I've written a few of these essay types for some of the Brosnan Bond films and they provided lively debates before, so I thought I'd share some thoughts of Daniel's first outing, Casino Royale:
The first thing that immediately hits you when watching CR is quite how good-looking and stylish the film is. Its all quite shocking considering the film was directed by the same Martin Campbell who made 'Vertical Limit' and 'Beyond Borders' only a few years previously. I know 'Goldeneye' was an excellent movie but the sheer ambition of telling the story of Bond’s origins immediately outweigh Campbell’s earlier 1995 effort. It’s almost like the director had a personality bypass – and the style is helped along with a rather remarkable turn by DP Phil Mehuex. I know Roger Deakins won plaudits for his work on 'Skyfall', but Mehuex’s lighting and camerawork here is great and the movie is beautifully glossy, opulent and stylised. It’s by far one of the greatest looking Bond movies.
The pre-titles are one of my favourites in the series for the simple reason that it sets the tone for the next two hours so well. The black-and-white and intercut nature of the first and second kill feel all very art-house but there is still an undercurrent of humour there (albeit very dark) but more importantly the film sets out one of the big thematic concerns that runs throughout the film: Violence and the repercussions of said violence.
This is a film full of rather gruelling and often very difficult-to-watch fight sequences. The violence is hard-hitting and the fights do make you winch (a lot has been said about the bathroom and stairwell scenes but a really underrated fight is actually between Bond and Carlos inside the tanker – a great claustrophobic battle). But this isn’t a Tarantino-esque glamorisation of violence, yes the film does linger on the violence (occasionally to harrowing extends – eg, Obanno’s murder and Vesper’s final suicide) but what makes it work is that the character’s really pay for the consequences of the violence. There’s a real pain going on at the centre of CR.
After Bond kills Fisher he’s almost sickened when he looks down at the man’s dead body, and Dryden knows it; “He made you feel ‘it’, didn’t he.” And that’s the point; we really feel 'it' - emotionally and physically. After watching him battle we’re just as drained as Bond. It’s even evident after Bond kills Dryden and we get a brief glimpse of the man with his family in a photo framed on his desk. It's very likely that Bond knew he was killing a family man, after all he was rummaging through Dryden's desk for his gun so I'm sure he saw the photo. It really feels like people are losing things emotionally in this movie. The real masterstroke was moving the gunbarrel and incorporating it into the film as it plays into the whole ‘creation myth’ angle the filmmaker’s have decided to explore in CR; but also as the first colour we see is Fisher’s blood flowing down the screen; it seems an important symbolic gesture as at this point there is no going back for Bond – he is a man forever with blood on his hands. The black-and-white representing his life before.
The pain this violence causes really shows that Bond is losing something; most likely his own humanity as the killings begin to take their toll on him and start to eat away and corrode at his soul. This is a very similar dilemma to Fleming’s Bond. Marring this together with all the fun, excitement and humour of a Bond film, we’re really on to a winner.
And that brings us nicely on to the man himself: Bond. In a good ‘Bond movie’ it’s the plot that moves the film forward, in the bad ones it’s often the gadgetry and action sequences but CR takes a different route as here the film is built entirely around Bond. In a rather unusual turn, 'Casino Royale' is actually a character piece with a marvellous conceit to it – how did Bond become the man we know and love? When we first meet Bond in DN and he introduces himself to Sylvia Trench he arrives as a fully-formed character, never needing to explain or justify himself and it was always a massive part of his allure, but after over 40 years and 20 films the character had stagnated. CR is a breath-of-fresh-air as Bond immediately becomes more of a human-being as we see the journey of how James Bond became 007 and what it emotionally cost him.
The plot really takes a backseat as its the character himself who is given predominance. For instance the opening parkour chase is a perfect example of developing character through action – Mollaka is a seasoned professional, he’s quicker, more graceful and better than Bond in every way. Bond is sluggish, ham-fisted, clumsy and makes tons of mistakes but he keeps going. Why? Because he’s a tenacious, driven and determined to get the job done. While Mollaka uses his environment to get around to his advantage, Bond has to destroy his environment to get his target.
