Casino Royale (2006) Movie Review / “007 and Counting”: The Life and Times of the James Bonds

In Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People”, a film about the London music and club scene of the 1970s and 80s, the Tony Wilson character claims that it was the invention of broccoli that funded the James Bond films. Believe it or not, there is supposedly some truth to this: Albert R. Broccoli, who with partner Harry Saltzman, bought the initial rights to the Fleming novels, is supposedly a descendent of the Broccoli family of Calabria, Italy. According to New York Times articles at the time of his death, his family “…crossed cauliflower and rabe and named the new vegetable after themselves,” and “Mr. Broccoli said one of his uncles brought the first broccoli seeds into the United States in the 1870s.” Following Saltzman’s bankruptcy and sale of his shares in the early 70’s, Albert R. Broccoli has been the sole producer of the Bond films, finally turning over the reigns to his daughter Barbara and his step-son Michael G. Wilson in what can only be described as a family business.

There have been 21 “official” James Bond films to date, all of which were produced with an iron fist that has caused more than one Bond to walk out, and directors to be reduced to mere stunt choreographers. But the Broccoli-Wilsons have been right more often than wrong, and the changes they implemented across five decades have kept the character alive even when they seemed way behind the times. The previous Bond epic, “Die Another Day” could be seen as the “Once Upon A Time in The West” for the classic Bond film formula. An end of the road for the Bond movie-movie. All of the trademarks and mannerisms were pushed so far to the extreme that even outright parody could appear deadpan. It was clear that this kind of cynical mockery left no room to go but up in flames.

So, just like the dead Batman franchise a few years ago, “Bond Begins” again with this very exciting and quite faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel, “Casino Royale”, a much more down to earth and noir-ish pulp adventure. Trying to reconnect with an audience in this new century, the Bond producers have created a paradox: a film which turns back the clock and also erases it, retconning the entire franchise from the ground up. Like the lost memories of Jason Bourne, whose successful film series clearly did not go unnoticed by the producers of “Casino Royale”, Bond is in search of his own identity — only here it’s not forgotten, but rather unformed.

Gone are Miss Moneypenny, Q with his gadgets, and most of the series’ trademark outlandishness. The new 007 (Daniel Craig, “Layer Cake”) gets his drinks shaken, stirred, bruised and poisoned. This is Bond born again hard. A lean, mean spying machine. Fleming’s 1953 novel introduced MI6 agent 007 to the world in a Cold War adventure in which Bond finds himself battling the Soviet assassination bureau SMERSH. Their agent Le Chiffre has lost vast sums of SMERSH money and is trying to win it all back in a high stakes game of Baccarat at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond is sent to beat Le Chiffre at the card table, a loss which would place him in a very desperate position with his superiors.

To watch the Crown’s cash, British secret service accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “Kingdom of Heaven”) is sent to accompany Bond. Vesper is both smart and beautiful, but also secretive and emotionally turbulent. She and Bond become lovers, and in this first adventure, Bond is not just playing a role — he actually falls in love with Vesper, and this vulnerability leads to tragedy and the hardening of the agent’s heart.

For the 2006 adaptation by Kevin Wade, Neil Purvis and Paul Haggis (“Crash”), cosmetic changes to the basic plot of Fleming’s novel have been made, but most of the novel has been left intact. The cold war has been replaced by international terrorism, and the card game of choice is not Baccarat Chermin-de-Fer, but rather the current popular obsession, Texas Hold-em. This way, about 60 percent of the audience can follow the game as opposed to the Sphinx-like mystery of the Connery films, where phrases like “banco” and “pass the shoe” left most of the audience in a daze.

The only comical changes from book to movie are Craig’s homo-erotic swimwear, which is second only to Borat’s in hilarity, and the way the plot would cease to function without the use of cellphones. Seriously, 007 seem to solve every problem with a stolen cellphone, and it seems either a joke on our modern dependency on the damn thing or mere laziness of the scriptwriters. I’m betting on the latter.

