Monday, January 26, 2015

Casino Royale - 2006

Background: I'll begin this with some personal stuff. Casino Royale was the first Bond film I saw after my father passed away in 2005. The Bond films were something that we shared, always had since he first took me to see Live And Let Die at the drive-in when I was still quite young. Even if we didn't actually see the film together we both saw it at some point and discussed it afterwards. For that reason, and others which I'll probably go into as we go through it, I was very worried about Casino Royale and what I was hearing about the film. Oh, I was still always going to see it. I think some friends and I already had tickets booked. On the day it premiered one of those friends (equally as a big a fan as I am) rang me and asked if I had plans. He had scored a couple of corporate freebies to a premiere screening and one of the other guys he worked with couldn't make it, did I want to take his place? Did I what? Even if I had plans, I would have cancelled them. You don't get this sort of opportunity with a Bond film very often, so when you do, you take it with both hands!

I think once the 20th film was in the bag Eon underwent a shift in thinking. They'd honoured Cubby Broccoli's legacy and it was time for Bond to go back to where it all started and grow up a little. Despite Pierce Brosnan's brilliant portrayal of the character (and I still regard him as the best Bond when it comes to superficial things like look and voice) it was time for something new and different. The world of action films had changed since Pierce Brosnan first strode onto the screen in Goldeneye in 1995 and uttered the immortal words: 'Bond...James Bond.' The antihero was king now, over the years Bond had morphed from being a hard edged anti hero to something softer, a sort of untouchable superhero who saw things in an unrealistic black and white, rather than the shades of grey they often are.

Maybe none of that was really behind their thinking and they sat on their hands as far as Bond was concerned and concentrated more on the never to be Jinx spinoff they were planning. Certainly not much happened prior to 2003 when MGM cancelled the plans for the spin off and instead concentrated more on what was at the time known as Bond 21, then a lot began to happen.

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first James Bond book and it was the book that I'm sure Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wanted to film when they first entered into their partnership, but it was the one Ian Fleming property that Saltzman did not have the rights to. Eon did not get the rights to the book until 1999 when Sony Pictures exchanged them to MGM for the rights to Spider-Man. Although they went back to Sony before Casino Royale came out as they led a consortium that purchased MGM in 2005.

Neil Purvis and Robert Wade began writing a Bond script for Pierce Brosnan as Bond in Casino Royale in 2004, the idea was to strip Bond back to his beginnings. Quentin Tarantino had made noises about wanting to direct Casino Royale, however he never followed it up with Eon. He did claim that he had discussions with the Fleming family about it and wanted to film it entirely in black and white and starring Brosnan. He threw quite a tantrum when news came out that Eon were making Casino Royale and that they had a director and a star and they weren't Quentin Tarantino and Pierce Brosnan, nor would it be filmed entirely in black and white.

Everything that came out about the project, the loss of Brosnan as Bond, casting a very different actor (more on that in Casting), changing the cast, of the originals and regulars from the Brosnan era only Judi Dench's M would be left standing, indicated that this wasn't just another Bond film, this was a reboot.

It had to be really. Casino Royale is Fleming's first book about the character, it introduces audiences to him. The 20 previous films when changing actors had retained continuity. Lazenby's Bond is after Blofeld, a storyline that started in Connery's previous film You Only Live Twice, when Connery returned to the role in Diamonds Are Forever he's still after Blofeld. When Roger Moore put on the tuxedo he's dealing with the same M and Moneypenny and knows Felix Leiter. Dalton has the same M as Moore did for his last few outings as well as good old Q, and is also friends with Felix. Pierce Brosnan got a new everything else, except for Q, and his CIA contact was Jack Wade, they couldn't use Felix again as most of him was eaten by a shark in Licence To Kill. The stories coming out about Casino Royale said that audiences would see how Bond first became a 00 agent and that Felix Leiter was in it, but a totally different character as before in that he was being played by a black actor. I think this is where the theory that the name James Bond and the number 007 are actually different people first came about, people apply a similar logic to Felix, which explains his ever changing appearance. One thing that did remain the same was that Bond still favoured an Omega watch.

It was very revolutionary and this is why fans like me worried. You've had the same formula for over 40 years, it's been highly successful and now you want to mess with it. Why?