Campbell knows how to string an action sequence together as the stakes are constantly being raised throughout the multi-tiered segment, it makes Sam Mendes’s attempt in SF even more obvious as a Martin Campbell impression. The brilliance of the sequence is really in the way it climaxes. Everything you need to know about Daniel’s Bond in CR happens in that Embassy. Here we have Bond run into an Embassy to get his man, shoot the place up only to kill his target in the one place he can’t. And why does he do it? Because he’s beat and he’s pissed off that these bastards have got the better of him. The sequence tells us so much in so little words, it shows Bond as the arrogant idealistic prat he really is at the start of his career. Even after it seems like he’s learnt some lessons (he acknowledges to Vesper he ‘may’ have been arrogant later), he still decides it’s better to cause a scene and stab Le Chiffre in the casino than let this man better him. He begins the film as a bit of a hothead with an a attitude problem far from the seasoned vet we know from DN onwards.
Furthermore, Bond is actually at times rather detestable; Craig though is so charismatic that you forgive Bond even when he does things quite morally reprehensible. The way he treats Solange is pretty bad, he notices her and her husband have a bad relationship so he takes advantage of the situation only later to tell us that he likes relationships with married woman. He isn’t a particularly nice man; but he’s very interesting. Bond is undeniably a male chauvinist in the film (just think about that scene when he gives Vesper a dress to wear just to make sure she does look ‘fabulous’). It’s all capped off brilliantly with quite how cheeky he is during the casino game with Vesper; he sees her looking fantastic when she walks in so he decides to go over to kiss her; why? Because he feels like he has some God given right to – it all feeds towards showing the audience how arrogant this man is.
Even when Bond is being berated by M, he’s likely not listening because to him the death of one bombmaker is significant, but the truth is he’s wrong and of course when Le Chiffre has him tied to that chair it dawns on him how short-sighted he’s been. Bond is an idealistic moron, that actually thinks the death of Mollaka or bankrupting Le Chiffre will make a difference. After all the death of Mollaka hardly stops Le Chiffre, instead merely delaying his plan. However; what is most interesting about the movie is that Bond’s righteous attitude to go after the bad guys is juxtaposed to the issues he’s having carrying out his job, as all the deaths really do affect him. When he kills Dimitrioes that’s a flicker of guilt in Bond eyes, moreover when he stares at Solange’s dead body and Villers goes off to barf, Bond knows he’s responsible and when M starts to grill him he can’t even stand to look at Solange’s corpse much longer. This all plays to the thematic importance of the violence in this film and the pain it inflicts on the characters especially Bond himself. But Bond has his armour up and not even M can see through it, she thinks Bond is an emotionally distant cold son-of-a-bitch.
So that brings us nicely on to Vesper. I was always someone who never bought the Vesper relationship and complained that it felt tacked on for the final 30 minutes of the film. How wrong was I. The heartbeat of this film is the Vesper/Bond relationship – it’s what the whole thing is all about. Bond is emotionally cold and shut-off or at least that’s the image he presents to the world, not even M can see how vulnerable he is, but Vesper does. She sizes him up the moment they meet and reads him like a book – like probably no one has ever done before.
So when Obanno’s death really rocks her and her and Bond are later having dinner and she asks how he can “switch off so easily”, while Bond assures her it’s all part of the job, she knows better when she says; “I don’t believe you”. She’s the only one who can see past Bond’s armour and see who he really is. The Obanno fight is a gruelling and rather uncomfortable to watch; as we see the life leave the man’s eyes, we the audience know Bond struggled with the killing. The way he winces at the wound inflicted on his head, necks the glass of brandy, splashes his face with the bloody water before finally confronting the man he hardly recognises in the mirror: A Monster.
But it’s the shower scene that’s the most important segment in the movie; all the previous 5 Bond’s would pull her out and comfort her and likely sleep with her, but Daniel’s rookie 007 joins her without even questioning her motives for sitting under there. It’s haunting and evocative, as on one side of the fence it seems like a very masculine protective thing to do. However, Bond really sits in the shower because emotionally he’s been sitting there for a long while and he understands exactly what Vesper is going through and the way he holds her is less protective and maybe more akin to two scared children hiding away in their own little corner of the world. The violence is brutal and real but the pain comes from the characters and that’s what makes Casino Royale really sing as a film. Vesper is the only one who got an inside look into 007’s inner life and knows what our hero is truly going through. Of course he loves her, he has no other choice.
