Casino Royale (2006)



(For those coming in late, I’ve been watching all the James Bond movies in order. You may read my other Bond pieces here.)

As this is a recent movie, I’m going to go ahead and say SPOILER ALERT.

WHO IS JAMES BOND?
James Bond is one cold bastard. He’s recently been promoted to “double-O” status — I may have missed what he was before that. Was he a “regular-O” agent? Did he have a license to hurt? What was he doing for MI6 before they decided he would make good assassin material? Whatever it was, M seems to have a good eye for talent — Bond seems to enjoy killing people almost more than he enjoys boinking the ladies. He’s also young, untried, cocky, reckless, bossy, impatient, quick on his feet and more physical than any five previous Bonds put together.

I’m old enough to remember that there was once a great movie star named Steve McQueen, and I’m also old enough to remember that the Bond people once seriously considered casting him as Bond. Steve McQueen was, of course, demonstrably Not British, but Daniel Craig not only bears a startling resemblance to McQueen, but also plays the part much in the way I imagine McQueen would have — human-scaled, silent and strong outside, vulnerable and unprepared inside. It’s the first truly multidimensional portrait of Bond we’ve ever seen, and Craig is, I would have to say, devastating in the part. I liked Connery, I liked a couple of the Moore pictures and I loved Brosnan, but Craig is playing a whole different ball game here. More on why this works later.That said, it’s a little weird to see Bond be born again again at this late date. It didn’t trouble Pierce Brosnan that he was both 35 years old and a relic of the cold war. It didn’t concern Roger Moore that women young enough to be his daughter were falling for him as though hypnotized. But it seems that somewhere between Die Another Day and Casino Royale there was some kind of Bond-backstory event, a “Crisis of Infinite Bonds” perhaps, and it was deemed necessary to pretend that the other 20 movies never happened. Most of which serves Casino Royale very well indeed.

WHAT DOES THE BAD GUY WANT? One of the many new-to-Bondworld innovations in Casino Royale is the nature of the bad guy. Le Chiffre (“The Number” or, more literally, “The Figure,” both things are of importance to the world of Casino Royale) has the least megalomaniacal and most human scheme of all Bond villains in history. His devious, world-ending plot involves not a giant space-laser or a scheme to blow up Fort Knox or the theft of two nuclear weapons.  He doesn’t have a gigantic subterranean lair or a secret labratory or a fluffy white cat.  His nefarious plot involves nothing more than short-selling some stock and then winning a high-stakes poker game. Sounds like an average day at Bear Stearns, if you ask me. Of course, his stock-selling scheme involves the dramatic blowing-up of an airplane, but even then he sets his sights low — the plane is empty, and parked on the ground. This is truly a new style of Bond villain — not a monster, not a sadist, not a deformed freak — well, not much anyway — he is, gasp, recognizably human, which is something that extends to the rest of Casino Royale.

Le Chiffre, it seems, is an investment banker for bad guys. He takes the money of an African warlord and uses it in this short-selling scheme. When Bond foils the airplane-blowing-up part of the plan, Le Chiffre has to figure out how to get the African warlord’s money back — hence the high-stakes poker game. He doesn’t dream of world domination, he’s a desperate man in debt to some very bad people. It’s even weirder that he dies at the end of Act III — in a four-act movie — but more on why that all ends upworking later.

WHAT DOES JAMES BOND ACTUALLY DO TO SAVE THE WORLD? Bond kills a double agent at the beginning of the movie — two, actually, if you count the one in the flashback. Wait! What? A flashback? Since when does a James Bond movie have a flashback? Next thing you know, there will be exotic cinematic techniques showing up all over Bond movies, rack zooms and parallel action and shaky-cams and sunburst flares. Is nothing sacred with these heartless bastards?

Anyway, so Bond kills a pair of double agents before the titles roll, one of whom is actually a Brit — another first for the Bond series, if I’m not mistaken (Jonathan Pryce doesn’t count — he was playing an Australian). Next he goes to Madagascar, on the trailer of a bomb-maker. After a stupefying chase at a construction site, a scene of endless leaps, falls, punches, dives and gunplay, he tails the bomb-maker to an embassy, which he promptly destroys. (I swear, Bond exerts himself more in the first 20 minutes of Casino Royale than he does in the totality of Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.)