Having said all that and my misgivings that night in the cinema watching the new Bond my view of the films was forever transformed. I have 4 films that I rate higher than any of the other 23 Eon productions, Casino Royale is one of them. If pushed to select THE best Bond film (in my humble opinion of course) I would have say it's Casino Royale. It's as close to perfect as I have ever seen one of the films get.

Story: filming Casino Royale means taking the character back to the beginning. It's also not the easiest thing to film. Most of the action centres around a high stakes game of banco between Bond and the villain Le Chiffre. While Fleming loved the game and he knew the dark smoke filled world he was writing about it wouldn't have made the greatest viewing experience if it was filmed as it was written. About an hour of it would have been spent watching Bond get drunk in his hotel room.

In the end what they kept from the novel was the character names of Bond and Vesper as well as Le Chiffre, the banco game, although in deference to the time and for the audience's understanding the game was changed to poker (even in the 50's when they filmed Casino Royale for TV, there was an introduction to explain banco to the audience as it was not a well known game in the US, and it had not gained in popularity since) and the torture scene between Bond and Le Chiffre also survived largely intact, although this Le Chiffre preferred a heavy knotted rope to a carpet beater as his weapon of choice.

The story can be broken into a number of separate parts. Firstly Bond pursues a suspect connected to an international crime and terror ring in Madagascar. This chase sequence is one of the best ever filmed and it introduced a much wider audience to the sport of free running or parkour. The suspect was played by Sebastien Foucan, who was, and still is, one of the world's greatest free runners. There's quite a contrast as the bomber (Foucan) desperately tries to get away from Bond, he jumps over and through things, around them and bounces from side to side he seems to float in the air at times as he flows from movement to movement using what's around him to drive his forward momentum. I don't know who Craig's stunt double was, but unlike Foucan he simply barges through things rather than go over or around them, most notably a not quite completed drywall. It's a stunning scene that you simply can't take your eyes off and so inventively filmed. No crappy green screen here.

Bond then breaks into M's apartment (we later see that she's married, I assume the bloke next to her in bed is her husband unless she's got a tomboy, although he looked to be roughly the same age as her) and there's a wonderful exchange between Judi Dench and Daniel Craig, where they both act their pants off. M has an interesting relationship with this Bond. At times she doesn't much like him or his methods and has no qualms about letting him know it, she sees him as a blunt instrument, a thug, a gun for hire, which at this stage of his career, he is. There's a brief amusing exchange (some say that the Craig Bond's have no humour, they're wrong, they do have humour, it's just subtle and not in your face or desperately trying for the laugh the way earlier films often did) about M's real name. Bond said he assumed that it was a randomly assigned number he never thought it stood for, before he can finish it M tells him that she'll have him shot if he completes the sentence. I always wondered what her real name was and if it was some sort of state secret or very embarrassing. Apparently it's Barbara Mawdsley, and while that does sound rather like a frumpy old woman, it's not anything to be embarrassed or secretive about.

He winds up in Nassau. There's what I feel are a couple of callbacks to the earlier films here, not surprising given that most of Thunderball was also set in the Bahamas. The shot where Bond rises up out of the water wearing a pair of white/blue swim trunks and displays off his chiselled upper body is very reminiscent of Honey's introduction in Dr. No. The shot apparently came about by accident, they were doing locational shots when they noticed the reaction of female beach goers to Daniel Craig and shot the footage. The card game in the hotel casino between Dimitrios and Bond and then the fast drive he takes Solange on are straight out of Thunderball, although in that film it was Fiona Volpe who did the driving and it wasn't the DB5, which in this film he wins from Dimitrios (that could cause a continuity problem later on, but I'll get to that when the film pops up).

From Nassau, after seducing Solange and finding out she knows very little about her husband's business, he follows Dimitrios to Miami and after another electrifying and tense chase at an airport manages to prevent an aircraft from blowing up.

Back in Nassau Solange has been tortured and murdered due to her brief association with 007 and M tells Bond that the aeroplane was a new one and had it gone kaboom the company's stock would have fallen through the floor, because it didn't Le Chiffre took a bath and it was over $100,000,000 of someone else's money, it belonged to an African warlord, and he'll want it back. To that end the villain has set up a huge winner takes all poker match in which the pot will be over a hundred million. According to M's assistant Villiers (he basically replaces Moneypenny) Bond is the best poker player in the service (she wishes he weren't, she still sees him as a dangerous loose cannon) and so they're putting him in the game against Le Chiffre.