Right from the start, we feel we’re on unusual ground as the pre-credits sequence uses very noir-ish black and white to dramatize just what it took for Bond to get his license to kill. Whatever reservations one may have had regarding Daniel Craig as the new Bond or the general approach of the movie are quickly lost as we watch Bond brutally battling it out with a thug in a bright white restroom, then spinning about to fire his Walther PPK at the camera as the trademark gun barrel suddenly appears over the image with bright red blood washing down the screen. Very cool. It’s been a long time since a Bond film did anything resembling cool, and this was once a series noted for its coolness.

The biggest surprise for a series that is well into its fifth decade is that the script does not rely on the very efficient set-piece formula established by “Goldfinger” in 1964, when Bond went from a modestly successful pair of thrillers (“Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love”) to an international pop phenomenon. Roald Dahl wrote an article in the late 60’s in which he describes in riotous detail his efforts to adapt Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” as the 5th Bond epic. Dahl was introduced by the Bond producers to the Bond formula, which he was expected to follow:

Broccoli: “You put in three girls… Girl number one is pro-Bond. She stays around roughly through the first reel of the picture. Then she is bumped off by the enemy, preferably in Bond’s arms.”

Saltzman: “Girl number two is anti-Bond and usually captures him, and he has to save himself by knocking her out with his sexual charm and power. She gets killed in an original (usually grisly) fashion mid-way through the film.”

Broccoli: “The third girl will manage to survive to the end of the film.”

In between these three girls, one for each act, Bond must maneuver through a series of escalating and interchangeable action sequences, through which he uncovers the villainous plot and expensively designed lair. Dahl was hired because of his name value as a writer, but also, presumably, because he was friends with Fleming himself. It’s questionable whether they would’ve remained friends had Fleming lived long enough to actually see this outlandish concoction of Connery “turning Japanese”, Donald Pleasance as Dr. Evil screaming, “Kill Bond — Now!”, and spacecrafts “swallowing” up other spacecrafts like steel sharks. If you ever wondered where Mike Myers got his ideas for “Austin Powers” from, most of it is here, and played relatively straight. Dahl even adds ill-tempered sharks.

“You Only Live Twice” was the first Bond film in which the content of the novel was thrown out with only the title surviving the chopping block. It was really here that the template for the rest of the series was laid out, since even the previous film, the wildly successful “Thunderball”, was very much the work of Ian Fleming. From this point on, despite the occasional attempt to scale down and recapture the Fleming touch (i.e. “For Your Eyes Only”), the Bond films would reduce Bond himself to a supporting player amid a structure built around spectacle.

Bond would no longer have to use his wits to get out of sticky situations, since he will have been given some gadget that happens to be perfect for the job at hand. He would also no longer be allowed to kill a man as coldly and efficiently as he did in “Dr. No”: Professor Dent, who has just emptied his gun into what he believed to be Bond lying in bed, discovers that Bond is actually calmly sitting in a chair behind him, armed with a Walther PPK and silencer. Before finishing off the professor, Bond quips, “That’s a Smith and Wesson, Professor, and you’ve had your six,” like an English Steve McQueen. He even shoots the Professor an extra time once he’s down for good measure.

By cleaning up his act, the whole notion of the Double-O is rendered moot: Bond would no longer really be the licensed assassin his designation implied. He would become nothing more than a suave playboy cop in a tailored tux and stylish car. Bond would become adaptable to all trends in all times. This adaptability has insured his survival over the years, as the Bond producers would never consider challenging the audience’s tastes, and simply served them the Bond they wanted.

Once “Goldfinger” proved that audiences really grooved on the crazy gadgets in the Aston Martin and the more jokey style filled with sly one-liners, the producers decided to keep going this way. Since Fleming’s plots often got in the way of the successful formula, they would simply have to be discarded. With “You Only Live Twice”, the cast was set, and about ten years later, “The Spy Who Loved Me” would even remake “Twice’s” exact plot.