M, angry with Bond for blowing up the embassy, throws him off the case. Does Bond comply? Yes. He does. He spends the rest of the movie relaxing and hanging out with his buds. No, wait, no he doesn’t — he ignores M’s orders and goes to the Bahamas to try to find whoever the Madagascar bomb-maker was working for.

The Madagascar bomb-maker was working for a d-list villain named Dimitrios. Dimitrios functions essentially the same way a movie producer does, bringing together talent (bomb-makers) and money (Le Chiffre) (all puns intended). Dimitrios has a wife, and Bond seduces the wife to get to the guy. He trails Dimitrios to Miami, where he contacts another bomb-maker just in time to make Le Chiffre’s deadline for blowing up a parked airplane. Bond, as I say, spoils the airplane-blowing-up deal and then enters the high-stakes poker game to make sure Le Chiffre doesn’t make his money back. The plan is that, once broke and desperate, Le Chiffre will turn himself over to MI6 and spill all he knows about his shadowy employers.

Huh. You know, now that I’m looking at it spelled out like that, this plot seems to actually seems to resemble something amazingly like intelligence work. You’ve got terrorists and financiers, you’ve got people who blow up stuff for stock swindles through complicated plausibly-deniable contacts, you’ve got undercover agents and cell-phone traces — by jiminy if that doesn’t sound convincingly real. What the hell are they doing to my movie franchise?! Why, not once does Le Chiffre say to a henchman “Find him and kill him.”

Once Le Chiffre is beaten, he comes to Bond’s side and gladly, gratefully even, turns himself in. Oh wait, no, I’m sorry, what I meant to say is he kidnaps Bond and his girlfriend, tortures them both, then gets shot in the head by his shadowy employers.

And, bizarrely, the movie isn’t over yet. Bond takes himself, the poker money and his MI6-accountant girlfriend to Venice, where he learns, too late, that the girlfriend is (reluctantly) in league with the bad guys. Upon learning this, he takes the only logical course of action — he destroys a Venetian building and kills a bunch of people. Then he tracks the shadowy employer (“Mr. White” — doesn’t sound very shadowy to me, and I for one was very disappointed that, with a name like that, he was not played by Harvey Keitel) to, I’m gonna say Switzerland, and shoots him in the leg.

Whew! What a workout for Bond in this, his longest movie ever. And, I would have to check my notes, but I’m gonna say that this is also the most complicated of Bond plots, although Live and Let Die would probably come a close second. And yet, Casino Royale never feels labored or dense — it flies along through a mid-movie plot shift, an abrupt and improbable love story and a very long poker game (for the record, we see exactly three actual hands of poker in that game, interrupted by two fist-fights, two deaths, four dress shirts, a poisoning, and a heart-re-starting).

WOMEN: There are two women of note in Casino Royale. Three things tie them together thematically — they both make love to Bond, they both are tied to men absurdly below their station (one has a unibrow, the other wears sunglasses with only one dark lens — how bargain-basement Bond Villain could you get?! Dude, you’re Bond Villains, can’t you get a metal skull or prehensile toes or something? Oo-ah, look at me, I’ve only got one dark lens on my glasses! Fear Me!), and they both wind up dead.

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd has the heaviest lifting to do — she shows up halfway through the movie and has to go from “I couldn’t care less about James Bond” to “Omigod, I just totally saw a bunch of guys get freakin’ killed!” to “Help! I’ve been kidnapped!” to “I think I love James Bond after all” to “I am tragically, hopelessly screwed up and don’t want to live any longer” in an hour and fifteen minutes, interrupted by poker hands and killings and emergency medical procedures and car-crashes and torturings and mass destruction. And Craig has to believably answer her.

Guess what? For the most part the love story totally works. I don’t exactly buy a couple of scenes, but not only does Vesper Lynd count as the first Bond Girl with more than two or three attributes to play, but the love story comes off as the first credible one of the series. Lynd doesn’t just fall into Bond’s arms, he has to work at earning her trust, and then her lust. The early scenes of the two of them giddy about their high-stakes adventure are smashing, and I wish they went on for longer. I especially like the scene about the tux, where Bond objects to the one she’s picked out and they argue about fashion. (I’ve only seen high-stakes poker games on ESPN, and I would have loved — loved — to see Bond come swanning into the poker room in his tailored tux to find a table full of guys who look like this.