That's when the action crosses to Montenegro, the scenery is stunning. Bond meets MI6's accountant, a beautiful young lady with sparkling eyes, Vesper Lynd. There's a veiled Moneypenny reference when Vesper introduces herself as 'the money' and after looking her up and down Bond replies; 'and worth every penny of it'. Little touches like that made the script. There's a crackling energy between Craig and Eva Green, too, it sizzles every time they're on screen together.

During the game a lot happens. Some people have seen it as overlong and rather boring. Maybe it's because I like stories about capers and heists and they often include gambling, but I don't see it that way at all. The silent game of bluff and courage that happens as the players risk everything on the fall of a card is full of tension. Besides there are at least two attempts on Bond's life during the game. One comes during a break when Bond encounters two of the Africans who are pressuring Le Chiffre for their money and the other when Le Chiffre poisons Bond. The line about the last hand nearly killing him from Bond after he's narrowly avoided going into cardiac arrest is another example of the dry humour in the film.

After he wins Bond suggests that he and Vesper celebrate with a meal. It's at that meal that Bond names the martini he created during the poker game, and calls it a Vesper, it's also then that he speaks about the pendant she wears and identifies it as an Algierian love knot. Vesper takes a call from Mathis; their contact in Montenegro and leaves briefly.

That's when Bond realises that Mathis was betraying him (it was actually Vesper, but as he had fallen in love with her he refused to believe it) and runs out to see Vesper being dragged into a car by Le Chiffre's people. He gives chase in his own car, a new Aston Martin and winds up rolling it (the stunt set a record for complete car rolls at the time) and being taken by Le Chiffre.

To access the money Bond won Le Chiffre needs two things. The number which he can force Vesper into giving him and the password from Bond. Now this is why I had issues with the condition of Bond after 14 months of torture at the hands of the North Koreans in Die Another Day. In about 5 minutes with the assistance of a knotted rope Le Chiffre has Bond in intense pain, admittedly he's not going to give up the password, but he's not in great condition, even though someone from another organisation shoots Le Chiffre dead before he can get really creative, Bond still needs to be hospitalised for a period to recover from what Le Chiffre did to him. He also delivers Mathis into the hands of MI6, because he's still convinced he was the betrayer.

The film then enters it's 3rd and final part. Bond and Vesper decide to leave their respective jobs and float until one of them needs to get an honest job, which Bond says will need to be Vesper, because he doesn't think he knows how to do an honest job. They go to Venice. While cruising along the Grand Canal, Vesper spots a man wearing glasses with one blacked out lens and the sight of him bothers her.

After a passionate night or two of love making Vesper says they need to be away, she'll get the money, he gets the supplies. Just after she leaves Bond receives a call from M, yes she does want to discuss his resignation, but more pressing is the presence of the treasury representative who wants to know when he'll be depositing the money he won from Le Chiffre. That's when the penny drops for Bond and a quick call to the Swiss banker who dealt with the money from the poker game confirms it, Vesper has just withdrawn it all from the branch in St Mark's Square.

Bond chases her desperately through the confused rabbit warren that is Venice and finally tracks her down to an abandoned building that is undergoing work to prevent it from simply collapsing into the lagoon. There's a fight and Vesper is trapped in the elevator. The building starts to sink and it takes Vesper with it. Bond tries to save her, but she lets herself drown before he can get the elevator open and retrieve her body. M explains later that she had an Algierian boyfriend who they used to put pressure on her to get the money for Le Chiffre. Bond says he doesn't care, but both he and M know that's a lie.

One thing that had bothered me was the lack of certain hallmarks of the series, even though it was new Bond almost has to say the line and he hadn't yet he'd had opportunities. They referenced the shaken not stirred thing when a bad tempered Bond asks for a martini during the game and the bartender asks him if he wants it shaken or stirred and Bond snaps 'Do I look like I give a damn?' 

