Skyfall Countdown Day 2: Casino Royale (2006)

Making his mark.

No zealot like a convert, goes the old saying.  I was one of those people utterly perplexed by the decision to thank Pierce Brosnan, the “billion-dollar Bond,” for his service, and move ahead instead with an actor whose most prominent role to date had been as Angelina Jolie’s bland American love interest in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  And back in the mid-2000’s, there were a lot of us, not the least of which was Pierce Brosnan himself.  He seemed pretty keen on reprising the role; if you listen to his commentary on the DVD of Die Another Day he talks several times about what he’d like to do “in the next one.”  That “next one” would end up being a videogame, as 2004 saw the release of Everything or Nothing, featuring Brosnan as a digital Bond as well as Judi Dench and John Cleese back as M and Q respectively.  But on the big screen, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli wanted to go another way.  They wanted to go back.

And this is where, quite unexpectedly, Peter Parker comes into play.  Behind the movie screen, there had been a great deal of legal wrangling going on – Sony had come to own the rights to Casino Royale and was threatening to launch a competing series of Bond films (rumours at the time suggested that Independence Day filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were Sony’s preferred creative team for 007).  But they also wanted to make Spider-Man, a portion of whose rights happened to be the property of MGM.  A deal was agreed to by which the two were exchanged.  Casino Royale came home, and Sony got to sling webs with Tobey Maguire.  Making a proper version of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel had long been an aspiration of Michael G. Wilson – something that would give the story its due and sponge away the memory of the embarrassing 1967 Peter Sellers version.  But although Brosnan was keen to continue, it didn’t really make sense to try and do a Bond origin story with an actor who’d be ten years older than he was the first time he’d played 007.  Negotiations with Brosnan were abandoned, and although a wide casting net was thrown out, with the press happily offering dozens of flavour-of-the-month names into the mix, Barbara Broccoli had her heart set on someone she’d seen as a charismatic gangster in a 2004 British movie called Layer Cake.  Some time in 2005, Daniel Craig received a phone call from Broccoli telling him merely, “Over to you, kiddo.”

In a very subdued, John le Carré-like black-and-white prologue, James Bond is promoted to 00-status after completing two kills:  a corrupt MI6 section chief and his underling, the latter of which shows us the origins of the famous gunbarrel scene.  The story proper begins in Africa, where terrorist banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) accepts an investment of $100 million from rebel army leader Steven Obanno (Isaach de Bankole) under the supervision of the enigmatic Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), and Bond is chasing down a nimble bombmaker, whose cellphone reveals a mysterious text message.  After Bond nearly causes an international incident by shooting the bombmaker inside an embassy, an embarrassed M (Judi Dench) tells him to go stick his head in the sand – in the sunny climes of Nassau, where the text message originated on the phone of arms dealer Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian).  After winning Dimitrios’ Aston Martin DB5 in a game of poker, and seducing Dimitrios’ wife Solange (Caterina Murino), Bond pursues the arms dealer to Florida, where a gun-for-hire is planning to destroy Skyfleet Industries’ massive new airliner at Miami International Airport.  Bond saves the plane and kills the terrorist, and ruins the plans of Le Chiffre, who had invested Obanno’s money in a stock-shorting scheme he intended to cash in on when Skyfleet would presumably be bankrupted by the loss of their prototype.  Desperate to win back the squandered funds, Le Chiffre stages a $150 million winner-take-all poker tournament in Montenegro, and Bond is staked in the game by Her Majesty’s Treasury, as represented by the beautiful and intriguing Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).  If Bond can bankrupt Le Chiffre, the villain will have no choice but to turn himself over to the authorities for protection, revealing all the secrets of this mysterious terrorist network in the process.  After several nights of cards, failed attempts on his life, one disastrously played hand and a timely bailout by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Bond wins the pot, and victory is sweet – until Vesper is abducted and Bond is captured while trying to rescue her.  After enduring savage torture at the hands of Le Chiffre in a squirm-worthy scene torn right from Fleming’s pages, Bond is freed by Mr. White, who punishes Le Chiffre’s financial misdealings with a bullet to the skull.  All seems resolved, and Bond is free to resign from MI6 and travel the world with his new love, until one final betrayal leads to a climax in a sinking Venice tower where Bond fails to save the treacherous Vesper from a watery fate.  In an atypical downbeat ending, the money is gone, “the bitch is dead,” and Bond is embittered, until a final message from Vesper leads him to Italy and the villa of Mr. White, to whom he introduces himself – after shooting the terrorist leader in the kneecap – with “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”