HOW COOL IS THE BAD GUY? Le Chiffre has a scar on his eye and weeps blood. That’s pretty cool, but the filmmakers seemed to feel that only one minor physical deformity for their bad guy would be short-changing their audiences, so they’ve also given him asthma. Asthma! How the hell are we supposed to be scared of a guy with asthma? Why not a cleft palate or webbed toes? Le Chiffre overcomes his lame disability with style however, and stands as one of the most compelling bad guys of the series, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t even get a cool, spectacular death at the hands of Bond.

NOTES: I dislike the title sequence for this movie,and I don’t care much for the song either, although it’s growing on me. I like the animation, but Bond firing hearts out his gun and punching bad guys into shattering animated diamonds strikes me as dire and lame.

I love the beat where the Madagascar bomb-maker throws his gun a Bond and Bond catches it and throws it back. Was that in the script, worked out during the fight choreography, or improvised on the set?

Due, apparently, to budget cuts at MI6, M no longer has a Moneypenny to flirt with Bond, so she must take on the job herself. I applaud Dame Judy Dench’s playing of these scenes and look forward to some hot Craig-on-Dench scenes in a future installment.

I like his car, and I like very much the spectacular crash that ends its life, but I can’t for the life of my figure out why they would put a defibrillator in the glove compartment.

Giancarlo Giannini, I’m happy to report, survived getting disemboweled, hanged and thrown out a window by Hannibal Lecter, and shows up as some Italian guy who may or may not be a good guy.  His and Felix Leiter’s main roles in the movie seem to be explaining to the audience how Poker is played, revealing the meaning behind obscure terms like “stake” and “tell” (Felix: “I’ll stake you — that means I’ll put up the money for you to play.”  GG: “There’s his ‘tell!’ That’s how we know he’s bluffing!”) as though anyone walking in from the street to see a movie called Casino Royale would be ignorant of what actually happens inside a casino.

Jeffrey Wright is surely the greatest actor to ever play Felix Leiter and here’s to hoping he comes back for the next movie (although he is not listed as such.)  Geez, if the real Felix Leiter was as smart and efficient as Jeffrey Wright, 9/11 would never have happened.

After Bond is tortured by Le Chiffre, is it just my imagination or does he recuperate at a hospital located near Senator Amidala’s house on Naboo?  I kept expecting to have Bond look over to see Anakin Skywalker wooing his beloved with his killer lines about how she’s nothing like sand.

Act III of Casino Royale revolves around a poker game.  The filmmakers get around this action-movie non-starter by having the game constantly interrupted by fights, killings, showers, poisonings, and no less than four changes of clothes (six if you count Le Chiffre and Vesper).  After each one of these events, the characters in the movie go back to doing exactly what they were doing beforehand.  Most disappointing of these pulse-raising events is when the African warlord breaks into Le Chiffre’s hotel room and threatens his girlfriend’s arm with a machete.  He pulls his punch at the last second, and while I in no way wanted to see the girlfriend’s arm cut off, I was disappointed that the ruthless African warlord turned out to be ruthful after all.

I am also a little disappointed to see Bond relying so much on wireless technology (and I’d love to know if it’s actually possible to get a signal in the middle of the Laguna Veneta).  The second time Bond is interrupted in his love-making by a ringing cell-phone I expected him to throw it out the window.  The third time I expected him to shoot it.

What makes all this work?  The makers of Casino Royale seem to have made a decision early on in the process, one unprecedented in the franchise history.  That is, they decided to make a movie about James Bond.  Le Chiffre’s death at the hands of some guy who’s name we don’t even know, 3/4 of the way through the movie, works because the movie isn’t about him, it’s about Bond.  The love story, absurdly complex by Bond standards, works because the movie isn’t about sex or conquest or gadgets or style or violence, it’s about this guy and his, you know, character.  Get this — when this Bond kills a couple of guys in a stairwell or gets thrown off a speeding truck?  He still has red marks on his face and hands in the next scene!  This Bond, amazingly, takes a moment to steady himself and think about what he’s doing before he heads into a dangerous situation.  Did Roger Moore ever take a moment to look at himself in a mirror and wonder if perhaps he’d made a wrong decision?  Can one imagine Sean Connery expressing gratitude to a woman for falling in love with him?