“Casino Royale” is the longest Bond film thus far, clocking in at 144 minutes, but not many of them are wasted in a tightly constructed tale told in three clearly separated acts. Act one is the most traditional of the three, in that it features much of what we’ve come to expect from the Bond formula. Bond investigates, sneaks about right under the noses of mentally challenged security guards, finds the vaguely homosexual rich subterrorist, humiliates him as a man at the card table, and screws his woman for information before leaving her to a horrible fate while he pursues his prey. We get a mini version of this for the first 40 minutes or so of “Royale”, which climaxes with its own grand set piece set at an airport runway.

Act two is all in the cards, and chronicles Bond’s attempts to beat arch villain Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelson) at his own game. Between rounds of Texas Hold-em, Bond fights off machete wielding South African thugs and slowly gains the trust and affections of Vesper Lynd. Looking like a cross between Isabelle Adjani and Snow White, Eva Green is as stunning to look at here as she was in Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers”. Green goes beyond her difficult role with an even bigger challenge: transcending the Bond girl stereotype. She transcends it on the level of Diana Rigg in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, which was not surprisingly the last Bond film where Bond actually fell in love. Vesper is an unforgettable Bond character, and in this new reboot she seems destined to haunt Bond in future films to come.

The third act follows a torture scene that will have male viewers thinking that “Saw” and “Hostel” are kindergarten lessons in pain. This act meanders a bit, but the movie is on strange ground as Bond actually resigns and goes on a holiday with Vesper. You know this is temporary bliss, and soon everything will come apart.

What you get with “Royale” is actually a coming of age story within the context of a spy adventure. Bond doesn’t just saunter through the usual adventure game where he is the master player, as he does in the Roger Moore era in particular. He goes through this adventure in the classic manner of the Hero’s journey as seen in classic literature from Frodo to Harry Potter. Only this is James Bond, so part of his journey involves having sex with hot women and releasing tension through brutal killings.

Bond is a bit more naïve here, as well as foolishly trusting. His feelings for Vesper lead him into deep trouble and seem to be the clear catalyst to the cold agent he is to become in which women are only used to benefit “queen and country”. The betrayals teach Bond that no one can be trusted, and since Double-O’s do not have long life expectancies, a life lived day by day is the only one imaginable. It is this pop existentialism that may truly define the Daniel Craig era of Bond. Hopefully, the next films can develop exciting adventure plots while also probing just why Bond chooses to live this dangerous life. “What Makes 007 Run?” It is the hero archetype of our times: tough, ready for action, but wary of the consequences to both the world, and perhaps more importantly, one’s own humanity.

But which actor made the best Bond? Woody Allen? David Niven? Peter Sellers? Lets forget about the first version of “Casino Royale”, as its tomfoolery is a waste of internet space. What we are concerned with are the Bonds that make up the 21 official 007 films. The five previous actors who have played the role each represented a different flavor of masculine sexuality: Connery’s brute Scotsman chauvinist, Lazenby’s male model on holiday, Moore’s proper English gentleman, Dalton’s safety Bond-in-a-condom, and the Brosnan Blender, mixing Moore with Connery in an attempt to update and variate a character that was beyond post modern. All represented an ideal of their times.

Bond began initially as the prototypical swinging ’60s male epitomized by Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy” model. Hef created “Playboy” out of his desire to tear down the male image of his youth: the male among other males enjoying the pleasures of being male, which meant sports fishing, camping, or hunting while the women stayed home, preferably in the kitchen. The strange segregation of the sexes in recreation was the Howard Hawks ideal of male bonding. The Bond Male was instead the literary embodiment of Hefner’s challenge: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and a hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion of Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, and sex.” Why leave the women at home when you can have more fun with them than reeling in bass?