An expensive car pulls up to an even more expensive house set on a cliff top overlooking crystal blue waters somewhere in Europe. A well dressed man with grey hair steps out of the car and looks out. We've seen him before with Le Chiffre. His mobile phone rings and he answers, then a shot rings out and part of one of his lower legs explodes in a shower of blood. He painfully claws himself to the steps where a man stands, and looks up with the question in his eyes, the answer comes from a gun toting Bond: 'The name is Bond...James Bond.'

The perfect ending to a near perfect film.


Director: Eon clearly ignored Tarantino, and while I love some of his films I think he'd be the wrong director for Bond. His love of black and white film doesn't help. He's also very American and Bond is still very British. Knowing that they had to make a statement they turned to Martin Campbell and in this film Campbell established that not only is he the best director Bond has ever had, he's one of the best directors of an action film in the history of the medium. While he again had a great cast he still got the best out of them.

James Bond: as far as Brosnan and everyone else knew he was going to be James Bond in the 21st film. Judi Dench came out and publicly stated that Bond would return and so would Pierce at one point when fans were getting restless in between Die Another Day and Casino Royale. Both Brosnan and Eon had concerns about Brosnan's age, he was nearly 50 when Die Another Day came out and no one wanted a repeat of the Moore situation where Roger looked old enough to be M's boss rather than the other way around. I don't believe Pierce Brosnan was ever told that he wasn't required, he kind of worked it out some time in 2004 and walked away. There was no shortage of candidates. Names like Daniel Day Lewis and Clive Owen were bandied about, Brosnan even suggested Colin Salmon. Karl Urban had filming commitments that prevented him from making the screen test. Martin Campbell liked Henry Cavill, but at 22 years of age he was too young for the role. Sam Worthington was also considered, but this was pre Avatar and he didn't have that high a profile. Goran Visnjic auditioned for the role on the same day as Daniel Craig, but couldn't do a believable British accent. Daniel Craig's casting came as a shock to many, myself included, he wasn't unknown, but he didn't fit the profile that the other actors since Lazenby did. He's 5'10" which Cubby Broccoli would have considered too short, he's fair haired (that shouldn't be a deal breaker, at one point Roger Moore's hair was lighter brown than it was dark), but he just didn't look right (I still don't think he is) and he's never got the voice right for me, but he is however the best actor that's ever played the role. You can argue that's Connery, but he learned on the job, Craig came to it as a damn good actor. He plays the role as if he is a new 00 and you can actually see him evolve as the film progresses. That's brilliant acting, he's also totally believable and contrary to popular opinion has a way with a line that's underrated. There were a few fan groups set up in opposition to his casting. I came around, but many never will. It's really their loss.

Le Chiffre: I'm not sure who tried out for this role. It had been played in the past by screen legends Peter Lorre for the US TV version and Orson Welles in Woody Allen's 1967 spoof. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen was well cast. He looks rather evil and is very believable being an utter bastard, he plays them well. The odd physical quirk that Le Chiffre had of crying blood from one eye gave the character a real Bondian feel as well as made him more sinister.

Rene Mathis: the character appears in a number of Fleming Bond's and is a French agent and long term friend of Bond's. He was also in the 1967 Casino Royale. In this film he's an MI6 agent based in Europe and played with a suitable amount of European suaveness by Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini.

Peripheral roles: only one regular cast member from the previous films made the transition to the new ones and that was Judi Dench's M. New regulars would be established, but this was their first appearance.

Villiers: this is M's assistant, he kind of replaces Moneypenny who does not appear in Casino Royale, her role and character do not appear to exist. I wonder if the character's name is a reference to actor James Villiers, who played Bill Tanner in For Your Eyes Only, in the books and some of the films Tanner is M's 2IC and actually filled in for him in For Your Eyes Only. He's played by Tobias Menzies, who is also known for his roles as Brutus in HBO's Rome and Edmure Tully in Game of Thrones

Felix Leiter: he returned! He's much more of a field operative this time and he first encounters Bond during the poker game and offers to stake him as long as they get Le Chiffre if he wins. He's played by Geoffrey Wright and there was controversy around the casting as Wright is a black actor and the character had previously been white.

Alex Dimitrios: an associate of Le Chiffre's who tries to blow up a plane for his boss and loses a car in a game to Bond. An unsavoury individual played with suitable sleaze by Simon Abkarian.