The script manages to pull off this feat without making Bond self-obsessed or self-pitying, and, indeed, without actually telling us very much about the character.  Other Bonds have been stylish and seductive and funny and charismatic, but this one is something like an actual human being, and, as every real filmmaker knows, there is nothing more intriguing than that.

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Comments

27 Responses to “Casino Royale (2006)”
  1. planettom says:

    and I’d love to know if it’s actually possible to get a signal in the middle of the Laguna Veneta

    When I was in Venice 11 years ago, I was amazed at how every Venetian I’d see on a vaporetto had a cell phone hardwired to an ear.

    I thought it was great that CASINO ROYALE had scenes in Venice and avoided the temptation to have a boat chase, but had a foot chase instead.

    Yea, the return of these Bond reviews! I hope you’ll be a completist and do NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.

    Then, to be weird, you should analyze the 1967 CASINO ROYALE in this fashion.

    A very mild spoiler about the next Bond movie can be found here.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I was wondering when you were going to be getting around to this. I’m surprised you didn’t have too much to say about the agonizing genital torture scene. For a man who values his virility, that method of torture really hit Bond where he lived.

    • Todd says:

      I admire the torture scene for its simplicity and barbarity, and also for Craig’s performance within, but many others have found more interesting things to say about it.

      • craigjclark says:

        Fair enough. I remember reading about that scene in a book about Woody Allen’s career. Even if the 1967 spoof was about as far from being a faithful adaptation of the Fleming novel as you can get, the author still made a point of showing how the scene related to Woody’s persona. (I think it may have been Maurice Yacowar’s Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen. I’d check, but all of my books are still in boxes, waiting to be put on the bookshelves that I have yet to put together.)

        Incidentally, you may be interested in checking out the Onion AV Club feature The Box of Paperbacks Book Club. One of the features of the box is it contains every single one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and Keith Phipps is reading them in order, starting with Casino Royale.

        • Todd says:

          I wonder where I can get a job like that.

            • Anonymous says:

              One of the things I liked about Casino Royale was even though its a reboot , it still felt like a great Bond movie.

              I found it odd that Mr. White seemed to live on the same lake the hospital Bond stayed in was on. And that while sailing to Venice they had a little beach side respite on a Bahamian-looking beach.

              The opening song doesn’t bother me much, especially after seeing the movie. It seems, to me, to fit the movie well and I really liked how the music evolved into the James Bond theme by the end of the movie.

              Mack

              • Anonymous says:

                Forgot to mention this in the last post…

                It is my hope that Mr. White is a member of SPECTRE. If the series is essentially starting over, it makes sense to include that group. I think they could be ideally suited to this new Bond.

    • adam_0oo says:

      Oddly enough, at my local Compusa, they play this scene on all the big widescreen HD teevees to showcase what a great picture they have. I thought it was a amazing marketing choice, as even if they get the over 13 demographic, most men would wince away from the screen slowly.

  3. eronanke says:

    My feelings were torn; Casino Royale is my favorite *book* of the series, so I regretted that it was being made into a movie. I regretted Daniel Craig, although people have told me, (amongst them, my father who introduced me to the franchise, if you’ll recall), that he’s quite good.
    I also do not find Ms. Green attractive at all. I have yet to see this movie.
    The song was actually the first thing I liked about it – I felt it hearkened back to what the 80s theme songs SHOULD have been to go along with the Darker Bonds, (the Daltons). (Whoever thought “The Living Daylights” should have A-Ha?) Seeing as they did go grittier, younger, more athletic in this one, a darker song, (by an elder alternative god, Chris Cornell), seems in order. “You Know My Name” is a perfect summation of how the world feels about James Bond – regardless of decade or actor, Bond is still Bond.

  4. dougo says:

    Next thing you know, there will be exotic cinematic techniques showing up all over Bond movies, rack zooms and parallel action and shaky-cams and sunburst flares.

    You know, I would love to see a Dogma 95 Bond film.