What though is so integral about the relationship is the importance it has in this genesis tale. This story is about Bond becoming Bond. Once he realises that he can’t go on doing what he’s doing with the damage it’s doing to his soul, Vesper offers him a way out and a chance to leave with what little soul he has left. It’s this part of the film where Bond is humanised almost to the point of unrecognizability. This man is truly very vulnerable and fragile but that’s what’s so great about Vesper’s betrayal because it has to harden him and force him to close up.
The honeymoon is truly over in Venice, and what a great finale it is. Venice seems a fitting place for their relationship to crumble (a palazzo in the sinking city of love itself). When Bond coldly kills one of Gettler’s guards and answers Gettler’s cries of murdering Vesper with “allow me”; it’s clear that Bond has become Bond – the transformation is complete and of course a woman was the reason behind why his heart froze over. Vesper showed him a way out and abruptly closed the door on him, leaving Bond with nowhere to go except for back to M and Mi6.
The film is very smart in this regard as it doesn’t go down the obvious route of showing a young Bond having a great eureka moment to join Mi6 and fight the good fight and instead shows the more interesting journey about a vulnerable Bond finally becoming the cold ruthless 007. As I said earlier when Connery said the immortal line to Sylvia Trench in DN, 007 arrived to cinema audiences around the world. So in a rather marvellous piece of storytelling CR essentially re-interprets that sequence only this time instead of opening the picture it tails the movie. When Bond shoots Mr. White and introduces himself – 007 has arrived and when the theme music plays we know exactly who he is.
When Bond says ‘the bitch is dead’; he understands the rules of the game, his doomed relationship with Vesper and his torture from Le Chiffre has opened his rather closed mind and we now confront a man aware of the bigger picture and ready to go after the threat behind the threat.
The movie is impeccably cast even the minor roles – I could gush for years about how great Daniel Craig is, but so many have already. He brings all his acting prowess as well as a great physicality that sells himself as a killer. He looks almost demonic as he sits across the casino table facing off Le Chiffre but his screen-presence is undeniable and his eyes are captivating. Furthermore, the rest of the supporting cast are truly on form.
However, the film does have some issues, most I think occur during the end of the first act, after the Madagascar chase the film is padded out with an awful lot of shoeleather – Bond sitting on laptops, driving a Mondeo etc – that really slow down the affair, it’s not really till after the Miami chase and Vesper’s introduction that the pacing begins to kick back in and the film changes gear. Whilst I love the Miami action sequence; CR is a rare breed of Bond film as the dialogue and character moments are actually far more exciting than the action beats.
Also Le Chiffre’s plot (like the book) isn’t really all that thrilling, but it doesn’t distract too much as the film isn’t really about the plot it’s about Bond’s transformation and the card game is really more exciting than the action sequences in the film. It’s cut together so tensely, so while Bond and Le Chiffre don’t have a physical fight they still have this epic battle across the card table without even uttering as much as a word to each other as each tries to undercut and unnerve the other, both on and off the poker table. Le Chiffre is a fascinating villain as he’s really a desperate man, almost a vampire who’s been forced to lift his head above his parapet to reclaim his losses, he’s a coward who’s trapped by his creditors on one side and Quantum of the other, both after his head. It makes him a far more exciting character especially when the torture sequence comes around (fantastically photographed by Meheux) because you can smell the desperation on him and Bond who while initially almost frightened by the whole ordeal (it seems that at this point Bond realises how in over his head he really is), soon acknowledges his inevitable death and won’t go down without a fight. It makes the whole affair more real and far more haunting.
So if you’re got this far without me boring you; CR is a true classic in the Bond cannon as we deal with the repercussions of Bond’s violent lifestyle as he looses his grasp of his own humanity. Less a film of necessity to keep Bond’s commercial viability intact but instead an interesting artistic endeavour that that gives a great character study into who James Bond was and who he inevitably ends up as. The film rids the series of pastiche and formula but thanks to the stylish direction of Martin Campbell never feels anything less than the greatest Bond film ever made.