Double-0 Christmas - Casino Royale

Casino Royale

It's nearly Christmas so there's bound to be a James Bond film on TV somewhere. This week, we're looking back at Stuart Mulrain and Barnaby Eaton-Jones' series of articles on the 007 films. Here, Stuart Mulrain puts his money on Casino Royale ...

“Well, I understand double-0s have a very short life expectancy... so your mistake will be short lived!”

There’s no denying that Die Another Day was a huge box office success. Unfortunately though, it pretty much played out as an over the top in joke, kind of like the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back of the Bond franchise. But without the jokes! You can see why Pierce Brosnan was keen to scale it right back to basics for his next outing. Then Quentin Tarantino publicly stated his desire to write and direct a version of Casino Royale starring Brosnan as Bond. It’s easy to see why EON wouldn’t want a Tarantino Bond film, mainly because it would be a Tarantino film first and a Bond film second.

You really do have to feel for Brosnan, he was a good Bond and he was left to go out on a whimper instead of the high he deserved. It would’ve been an interesting take on the story to have had a Bond nearing the end of his career, who has become so complacent in his ability to do the job and the ego that goes with it that he makes the mistakes he does in Casino Royale. Imagine an older Bond delivering the last line of the novel and then the credits rolling. It would have made a great final moment in the Bond series before rebooting the franchise with the version of Casino Royale that we have.

The casting of a new Bond is always a big deal and there was a lot of speculation as to who would succeed Brosnan. At the time Brosnan was a hugely popular actor in the role and anybody who followed him was inevitably going to get a rough ride. The smart money was on Clive Owen, who like Brosnan would’ve been a popular choice and probably would’ve worked well in the role. I personally was hoping Jason Isaacs may have been given a shot at the part but alas, to the best of my knowledge, he was never even a contender (although he did go on to read the audio book of Thunderball and made a great Bond in that). The surprise choice for most people however was Daniel Craig.

It’s incredibly popular now to say that you were behind the casting of Craig all along, but the truth is that a huge amount of the population seemed to be against the casting (mostly fuelled by The Sun newspaper – and if you’re reading that you have bigger issues to deal with). Personally I liked the idea of casting Craig as Bond, I’d seen a couple of films prior to his casting that made me think he would be a good future Bond (Layer Cake and –oddly – Enduring Love since you ask) and as a Timothy Dalton fan and I could see that sort of quality in the kind of Bond Craig would bring to the screen.

If I had a problem with Casino Royale when it was announced, it was that it was going to be a reboot. While I wasn’t completely closed off to the idea, it wasn’t exactly filling me with joy. Where would that leave the films that went before in the continuity? Would they set out to remake the earlier Bond films in keeping with this new approach? How does Judi Dench as M work in this new continuity (I have come to the conclusion that she is the same actress playing a different M)? How can you make a Bond film without either Q or Moneypenny? Do I really want to see how Bond got his Aston Martin DB5 (Q branch giving it to him in Goldfinger was explanation enough)? Do I really want to see a pre-Bond Bond?

To be fair, it didn’t start well for me. Where was the gun barrel walk? The last film that left that out was Never Say Never Again and look how that turned out! But then we’re presented with a black and white pre-credits sequence that pulls you straight in and makes you forget that the gun barrel wasn’t at the top of the film (it does come at the end of the pre-titles sequence, minus the walk). Despite not featuring any major stunt work, this is an incredibly thrilling pre-credits sequence, showing two very different kills for Bond. Yes the fight is frantic and dirty and exciting, but the real thrills come in Bonds dialogue with Dryden.

Craig is fantastic in the role, leading a lot of haters to either change their tune or shut up completely. Craig is a serious Bond, much like Dalton was before him and it’s not surprising that people have now gone back and re-evaluated Dalton on the back of Craig’s tenure. Like Dalton he is very much a Bond in the Fleming mould, and with the exception of the blonde hair and slightly too built up body, he fits more into the image I had of Bond when reading the books. A kind of pit-bull of a man who, whilst good looking, isn’t the most handsome man in the room but exudes a charisma that makes up for it. This is a Bond who isn’t always likeable, there are in fact times where he is a downright asshole!

Eva Green makes for a stunning Bond girl in both looks and performance. Vesper is one of the best female characters that Fleming created. Like your first real girlfriend; you can’t help but fall completely in love with her, before eventually hating her for breaking your heart. Green portrays this flawlessly; giving a performance that stays with you long after the film has ended. In some ways it’s a shame that Craig is so good, as he largely took all of the spotlight away from Green. But then that is the curse of being exceptionally good in a Bond film when you’re not playing James Bond.

There is a genuine chemistry between Craig and Green that comes across on screen. The banter between the two of them when they first meet on the train is played perfectly. You can almost forgive the dialogue shoe-horned in to promote Omega watches because the scene is played so well. Where they both really shine is in the shower scene after she has witnessed Bond take a life. You really feel the effect of the kill on her and Bonds need to wash it away having seen what it has done to her.

