feel fresh, new and exciting? For producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, the answer was simple: start at the beginning. In this case, they returned to Ian Fleming’s original text, and set out to adapt his very first novel to the big screen: Casino Royale. A series of complicated legalities had previously rendered the novel inaccessible to MGM, but after four arduous years the rights were restored and Casino Royale was made a reality. The film opened on Friday, November 17th, 2006, and I would be amongst the first to see the new Bond for myself. The anticipation was insurmountable.
Needless to say, I fell in love with Casino Royale almost immediately.
Whatever doubts I had were quashed instantaneously. From the amazing opening sequence to the absolute conviction in the utterance of the final line “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” I found myself thoroughly at ease, welcoming the world of MI-6 once again with open arms and loving every minute of it. The incredible pre-title sequence, the outlandish parkour chase, the tension-filled poker sequences, the torture scene, the radiant chemistry between Daniel Craig and Eva Green, the sublime creepiness of Mads Mikkelsen, the final cue of Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, everything worked perfectly. As a die-hard fan of the series, it was everything I wanted and more. James Bond wasn’t just back; he was reborn.
What’s remarkable about Casino Royale is how well it completely transcends the notion of what a Bond film is. The character of Bond has, along with being a famous international superspy, always been presented as the archetype of the ideal man: urbane, intelligent, and suave. He was deadly with a weapon, and even deadlier in bed, a sharp dresser, a terrific shot, and held a particular fancy for extravagant vehicles. Like the adage goes: men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him. Casino Royale subverts all of these expectations entirely and reimagines Bond as an entirely different beast from his predecessors. Orphaned at a young age, this Bond is an existential loner, capable of killing a man without remorse. There’s also a very distinct pain in his eyes; the root of everything in his life is death. Yet, there’s also something about killing seems to excite Bond, almost as if he derives a perverted sense of satisfaction that comes from doing his job. Note that devilish hint of a smile at the end of this clip:
As the sixth actor to step into the shoes of 007, Daniel Craig is marvelous at articulating these traits. The actor slides into the role effortlessly, and delivers one of the most nuanced performances in the entire series. In just one film, Craig effectively captures the wit and grace of Sean Connery, the textured humanity of George Lazenby, the avuncular pleasures of Roger Moore, the brutal stoicism of Timothy Dalton, and the charming roguishness Pierce Brosnan, and still manages to make the character his own. Craig injects a distinct life into the role; never has James Bond felt more real. He has no qualms about stabbing a man in cold blood, casually bedding a married woman, or even nonchalantly crashing an SUV in a crowded parking lot as an act of subterfuge:
All of the praise I have for Daniel Craig extends to the film itself. The pre-title sequence of Casino Royale is an expressionistic masterpiece: slick, gorgeously shot in high-contrast black & white cinematography (a series first) and unflinchingly visceral, it is this scene that gives a proper introduction to how the character of James Bond came to be, which is something we’ve never seen before. James Bond as we previously knew him was always "Bond;" we never explicitly see him earn his stripes in the series or discover how he came to be. Here, we open with two cold-blooded executions, and he’s re-christened 007. Beautiful. The brilliant insertion of the gun barrel into the actual narrative is a stroke of genius.
This opening also introduces a grittier aesthetic to the franchise. The Brosnan era retained a very slick and polished appearance that oft-resembled many other 90’s action films, so much so that by the end of the decade, films like True Lies, The Rock and Face/Off were doing Bond better than Bond was. While Casino Royale does draw influence of Bourne’s frenetic camerawork here, it adopts a cinematic style that it makes completely its own, embracing a certain rawness that is wholly unprecedented for the series. Consider, for instance, the parkour chase. When has anything like this appeared in a Bond film? In any regular movie it'd be the highlight; in a Bond film, it's otherworldly. It does not just exceed every action sequence in every Bond before this one, it elevates the possibilities of what Craig was fully capable of. His Bond is a blunt instrument, a force of nature capable of hunting his target with implacable determination. It’s exhilirating to write about, but even more exhilarating to watch:
We also get a truly substantial Bond girl in the form of Vesper Lynd. The only other time Bond formed any bona fide emotional connection was with Tracy Di Vicenzo, his ill-fated bride from the aforementioned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Tracy was wonderful, and her (spoiler alert) death was undeniably shocking. However, gun tot he head, I would say that Vesper is without a doubt the best Bond girl in the franchise. Period. Her introduction to Bond (which does not occur until over an hour into the film!) is a delight, throwing bon mots like nobody’s business. Smart, sexy and single, Eva Green maintains a nice, steely presence with an air of vulnerability throughout the film, perfectly matching Craig’s every move. She’s simply fantastic, and her tragic death looms over the rest of the Craig era.
And god bless director Martin Campbell for making extended plays of Texas Hold 'em as tense and compelling as they are. Every card dealt and every chip dropped somehow feels more exciting than the last.
Like most of the Bonds before him, the rest of Craig’s output is decidedly uneven. As mentioned previously, I’m no big fan of Quantum of Solace. It has its fair share of defenders, sure, and the Tosca sequence is really, really nice, but revisiting the film today I feel that most of its praises are awfully misguided. The film is a mess: the villain and Bond Girls are bland and unmemorable; the pacing is frightfully rushed; the action is poorly shot and edited; and the narrative is extremely undernourished. Part of the problem lies in Writer’s Strike of 2007-2008. The film actually began production without a script, and indeed much of it feels like it is being improvised on the spot. Still, none of this is to the fault of Craig, who remains as vigilant as ever as 007.
Skyfall is a sumptuous picture, perhaps best remembered for Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography over anything else. That’s not to disparage the rest of the film; if you ask me Skyfall could sit comfortably amongst the best Bond films ever. Craig is in top form, the pain of his existential dread twisting like a knife here; Javier Bardem succeeds at being best villain in the Craig era (his rat monologue is an all-timer); Judi Dench is at her best here as M, the unofficial Bond Girl of the film; Adele’s title track is worthy of every accolade its received; and the film has an overall classic feel reminiscent of Goldfinger and From Russia With Love. An extraordinary film.
Spectre is the most difficult film to approach, if only because it’s the most recent. In one regard, I find it to be highly entertaining: it’s filled with some outstanding moments (i.e., the opening tracking shot in Mexico, the train fight), and allows Craig to play Bond at the loosest and Roger Mooriest he’s ever been. On the other hand, the story is horribly contrived and puzzling (and not in a good way), the pacing is generally slack and leaves a lot to be desired, and the film nearly hobbles itself completely by reintroducing Blofeld, James Bond’s arch-nemesis from the Sean Connery era, as the main villain and Bond’s foster brother. Because that was necessary. Even with all my gripes, I still enjoy Spectre a great deal more than Quantum of Solace, though time will have to tell where Spectre fits into the legacy of Bond.
While the future of Daniel Craig's incumbency remains in the balance (though all signs seem to be pointing to him returning for at least one more), there is no denying that his tenure has been riveting, having been tasked with successfully revitalizing a dormant franchise over a decade ago. My personal hope is that Craig has one last great film in himself to give the character – and the actor – a proper sendoff, before he’s eventually replaced by someone younger than he is. Whoever that successor may be will have a tough spot to fill, for Craig shall no doubt be forever recognized as one of the greatest Bonds ever.