Directed by: Martin Campbell || Produced by: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Screenplay by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis || Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench, Simon Abkarian, Caterina Murino, Ivana Milcevic, Isaac de Bankole, Jesper Christensen, Sebastien Foucan
Music by: David Arnold || Cinematography by: Phil Meheux || Edited by: Stuart Baird || Country: United Kingdom, United States, Czech Republic, Germany || Language: English
Running Time: 144 minutes
The mid-2000s saw the rise of now commonplace franchise reboots, re-imaginings, and remakes. Arguably the most influential of these reinvented brands was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), which led to the now famous Dark Knight Trilogy (also 2008, 2012) and continued the resurgence of modern superhero blockbusters. In hindsight, however, the strongest of these early reboots and perhaps the best character re-imagining of all time was none other than Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, the 21st entry in Eon Productions’ James Bond franchise.
The film was a massive comeback for a series that had struggled in the final years of Pierce Brosnan’s stint as the classic MI6 agent. Eon was heavily criticized for the increasingly silliness, over-the-top sci-fi gadgetry, and excessive CGI of its previous James Bond-movies, particularly Die Another Day (2002). While it was not the first time the series had lagged critically, nor the first time the Bond character had become a little too wink-wink and full of himself (Roger Moore’s later ventures come to mind), the franchise was becoming very stagnant and stale (sort of like Star Trek before J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot) and was in desperate need of a recharge.
Enter Martin Campbell, director of the famed Goldeneye (1995), by far the best of the Brosnan films and one of the most recognizable of the series’ installments, along with a recast Bond in the form of the now world-famous Daniel Craig. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis bring the character and the world of Bond back to its roots in many ways, stripping the story down to its bare essence, brutal violence, and focus on its central character, and yet they also modernize Bond and take inspirations from likeminded spy-thrillers such as The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004). Combined with a smart, restrained score from David Arnold, amazing action-direction from Campbell, and a career-making performance from Craig, Casino Royale (CR) debuted as one of the strongest Bond films ever made. Hell, it may be the best one!
As far as characterizations and development are concerned, CR stands out from the rest of the franchise given how it takes time to build and expand upon them. The story takes advantage of its origin story-premise to portray a less experienced, more vulnerable Bond, and paints him as a fully formed, multi-dimensional character. His character is also grittier and considerably more vicious than previous incarnations, executing enemies with ruthless efficiency and extreme prejudice; and yet, Campbell takes numerous opportunities to humanize his persona with quick sequences of Craig performing painful first aide on himself, comforting a fully formed Bond-girl, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, and of course staring down antagonist Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in one of the most brutal torture sequences in a mainstream film. How the screenwriters and director Campbell managed to convey Bond’s world as relatable, down-to-earth, and painfully real while maintaining the character’s edge and a modernized sense of style is perhaps the film’s most impressive feat. As far as origin stories and franchise reboots go, it is perhaps the only one that has its cake and eats it too.
The film’s dedication to on-location cinematography, practical stunts, and vicious action is impressive. Numerous extended set-pieces. like an eight-minute parkour chase through a Madagascar construction site that culminates in a chaotic yet coherent shootout in a foreign embassy, set the tone for this new-age Bond; it’s one of efficiency over flash, brute force over grace, and bloody determination over comprising failure. More great sequences include a dizzying fist vs. sword-fight in a staircase, a pulse-pounding finale inside a collapsing Venice building, and of course the opening black-and-white introduction of Bond’s 007-status.
CR is also paced to near perfection, forming an evenly hybridized adventure of hardcore action and suave spy-thrills. It’s a tightly choreographed three-act structure: The first part sets up Bond’s mission and introduces the terrorist financier, Le Chiffre, and is the most action-packed, while the second features some of the best poker-playing ever shot on film and develops Bond’s relationship with Lynd, and part three concludes this short-lived love affair and ends with Craig’s maturation into a full fledged, experienced 007-agent. There are few action films with a rhythm this intricate and controlled.
All in all, Casino Royale remains the definitive Bond film of the 21st century so far, surpassing the cartoony action of Die Another Day, the incoherent, nausea-inducing shaky-cam of Quantum of Solace (2008), and the overrated, overly artsy Skyfall (2012). It’s also one of the best secret agent films ever made, up there with Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and the last two Mission Impossible films (2011, 2015). It somehow manages to reinvent the entire Bond franchise while retaining the narrative DNA of its cinematic ancestors and the charismatic allure of Ian Flemming’s novels. To be frank, I have my doubts about Sam Mendes’ upcoming Spectre (2015), however enticing the idea of Christoph Waltz as Ernst Blofeld may be, given how perfectly Casino Royale encapsulates the Bond canon for me. It’s tightly written, directed with physicality and intensity, and retains just enough of that classic, dark Bond charm. You can’t ask for much more from Her Majesty’s secret service.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Casino Royale is arguably the best executed story of any Bond film, and its action is by far the most effective. This is one of the finest combinations of action screenplays and directing you’ll ever see. Campbell retains the franchise’s slick spy personality while guiding a gritty, innovative version of its lead character in the fantastic Daniel Craig. His supporting cast is impeccable, none more so than Eva Green, the most memorable “Bond girl” yet.
— However… several characters are superfluous to the main story, and numerous story details fly over even the most studious fan’s head.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? Eva Green: I’m the money. Daniel Craig: Every penny of it.