Le Chiffre is not your traditional sort of Bond villain, which is an odd statement to make when you consider he is the original Bond villain. Instead of your usual megalomaniac or quasi-Bond, Le Chiffre is simply the middle man in a bigger scheme, an accountant for the terrorists of the world who is trying to dig himself out of a hole before the people he owes money to put him in one. Mads Mikkelsen is superb in the role, playing the perfect balance between big man bravado and control freak watching his perfect plans spiralling out of control. The character could’ve easily been portrayed with a snivelling and slightly comedic edge, but Mikkelsen gives him a sinister desperation that both makes him scary and oddly sympathetic. You can see why he was cast as Hannibal Lector.

Judi Dench is great as M, channelling Bernard Lee as the tough and grumpy matriarch of the film. She plays M with more frustration than before, an M that is both being put upon by the people she answers to (or doesn’t in the case of the cabinet) and an agent she believes has been promoted before he is ready. An agent that she knows has the potential to be great, if he could just keep his ego and hotheadedness in check. You can see why Dench was brought back for the reboot when everybody else has been dropped and how appealing it must be to return to a character but from a slightly sideways angle to how it was played before. And let’s be fair, when your casting is this perfect, why would you even try to change it?

Felix Leiter makes his long overdue return to the franchise and Jeffrey Wright is an interesting choice to play the part (you couldn’t get more different from the novels description if you tried). He brings a fresh quality to the role that has been lacking in some of the previous incarnations. Wright is one of the best (and sadly underexposed) actors working in film today and he adds weight to a part that is usually left to jobbing TV actors to fill. EON also seem to have finally realised the importance in consistency in their casting by bringing Wright back in Quantum Of Solace (taking away David Hedison’s title of being the only actor to play the part twice). Hopefully they’ll hang on to Wright like they have hung on to Dench and bring him back as Leiter for more films after Skyfall.

When rebooting the franchise, there only seems to be one person in EON’s phonebook and again Martin Campbell returned to give Bond back to the world. Following the success of his rebooting of the franchise with Goldeneye (whether you think it’s good or bad, there is no denying that it succeeded in achieving what it set out to do). Campbell has some great work on his CV, most notably the Edge Of Darkness TV series and The Mask Of Zorro, but it’s not a stretch to say that he does his best work on Bond. Casino Royale is easily his best film to date, featuring some truly stunning looking shots and set pieces. This is probably the sharpest and richest looking film in the series to date; a Bond for the blu-ray generation if you will.

David Arnold’s score is one of his best, especially when the traditional sounding rendition of the Bond theme kicks in for the closing credits. As with Die Another Day (and indeed his Shaken And Stirred album) Arnold successfully marries traditional sounding Barry themes with contemporary sound. It’s fair to say that Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name split opinion. Personally It fits in well with the themes and style of the film and is a huge step up from Madonna’s previous entry and the Jack White/Alicia Keys theme that followed.

There are problems with the film. As a Bond fan the lack of Q and Moneypenny is an issue. I understand what they were trying to do, but there is a way to have both characters and have them in keeping with the tone of the film. In fact there are two characters that could easily have been Moneypenny and Q (M’s assistant and the tech who puts the tracker in Bonds arm). Admittedly these parts are only small, but they seem to be trying so hard not to have Moneypenny and Q in the film that you can’t help but spot where they would’ve fitted in.

It could just be that filling the shoes of Desmond Llewelyn (sorry John, you tried, but it didn’t work out) and Samantha Bond (arguably the best of the three Moneypenny’s to date) was just too daunting a task to take on when introducing a new Bond as well. You can’t escape the fact that there is something missing by not having the scene between Bond and Moneypenny in M’s outer office, before he heads on down to Q branch to get his equipment for the mission ahead. But then this is serious Bond and there is no room for inter-office flirting or annoying an old man in the serious world.

You could argue that the biggest problem with this film is also one of the best things it has going for it. This just isn’t really a Bond film. Sure it’s a film with James Bond in it, but it lacks all of the elements that makes a Bond film a Bond film. It isn’t even the James Bond we know and love because this is the story of a man becoming that character (something we’re led to believe he has done by the end of the film, only to see he is still becoming Bond in Quantum Of Solace to).

The other big problem is that another superspy with the initials J.B. had stepped into the void in Bonds absence. For years Bond led and others followed (I’m looking at you in particular xXx), but the Bourne films became so influential in the wilderness years, in which Bond strolled through development hell in search of himself, that it was very much Jason Bourne’s world now and it was a title he had both earned and deserved. EON had no choice but to copy and incorporate the elements that had made Bourne so popular into their reboot. Credit has to go to EON and Campbell for giving their Bourne elements a distinct James Bond style, but there is no escaping the fact that this (and Quantum even more so) is Bond ReBourne!

Image - IMDb.