So what did Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale do for the Bond franchise? Well, I’m not a huge aficionado or scholar of these films like some so I tend to look at each one on its own as an action adventure piece rather than observe how it fits into the jigsaw legacy of this mammoth series, but there’s no denying that this one kind of broke several moulds before it. After the garish 90’s heyday of Pierce Brosnan (I *love* all four of those films to bits) I feel like they just wanted to bring Bond down to earth a bit, distill the aesthetic into something that cleanses too many gadgets and what have you, cast someone darker and more dangerous and blast out a new trajectory for the character. Good plan.
Casino Royale is not only a splendidly exciting film on its own but the best, most impactful and unique 007 film since 1989’s ruthless and underrated License To Kill. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is an angry warrior who fucks up just like the rest of us and is fallible, not some invincible deity in a tux that can’t get hurt, deceived, betrayed or killed without tangible consequences. An early mission sees him tasked by Judi Dench’s then immortal M to infiltrate a high stakes poker game in some swanky French locale and gain information on dangerous arms dealer and terrorist Le Chiffre, played by vicious, predatory Mads Mikkelsen in one of my favourite Bond baddie portrayals. As if he isn’t in enough over his head, he meets the beautiful but equally dangerous Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the most unique Bond girl since… who knows when. I love that she’s a self aware human being who has her reasons for falling into bed with him instead of just being a pair of tits with a voice as seen in countless entries before. Green has sex appeal for days but what makes her special is that way her eyes smoulder with a fierce independence and unpredictability, making her one of the most fascinating characters the whole franchise has to offer. Also supporting them is the great Giancarlo Giannini as a mentor of sorts for Bond, Jeffrey Wright as CIA operative Felix, Catarina Murino, Isaach De Bankolé, Jesper Christensen, Sebastian Foucan, Tobias Menzies, Richard Sammel, Tyrone the silly fat bastard from Snatch, Russian character actress Ivana Milicevic and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson of all people, if you look real close.
In terms of scope and staging, this is a kind of unique 007 film because it shirks the standards and ducks expectations. It opens with a spectacular chase like any other in the franchise, which is a monumental sequence in terms of stunt work. But much of the film is spent in the ornate casinos of France and a lot of the action is the casual intimidation and cerebral mind games that go alongside the poker match. There’s nothing quite like Craig and Mikkelsen sat opposite one another in tuxes, Mads bleeding out of his sinister looking dead eye and Daniel smirking at him like he wants to rip his head off, while Green looks on and let’s her ulterior motives simmer on the back burner for later. Cinematographer Phil Meheux takes full advantage of these rich, lushly production designed interior shots as well as the gorgeous outdoor rim of the Mediterranean that we get to see quite a bit of. My only real complaint is a third act that feels like it barrels in from another film; that’s not to say it’s bad or doesn’t work, it’s just a tad unwieldy with the landing and threw me off in terms of tone or climax but I suppose that could have been the intention. I’ll just say that this thing ends in the last possible way you’d expect from a 007, feeling fresh, raw and off the rails in a beautiful fashion that doesn’t tread the beaten path of so many before, but blazes out its own tragic, violent conclusion that will claim a piece of Bond’s soul but add much needed spirit to this series as a whole. Great film, and my second favourite Bond of all time after Skyfall.