Mr White: he's never named beyond that rather Tarantinoesque alias. He's a shadowy individual connected to an international criminal network that pops in and out and is pulling the strings behind everything. Bond shoots him at the end of the film. Like Mads Mikkelsen, Jesper Christensen is a Danish actor, and he becomes a semi regular character in the new Bonds.

Mendel: I don't know if everyone would include the genial Swiss banker as a peripheral character, but he's so at odds with everyone else in the film that he makes me laugh. Played with nerdy joviality by German actor Ludger Pistor.

Mollaka: we don't really know much about the character of Mollaka, other than he's a bomber and has terrible burn scars on his face. I include him because he's played by free runner Sebastien Foucan and does such great work in that chase scene early in the film.

Solange: Dimitrios' ill fated girlfriend. She's sexy, wants the good things in life and likes riding horses along the beach, that's about all we learn before she's murdered. For some reason she's rated as a Bond girl, possibly because she sleeps with James. Italian actress Caterina Murino portrayed her and was suitably attractive while not having to display a lot of acting talent.

There's a very brief cameo by Richard Branson being processed through customs at Miami airport. I wonder if that's an acknowledgement that they made fun of him with the character of Gustav Graves in Die Another Day?

Vesper Lynd: Vesper is beautiful, playful, hurt, conflicted, a contradiction. She's the woman who captures Bond's heart. Probably the first one to really do that in the films since Tracy, although Elektra had a good go at it. She's very well written. She's believably written. I've always found it odd that these Bond girls from sheltered backgrounds take the killing in their stride. Vesper doesn't, she loses it the first time she sees Bond kill someone and he finds her sitting almost catatonic, fully dressed in the shower. Both Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron were strongly considered for the role, Belgian actress Cecile de France auditioned, but her English wasn't good enough to carry the role. Audrey Tatou wasn't chosen due to her involvement with The Da Vinci Code, thank goodness, I think she would have been totally wrong. French actress and model Eva Green was cast as Vesper.  She had done some film work, but was probably more recognised as a model at the time. She's another example of them casting for looks and getting lucky. Her eyes are positively bewitching, she had great chemistry with Craig which really sold the role and their relationship.

The Curse of the Bond Girl: Eva Green hasn't suffered from this at all. She may die in the film (the second Bond girl since Elektra in The World Is Not Enough to do so), but her career has flourished. Most recently as the mysterious Vanessa Ives in the TV show Penny Dreadful, where she acts alongside another former Bond in Timothy Dalton. She also worked with Daniel Craig again in The Golden Compass.

Pre credit sequence: in a change from most pre credit sequences and from Campbell's previous outing as director in Goldeneye, this one is almost action free. To give it that dark spy world feel it's also shot in black and white (I would have given anything to see Quentin Tarantino's expression when he watched the start of Casino Royale), and it shows how Bond earned his 00 status. He kills a corrupt MI6 station chief and flashes back to his first kill which was someone that chief sent to kill Bond. Like many of the fights in the film it's brutal and realistic. That's a hallmark of this film and the new Bond's. Fighting isn't pretty and choreographed, it's brutal and dirty, kill or be killed. It's also worth noting that the shot of Bond shooting through the eyeball comes at the end of the pre credit sequence not before as it always had.

Gadgets: there was a concerted effort to strip this back, the way the early Connery's were, and for that reason gadgets are almost as non existent as they were in Dr. No. The only things that really qualify are the portable defibrillator kit that is built into the dash of Bond's Aston Martin and another slide out panel that contains a gun and silencer in the car. There's no Q in Casino Royale, he seems to have gone the same way as Moneypenny. While I miss Q I think including him in this film would have spoiled the flow and feel of it, same with Moneypenny.

Music: this is about the only thing they got wrong for me. The music is actually fine, but the lyrics of You Know My Name (another film where the title wasn't used as the theme name) written and sung by former lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave Chris Cornell is fairly forgettable. Cornell was a big name, but I've never liked his singing and this didn't endear me to him at all. The credits with their card/gambling motifs and lack of naked women were excellent.  The theme reverted back to the original for the first time in years, and that was greatly appreciated.

James Bond is promised to return, but honestly if he didn't Casino Royale would have been a great swan song.

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