In retrospect it’s quite difficult to reconcile how Daniel Craig is perceived now with how much scorn greeted his announcement as the sixth James Bond.  Pierce Brosnan devotees couldn’t understand why their guy had been seemingly tossed aside after four record-breaking smash hits.  An angry fan site, whose name I won’t list because they frankly don’t deserve any more publicity, published screeds on how Craig wasn’t good-looking enough, wasn’t refined enough and didn’t even have the right hair color to be 007.  The entertainment press, who’d been hoping for Clive Owen or Rupert Everett, even heaped derision on Craig for wearing a life jacket in the speedboat that brought him to the press conference that introduced him to the world.  The hints of reassurance offered by the filmmakers to “wait for the movie” didn’t do much to quell the fierce tide.  But we all should have listened – because the movie is, for lack of a better word, terrific.  It’s arguably truer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming book than any of the other films that preceded it, because it focuses so sharply on the character of James Bond.  Who is this man and how did he become the archetype of the womanizing, martini-guzzling crusader for justice – the hard-living St. George forever pitted against the dragon?  We see Bond bruised, we see him broken, we see him struggling to contain the rage that forever simmers inside him.

A rarity for a Bond movie, Craig gets to act and complete a genuine character arc, and he does it so well that his became the first performance as James Bond to be nominated for a BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscar).  A lot of credit too must go to the screenplay, by veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with a final polish by Oscar winner Paul Haggis, whose pen lends the dialogue a sparkle and complexity so very refreshing after years of groan-worthy puns passed off as clever.  The exchanges between Bond and Vesper simply crackle, loaded with meaning and consequence, and their growing relationship is always compelling.  Eva Green, whose unusual goth girl beauty has led to her frequent casting as witches in her subsequent career, shows how sass and confidence can live comfortably alongside heart-wrenching vulnerability to create a character who resonates beyond the end credits and can be held up, plausibly, as the “ultimate Bond girl” – the singular figure to whom Bond would compare all his many conquests to follow.  The always reliable Dench begins to grow M as a kind of mother figure for James Bond, the only woman in the world who does not view him sexually, and the writers of the follow-up films would continue to expand on this aspect of her character.  Jeffrey Wright is a subdued but quirky Leiter, and Mikkelsen’s villain, while perhaps a bit less snarly than Bond baddies of the past, still makes for a believable foe and one whose motivations are rooted for once not in global destruction but simply desperation and survival – the most dangerous kind of animal.

Director Martin Campbell, who had helped to relaunch the franchise with Goldeneye, was again tasked to introduce the world to a new James Bond.  He takes on some of the complaints about the excesses of Die Another Day by cutting the number of explosions in the movie to just one (with a second happening offscreen as Bond smirks).  There is no fantasy in Casino Royale – this is gritty, real-world action.  People get hurt.  They bleed.  Bad guys don’t fall down after one convenient hit.  Bond himself spends time in hospital after being tortured by Le Chiffre.  The parkour chase that opens the movie, with free runner Sébastian Foucan seemingly able to defy gravity – while Bond merely smashes through walls as a good blunt instrument should – is a remarkably exciting sequence, as is the extended chase and battle between Bond and his terrorist quarry at Miami airport, both featuring clever reverses and their fair share of surprises.  Yet when the movie slows down in its second half as the pivotal card game takes center stage, Campbell keeps the the tension high; one waits with as much breathless anticipation as the river follows the turn follows the flop as one does watching Bond struggle to stop an out-of-control fuel truck from crashing into a plane as David Arnold’s driving music races to its conclusion.  Casino Royale is long (it’s the longest Bond movie, in point of fact) but it is never slow, and that it can retain its pace and level of interest without resorting to laser beams and stuff blowing up is a testament to the strength of the story and of Campbell’s ability to tell it.

But in the end it’s Daniel Craig’s movie, and he defies the naysayers to entrench himself firmly in James Bond’s shoes; with nary a frayed nerve showing, Craig commands the screen with the kind of self-assuredness that endeared Sean Connery to audiences almost forty-five years earlier, and wows his female fans with his sculpted physique rising out of the water in homage to Ursula Andress.  When he announces “Bond, James Bond,” at the very end, we’re completely sold, and the famous James Bond theme, only hinted at sparsely throughout the score, blasts out triumphant to cement the victory, the becoming of our hero in his familiar form.  Casino Royale was one of the best-reviewed movies of 2006, out-grossing Die Another Day and assuring Bond’s ongoing berth among the increasingly crowded multiplexes.  Back to the beginning – back to Fleming – proved to be once more the key to keeping Bond fresh and relevant, along with making sure the right guy, despite boisterous public opposition, filled out the tuxedo.

Tomorrow:  Our countdown concludes with a sophomore stumble.

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