The James Bond series went 40 years without a reboot and then along came Martin Campbell, Daniel Craig, and 2006’s Casino Royale.
The second half of this feature includes major spoilers for Casino Royale.
“I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me.”
A key element of the James Bond series’ longevity is that it knows when to fold. To various extents, films like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, and The Living Daylights are bellwethers for the franchise, setting everything back on track after an over-the-top outing before the whole thing goes bust.
Still, the series ran for 40 years without a reboot and then along came Casino Royale, the first full reboot. In the long-belated adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel, in which we meet Daniel Craig’s James Bond as he’s first promoted to MI6’s 00 branch.
Cold-hearted but impulsive, Bond starts chasing down terrorists and bomb-makers and creates mayhem, but also a golden opportunity to force their private banker, Le Chiffre, (Mads Mikkelsen) to become an informant. An exasperated M (Judi Dench again!) promptly assigns Bond to clean him out in a high-stakes poker game at the titular casino, while Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is on hand to keep an eye on the UK government’s stake in this risky mission.
Partly by grace of the story it’s the first film since Dr No to introduce a new Bond with no difficult transition whatsoever. For instance, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an orphaned Bond-launcher that’s impossible to judge as an opener in the absence of any sequels with George Lazenby. Diamonds Are Forever and The Living Daylights each have something of the beginning and the end of the Roger Moore era bleeding into them. And GoldenEye was similarly first developed for Timothy Dalton’s hard-edged Bond, making it an outlier from the Brosnan films that followed.
Here we have something almost all-new, barring one or two returning personnel in front of and behind the camera. Indeed, the major returnees are Dench, who reimagines M as someone more in keeping with The Thick Of It, (“Christ, I miss the Cold War”) and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, who accepted Eon’s invitation to return because he realised he would be allowed to go further in revamping the series than he’d been allowed last time around.
As with many of the modern Bond films, Simon has gone into more detail about the making of Casino Royale in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below…
But what’s fascinating about what they did and when they did it is in mixing things up after the blockbusting success of Die Another Day, saying farewell to Brosnan and ushering in Craig, and rebuilding one of cinema’s most unchanging characters back from scratch.
So, is Campbell’s second run at rebooting 007 better than his first? As Bond says right at the beginning – “Yes. Considerably.”
Stick or twist?
As detailed in our previous feature on Dr No, the rights situation contributed to the early teething troubles of developing James Bond for the screen. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli optioned all of the books that weren’t otherwise spoken for, and Casino Royale had been adapted for US TV in the 1950s and would come around again as a Bond spoof in the 1960s.
Almost 40 years later, in 2000, MGM offered Sony its stake in Marvel’s Spider-Man in a straight trade for its Casino Royale film rights (and boy, that’s a story for another time!) only to wind up making the movie with Sony as its distributing partner a few years later anyway.
However, this wasn’t next on the slate for producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Together with screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, they initially intended to follow Die Another Day with a Halle Berry-led Jinx spin-off, whose development and eventual cancellation we’ve covered in a previous feature:
For their part, MGM executives had suggested a “young Bond” movie ‘like [the Superman prequel series] Smallville', rather than the popular Charlie Higson Young Bond novel series that began with 2005’s Silverfin. Arriving between 007 films, Jinx was intended to bring the franchise back down to Earth but Broccoli and Wilson had also told Purvis and Wade to re-read Casino Royale in anticipation of Bond 21.
When Jinx was cancelled, the film became more a product of the spin-off development than of the previous Bond film’s blockbusting success. Some reports say Brosnan wanted too much money to reprise the role (and Die Another Day’s box-office haul would certainly have entitled him to it) but he’s always firmly denied that. In any case, the point is moot – the more you tailor this particular story to an older Bond, the further you get from the text, and if you don’t use this story as a fresh jumping-off point, you don’t get another chance.
Sure, it’s fun to imagine a Brosnan-led Casino Royale doing what For Your Eyes Only did after Moonraker, but it’s harder to imagine it sitting still for long enough after Die Another Day. Imagine that scene near the end where Bond swerves to dodge Vesper and rolls the car seven times – coming after the Aston Martin “Vanish”, the car would probably just fly away instead.
Still, it’s unfortunate for Brosnan that his time with the Bond franchise started with the disappointment of not getting The Living Daylights due to scheduling conflicts and ended with not getting to make Casino Royale with an enthusiastic Quentin Tarantino, whose pitch was reportedly a black-and-white period thriller set in the 1950s, back when Columbia still had hold of the rights.