  5. moroccomole says:

    Well played. And yeah, the whole cell-phone thing struck me as well, since wireless seems to play a ridiculously huge role throughout the whole proceedings, particularly the Miami airport chase. (Did you catch the Richard Branson cameo?)

    And I second the request for you to analyze the original Casino Royale. It’s bonkers, but I love it. Please!

    • Todd says:

      You know, I did see the Branson cameo, but I just “Wait — is that? — Nah…” But then, Virgin airplanes are all over the place in the movie.

  6. Then he tracks the shadowy employer (“Mr. White” — doesn’t sound very shadowy to me, and I for one was very disappointed that, with a name like that, he was not played by Harvey Keitel) to, I’m gonna say Switzerland, and shoots him in the leg.

    Actually, it is Lake Como, northern Italy, but you are doing just fine….and incidentally, Switzerland is just over the Alps anyway….

    • Todd says:

      Oh, so Mr. White lives in George Clooney’s house. Wait — that means that Le Chiffre’s organization is funded by Danny Ocean! Wheels within wheels…

      • Does George live in Lake Como? I think that George should admit that he can never be James Bond and come out and be a Bond villain!!!!

        • Todd says:

          Does George live in Lake Como?

          Yes, in his under-sea fortress, where he houses kidnapped submarines.

          But seriously, his house on Lake Como is prominently featured in the film Ocean’s Twelve as the bad guy’s house on Lake Como.

          • There is a film I seriously could not follow and both attempts have switched off – I think sometimes writers can make it a little too confusing at the start and lose their audience, who after all have short attention spans these days (well, I speak for myself, but I do love movies…)
            Will give it a third crack, seeing as I do love Amsterdam and recommend it to anyone who will listen!!!


          • Does George live in Lake Como?

            Yes, in his under-sea fortress, where he houses kidnapped submarines.

            I know I am getting old/turning 40 when I miss that the first time round…

  7. I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I was really looking forward to you blogging about it.

    I wonder if the credits will grow on me, too? ‘Cause I didn’t much care for them, either.

  8. Believe it or not, I have it on good authority that the defibrillator/drug counteracting kit is an authentically standard issue item for field agents. I doubt it’s in the glove compartment of an Aston Martin, generally, but there you have it.

    As much as I had been rooting for Clive Owen before this movie got made, I think Craig did a fantastic job. Not only is he the first Bond since Connery who you genuinely feel could kick the shit out of you (you’d think that should be a requirement of the character), but he’s easily the most talented, serious actor of the bunch. He’s fares well in his five or ten minutes of Munich (which I loved), and he’s convincingly off the hook in The Jacket (which I still haven’t figured out if I like or not).

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the way Vesper initially calls Bond out on his immaturity and the obviousness of his acquired fashion tastes–complaints you yourself made about the character back when you were first trying to wrap your head around his appeal.

    • Todd says:

      I’m surprised you didn’t mention the way Vesper initially calls Bond out on his immaturity and the obviousness of his acquired fashion tastes–complaints you yourself made about the character back when you were first trying to wrap your head around his appeal.

      That scene played well in my screening room the other day, but I didn’t know why. Now that I go back to my very first Bond post and read that I describe him as a “coat hanger with a gun,” all I can do is quote our bard (and exact Bond contemporary) Dylan: “Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

  9. adam_0oo says:

    Hurray! I thought I had missed this one or you had forgotten this one or something, glad to have you back on that horse with this, my favorite Bond movie.

    You mentioned it and some other people did to, that Craig is certainly the most fit Bond ever. Note the straining veins on his forearms in the early free running scenes and when he does the Honey Ryder bit out of the water.

  10. dougo says:

    I just watched Casino Royale finally (in HD!) and had to come back to re-read this post. I loved the throws-empty-gun-back thing, but I also laughed out loud when the bomb-maker leapt through a small transom window and Bond followed by crashing through the wall like a pitcher of Kool-Aid. No kidding about it being a physical performance!

    The other great moment you didn’t mention was when the bartender asks him “stirred or shaken?” and Bond says impatiently “do I look like someone who would care?” That works on several levels.

    By the way, did you ever mention why you analyzed all the Bond films? Were you working on a spy script?

  11. I am absolutely dying to know what you thought of Quantum of Solace…