The casting of the “unrefined” Scotsman Sean Connery in the role of what Fleming believed to be the quintessential Englishman was a powerful concept. Connery himself was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and did not come from the aristocracy. He was a footballer, and had held many labor intensive jobs, working as a truck driver and even taking third in the Tall Man’s division of the 1953 Mr. Universe competition. When cast as Bond, Connery spent many hours being educated by director Terence Young in the ways of the sophisticated Englishman. He learned about wines, about the right kind of clothes and cars. He submerged his Scottish burr under the weight of a more “proper” English accent and the result was unforgettable. What was a practical necessity turned out to have been the perfect mix.

Connery played Bond as a gentleman, but below the surface, the rough and very physical man came through in scene after scene to give this Bond the powerful masculinity that still appeals today. The next four Bonds were reactions in one way or another to this powerful image as represented by Connery, and could not help pivoting off of Connery in one way or another. In each subsequent performance, Bond would be drained of much that resembled an actual character, to be replaced more and more by stuntmen, and finally in “Die Another Day”, a computer generated Bond wind surfing and engaging in a high-speed car chase on ice.

Daniel Craig is the first actor since Connery to have been given the chance to define, rather than redefine the role. In “Casino Royale”, M (Judi Dench) refers to Bond as a “blunt instrument”, but Craig delivers much more than this in an excellent performance; the flat out best acted Bond since Connery’s work in “From Russia With Love”. And if Connery did not precede him, Craig would easily own this role. Craig brings a laconic charm and masked sensitivity never before seen in the character. By the end of the film, he seems to have buried this sensitivity for all time with the powerful line taken straight from the Fleming novel, “The bitch is dead.” There is hope, however, that subsequent films will play on this complex nature, making Bond the point of the films instead of digital fireballs or crazy villains.

Jeffrey Wright (“Syriana”) appears in “Casino Royale” as CIA agent Felix Leiter, who prevents Bond from making a huge mistake, and hopefully will return in future films to actually create the kind of Bond-Leiter relationship featured in the books, ending powerfully with “Live And Let Die”, which is definitely primed for a remake. Mads Mikkelson plays the standard Euro-villain who is seemingly always depicted as some kind of kinky sadomasochist. Here, he has a scarred eyeball which “weeps” bloody tears. In some ways, he reminded me of Klaus Maria Brandauer in the “unofficial” Bond movie, “Never Say Never Again”. Although underwritten, Mikkelson makes a formidable villain at the card table, and later with a thick rope which, the less spoken about, the better.

So, “Casino Royale” is a reboot, but not within a vacuum. Bond is still Bond, and the classic trademarks are very much intact. The film is simply clever in the manner in which the trademarks are deployed or delayed. This is most clearly demonstrated by the way in which the classic Monty Norman “007” theme is used. Basically, it’s not. Snippets are laced throughout the beautiful David Arnold score, but never the familiar da-da-da-da riff.

What they have done is hold it off until the end, where Bond, dressed in the familiar tux and armed with a smoking machine gun, stands over a bleeding villain. The soon-to-be-dead man looks up and asks the familiar question, “Who are you?” Bond answers sardonically, “The name’s Bond. James Bond”, and now the 007 theme erupts onscreen, sending chills up the spine of longtime fans, and sending the masses out of the theater salivating at the prospect of another Bond adventure. Whoever came up with that idea deserves a special Academy Award.

The last words onscreen read: “James Bond Will Return!” Of course he will. He’s weathered five decades, six actors, changing times, and many imitators. The difference is that for the first time in years, we actually want him back.

Martin Campbell (director) / Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis (screenplay), Ian Fleming (novel)
CAST: Daniel Craig …. James Bond
Eva Green …. Vesper Lynd
Mads Mikkelsen …. Le Chiffre
Judi Dench …. M
Jeffrey Wright …. Felix Leiter
Giancarlo Giannini …. Mathis
Caterina Murino …. Solange
Simon Abkarian …. Alex Dimitrios
Isaach De Bankol’ …. Steven Obanno
Jesper Christensen …. Mr. White
Ivana Milicevic …. Valenka