I called Brosnan a Bond for all seasons in the Die Another Day feature with no snark whatsoever – he buoys some questionable choices throughout his era and perhaps more than any other actor who’s played the part, it feels as though he was born for the role. He’s the ideal lead for a nostalgic era that skews more conservative than radical, but the next man goes above and beyond with different objectives.
As Broccoli tells it, she first clocked Daniel Craig from his earlier roles, like his swaggering supporting role in 1998’s Elizabeth to his stellar turns in smaller films like The Mother and Enduring Love. Subsequent pre-Bond parts in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake and Steven Spielberg’s Munich weigh more towards to the more typical demands of the role, but his earlier track record speaks to what the producers were looking for this time around.
And as the first Bond movie to come up against the chatter of entitled online fandom, Casino Royale came in for a kneejerk backlash against just how unconventional a choice Craig was. At the time of writing, some of those Craig Not Bond “fan pages” from the time are still live 16 years and five films later – still cross, too.
At the other end of Craig’s tenure, the excellent documentary Being James Bond features the star’s recollections about the relentless negative press coverage of the casting, which included paparazzi finding the Casino Royale production on location in Prague and the Bahamas for cobbled-together stories about how poorly it was all going.
But as produced, Casino Royale gets two essential things that the films often miss about Bond. When done right, they’re really the same thing – first, Bond is vulnerable, and second, he is lucky. 007 shouldn’t be so plot-armoured that he’s untouchable, either physically, intellectually, or emotionally, and as part and parcel of that, it’s more thrilling when he’s in real jeopardy and in turn, more understandable that he lives on the edge as he does.
Putting this into practice, Craig is the toughest Bond ever. He looks more the part as the young hunky heartthrob here than in any of his subsequent outings but he’s still running, jumping, brawling, bloodied, and nearly dead (no, REALLY nearly) multiple times before the first hour is up. He puts his full arse into this, not because he’s got something to prove to the detractors but because that’s how he’s choosing to play this iconic character.
The film really makes Fleming’s characterisation of Bond as a “blunt instrument” literal too. Look at the Madagascar parkour chase, which is almost comically built around the repetition of Mollaka (Sébastien Foucan) gliding around obstacles and then Bond steamrolling through them. The bombmaker goes through an unfinished lintel on a construction site, then 007 just busts through the wall like the Hulk.
On notes like these, we see that for all this is the darker and grittier Bond, it’s also funnier than the series has been in a while. The tortured wordplay is thrown out in favour of some first-class shithousery, like pretending to be the valet to a rude hotel guest and casually throwing the keys away after he sets off all the other car’s alarms. It carries off the feat of being chuckle-worthy in the moment and purposeful in the plot.
Those aforementioned bellwether outings all have a template to go off, hitting beats like the briefing in M’s office, a confab with Q branch, a stop at the casino, a capture-and-escape with the villain, and a final clinch with the love interest. Casino Royale has versions of all of those (even the clinch, in a morbid way) but they don’t feel like a movie that’s hitting its marks.
Instead, it’s wryly self-aware of how the iconic car and the favourite drink choice are genre trappings and makes sure they fit into the story they’re telling rather than rolling them out as Easter eggs. Bond can have gadgets that save his life at opportune moments, but here it’s a defibrillator and the peril is as serious as cardiac arrest. Later, the hints at a larger organisation’s tentacles are so broad as to leave a blank slate for sequels, but we’ll get to that.
Even the classic Bond theme is notable by its absence for most of the action. Instead, returning composer David Arnold contributes the best of his five scores for the series so far, (fingers crossed for more) which is largely built on its storming anthem, “You Know My Name”.
Co-written and then belted out by the late, great Chris Cornell, the song is a law unto itself. After his velvet-gloved composition for “The World Is Not Enough”, Arnold’s second bash at the opening title song is more a battering ram – perfectly suited to Daniel Kleinman’s stunning opening titles and entirely appropriate to knock the door down on a 21st-century Bond.
And if all of this still hasn’t sold you on watching Casino Royale before now, this is your last warning for SPOILERS, which commence after this image of two characters sharing a shower in a very un-Bond-movie-like fashion…
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
The long game
With Craig and Dench in place, the producers considered stars Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, and Audrey Tautou for the crucial role of Vesper, but chose up-and-coming French star Eva Green instead of a big Oscar-calibre name.
Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, and Jesper Christensen all fit in with the series tradition of casting European actors rather than Hollywood stars too. Indeed, arguably the biggest name in the cast at the time was Jeffrey Wright, who became the eighth and longest-serving actor to play CIA agent Felix Leiter.
Behind the scenes, Campbell’s brief was to embrace the practical side again after the previous instalment’s digital cluster-fumble. Further grounding the film, Purvis and Wade’s script (which was rewritten by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis before filming) has a cynical streak that lives up to both the state of the genre circa The Bourne Identity and the geopolitical climate.
Accordingly, Fleming’s Le Chiffre is modernised as a disaster capitalist and terrorist accountant, but made utterly indelible by Mikkelsen’s fearsome performance. Bond doesn’t face him until the midpoint, but the film doesn’t obfuscate his motivations for the sake of a midpoint reveal (wish that had caught on) and unusually, we’re made to feel his desperation to win even before his shareholders and then his paymasters crash the party.
Despite his assorted quirks making it through the adaptation intact, the drive for an understated villain makes a nice change. He’s a villain Bond could easily bump off, no questions asked, but after establishing 007 as a killer early on, there’s innate suspense in the need to keep Le Chiffre alive, even so far as saving him from other would-be assassins.
Elsewhere, it says more about Fleming’s novels than the films that the two most highly regarded female characters are the two who die, but then if you cast Eva Green and Diana Rigg as any of the others, you might get somewhere too. As it stands, Green’s unforgettable turn casts almost as long a shadow over future films as her character does in all those extended call-backs.
Vesper’s role gets a huge glow-up in the adaptation, whether that’s in leading the objections to the old-fashioned idea of staking Treasury money on a card game the whole time that it’s mansplained to her (and the audience), or the unusually tender scene where Bond comforts her as she sits in the shower, fully clothed and traumatised after a violent encounter.
In a Bond movie with no shortage of dazzling action sequences and cinematography, it speaks volumes that the shower scene is the most iconic shot – except maybe Craig’s Ursula Andress moment in the Bahamas, which is another huge step forward for the series.
Later, it’s a scene with Vesper that gives this reboot its mission statement – it takes away the “Bond, James Bond” armour that’s calcified the character’s development over the last few films. In a film that’s themed around gambling, an inexperienced Bond spends as long, if not more time, making up for his mistakes than swanning around at his ease, and decides to quit while he’s ahead.
But that can’t be the end. Disorienting though it is on first viewing, the film’s unusual five-act plot structure is what makes this one so endlessly rewatchable. It effectively starts with a two-act action-packed mini-movie for the first hour, like a B-picture before the main feature, a faithful but modernised adaptation of Fleming’s novel.
It confidently adapts the pivotal poker game and the infamous torture sequence, duly shot through with more conventional action beats, but that second-wind last act expands on the novel’s more perfunctory ending. Having Bond want to kill Vesper then try to save her, only to lose her anyway, seals the film as a different sort of story.
The marvel is that the story never feels like a part-work because it’s so well worked through thematically. Once Bond decides to walk away, you need that twist where the game changes under his feet and solidifies him, right at the last moment, with that catchphrase and that long-awaited eruption of Monty Norman’s Bond theme to send us soaring into the end credits.
On the back of rave reviews, Casino Royale became the new highest-grossing James Bond movie by the end of its theatrical run, returning $616.5 million in cinemas worldwide. It also earned a bunch of awards nominations, with a fully vindicated Craig becoming the first Bond actor to date to pick up a Best Actor BAFTA nomination for playing 007 (though Forest Whitaker won for The Last King Of Scotland).
More importantly, it makes the series viable for a whole new audience simply by asking what a new James Bond film should do in the 21st century and then doing it. It’s ironic with the context of the later Craig films, but this may be the first Bond film since The Spy Who Loved Me that doesn’t presume its own event movie status but works hard for it. In that, it’s almost the opposite of Campbell’s previous outing.
Beneath all its crunch and grit and crash-bang-wallop, Casino Royale stylishly refurbishes the franchise’s old wares and defers the usual fan service until it’s well and truly earned. It takes Bond out of its comfort zone and in every stunt, every scene, every choice, it justifies itself with distinction. Everyone has their favourites when it comes to this franchise, but it’s objectively the best film of the lot by most measures. And once more, for the cheap seats – what an opening…
Casino Royale is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 2nd September.
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