Bond #4 – Casino Royale

Not to be confused with anything starring Woody Allen.

. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Daniel Craig

SETUP: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier posing as an international bank for terrorists, loses a large sum of his clients’ money in a stock fixing scheme foiled by a rookie British agent and, feeling the pressure, organizes a mega-stakes poker tournament as a means of winning it back. MI6 believes that if Le Chiffre loses he’ll have to turn himself in for protection, handing all of his clients to the British in the process. M (Judi Dench) sends the best poker player in MI6 to join the tournament and ensure that Le Chiffre comes up empty. In an astounding coincidence, that poker player is that very same rookie agent, a man named James Bond.

Who weekends as a masked wrestler named Sergeant Sausage.

BUT IN REALITY: Actually, that’s pretty much it. Bond smokes Le Chiffre in the tournament while falling for his own treasury agent partner, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green.) An assassin named Mr. White kills Le Chiffre before he can defect, and Bond quits MI6 to spend his days sailing and sunning alongside Vesper. To no one’s surprise except maybe Bond’s, Vesper betrays him and hands the casino winnings over to Mr. White, then drowns herself before giving Bond any answers. Bond pretends that he doesn’t care, but rescinds his resignation and begins the hunt for White and his shadowy organization.

VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Le Chiffre’s left eye (the evil one!) occasionally drips blood due to a “derangement of the tear duct.” And also, ew.

“Hey, eyes up here and over to the right. No, my right.”

THE MUSCLE: The story begins with a chase scene, as Bond hunts Le Chiffre’s personal bomb maker, Mollaka (Sébastien Foucan.) The filmmakers transform what could have been a stock stage-setter into one of the film’s highlights by allowing Foucan, co-founder of the parkour movement, to lead Bond in an athletic, eye-popping run through urban Madagascar. In a sharp bit of screenwriting, we learn everything we need to know about our new Bond just by watching him react. When Mollaka takes a flying leap over a wall, Bond bulldozes through it. Mollaka scrambles up a construction site, Bond reasons out a faster way. Mollaka seeks cover in an embassy, so Bond invades the building, drags him outside, and shoots him while setting off a fire bomb to cover his own escape. By the end of the chase, we know that Bond is blunt, smart, and a ruthless killer. And he hasn’t even said a word.

BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: To use a sports analogy, Vesper Lynd is the face of the Bond Girl franchise. She’s the most famous of Bond’s lovers, at least from the novels, and her betrayal and untimely death serves as a primer for the young secret agent as enters the global stage: Don’t trust anyone. Never get close. As finally brought to life here by Green, Vesper is sharp-tongued, witty, and a soft foil for Bond’s brutish assault on the poker tournament. Their romance is maybe a bit rushed but coming from a series where seduction often boils down to a popping cork and an erection one-liner, it’s surprisingly believable.

You’re not going to talk about your tallywhacker, are you?

“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Q is conspicuously absent from the Daniel Craig Bond films, and even Craig himself has remarked that there may not be a place for the usually comical character in the current climate of the series. Bond does get a fancy car from the quartermaster’s office, but its most high-tech gadget is a state of the art med kit featuring emergency defibrillators.

MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Changing the high-stakes game from baccarat, as it was in the novel, to the more mainstream Texas Hold ‘Em poker, a quote unquote sport usually played by people in funny costumes at high roller tables in Vegas instead of by the richest and most dangerous men and women in the world. The switch was intended to allow audiences to follow along with the action, but it comes across as a cheap concession to a temporary ESPN fad.

And every hand has, like, five one-in-a-trillion draws.

BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “I won’t consider myself to be in trouble until I start weeping blood.” — Bond’s unsubtle jab at Le Chiffre when asked if he’s feeling the pressure of the game.

WORTH MENTIONING Before Daniel Craig, the filmmakers seriously considered making a radical youth move by casting Henry Cavill, who was just 23 at the time… The rights to the Casino Royale novel were sold separately by Ian Fleming, which accounts for the four decade delay in bringing the story to the screen as part of the official series. The story has been filmed before, however, most famously as a spoof starring Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. Before that, the story appeared in 1954 on the American TV program Climax!, this time with American agent “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond in the lead.

They made this one just a tick darker.

OVERALL: Casino Royale is a very good movie that just barely misses the mark of a great movie. I blame Paul Haggis.

Let me explain. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Haggis as he seems like a great guy. He’s had a strong career as a writer and a director, he’s loved by the best in the business, and he has balls of solid brass. I respect all of this, which makes it difficult to admit that his screenplays burn me up. From the cartoons Hilary Swank calls family in Million Dollar Baby to the infuriating revisionism of In the Valley of Elah to pretty much all of Crash, I can’t find a single one of his films that I love without at least some reservation, and that includes Casino Royale.

“I left my script in the other tux.”

For just about its entire running time, Royale is a slam dunk. The script does a great job of implying the character we all know while allowing this rookie Bond to stumble and fail, gradually finding his footing and locking down his defenses until he’s fully arrived. Martin Campbell, no stranger to launching a new Bond, leaves the camera on Craig as much as possible, giving the actor a chance to sell every moment of anger or indecision in his face and eyes. As I took screenshots for this entry, I couldn’t believe just how often Craig is left alone in the frame. He is the movie. This is a hero-making film.

And yet somehow the movie fumbles its most important element, Bond and Vesper’s relationship. I said before that the romance is believable, and it is, but it’s also lifeless, dull, and goes on for much too long. There’s a screenwriting philosophy that says your movie is over when the last question is answered. Well, that happens nearly a half hour before the end of Royale‘s running time. Le Chiffre is dead, the tournament is over, and the heroes are in love, but now we have to go on vacation with them? For the rest of her life? Yes, the extended romance is just there to pack emotional punch for the betrayal, but it halts the momentum and wears out its welcome long before the action starts back up. Lessons could have been learned from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the efficiency with which the Tracy Bond story becomes part of the main narrative, not just an addendum to it.

Falling asleep at the wheel of her own love story.

All that aside, Casino Royale still serves up a smart, observant take on the Bond character, one that builds slowly and pays off with a great final shot and a recognizable theme song. The film recreates the Bond legend from scratch while still leaving room for the series to feel Bond-like, something that’s sorely missed in the direct sequel, Quantum of Solace. And, honestly, the third act diversion seems to work for some people. Obviously, I think those people are wrong, but I think a first-time Bond and a flawed script coming in at #3 is a nice consolation prize. Being “almost the best Bond film ever made” will just have to do. I’m looking at you, Paul.

The James Bond Project

3. ???

4. Casino Royale

5. Goldeneye

6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

7. Tomorrow Never Dies

8. Octopussy

9. The Spy Who Loved Me

10. Thunderball

11. Dr. No

12. For Your Eyes Only

13. The World is Not Enough

14. Live and Let Die

15. Licence to Kill

16. The Living Daylights

17. You Only Live Twice

18. Quantum of Solace

19. Die Another Day

20. The Man with the Golden Gun

21. Diamonds are Forever

22. A View to a Kill

23. Moonraker

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