Casino Royale (2006) Director: Martin Campbell
“I’m sorry. That last hand… nearly killed me.”
The story of Casino Royale making it back onto the big screen is fascinating, filled with many twists and turns. After Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, the television rights were purchased by CBS for $1,000 the following year. The very first portrayal of 007 was on a television variety show entitled “Climax!” It was a single hour live program that starred the great Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, and Barry Nelson as the Americanized James “Jimmy” Bond. A year later, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to Russian actor/director George Ratoff for $6,000, but production never took off and he died in 1960. His wife then sold the rights for Casino Royale to Charles Feldman, a Hollywood attorney and producer of A Streetcar Named Desire. Around the same time, President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love as among his favorite novels, sending the Bond franchise into the stratosphere. Canadian Producer Harry Saltzman quickly purchased the rights to all current and future Bond stories. He joined together with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to form the Eon (“everything or nothing”) production company.
Charles Feldman pushed forward with attempts to make a Casino Royale into a movie directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant. However, after Eon’s Dr. No was quickly released on the cheap to a surprising amount of popular fanfare, Feldman’s Casino Royale project was nixed. Still, he persisted in other avenues –he refused to cooperate with Eon by demanding an exorbitant fee in exchange for the rights, and he continued to cycle through scripts, including one by Billy Wilder. Feldman eventually settled on an absurdist comedy where MI6 was faced with numerous different agents all calling themselves 007 –and Feldman hired no less than four separate directors for the project, including the legendary John Huston. Unsurprisingly it was a mess of a film although it featured stars like David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress, and others (feel free to click here and read my review of 1967’s Casino Royale). It was a ridiculous cacophony of a film, but a year later Charles Feldman died and the rights to Casino Royale went to Columbia Pictures.
In the ensuing decades, the world changed and so had James Bond. After the campy ’70s of Roger Moore as 007, James Bond was played by Timothy Dalton and then Pierce Brosnan, but by now 007 had become something of a caricature, or a relic of a bygone era. The Cold War was over, Cubby Broccoli had passed away, and quirky comedy films like Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series made more money satirizing the many repetitive cliches of the James Bond formula. Amidst a string of legal issues concerning the rights to Thunderball, MGM sued Sony, won the lawsuit, and then paid for the rights to Casino Royale. At last, the film rights to the original Bond story were finally in Eon’s hands. At this point, Quentin Tarantino rather loudly requested to make the film with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, but this time as a period piece, a historically accurate vintage black and white Cold War James Bond movie. However, Eon went in a different direction, toward a new reboot of the franchise.
What followed was a brilliant re-introduction of James Bond in the 21st Century. Despite being met with controversy for not matching Ian Fleming’s description of a ‘tall, dark, and suave’ secret agent, Daniel Craig conveys a grittier, more violent, yet vulnerable, less silly, more honest and human version of the character. His character flaws of violence and misogyny are more tragic than comedic. Casino Royale represents a departure from the hokey, silly tropes of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras, as Daniel Craig (a.k.a. “James Blonde”) was remarkably able to transform the role into something new –a revitalizing of the Bond saga.
It might be said that Casino Royale is an early “prequel” to the James Bond series. We encounter a young James Bond earning his ‘License to Kill’ in a delightful series of black and white Noir-esque scenes. He gains his 00 status by assassinating a traitorous gangster in a bathroom. Meanwhile, an international businessman named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the treasurer of a French Union and member of the Russian secret service, makes a deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and he subsequently bets against an aerospace manufacturer, with insider knowledge of a terrorist attack. On a separate mission, Bond saves the manufacturer, causing Le Chiffre to lose all his money. Bond makes contact with Felix Leiter of the CIA (Jeffrey Wright), and Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) of the French Secret Service. Meanwhile, Le Chiffre organizes a high stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro with the hope of winning back his losses. Bond is paired with a woman named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). The poker game fluctuates between Bond and Le Chiffre, and when Bond starts to gain the upper hand, Le Chiffre has Bond’s drink poisoned so Bond, in a haze, flees to his car to use his defibrillator. Vesper follows him and brings Bond back to the poker table, where Bond wins with a straight flush. Subsequently, Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper Lynd leaving Bond to trail them but he crashes his car in order to avoid harming Vesper in a near crash as she is tied up in the middle of the road. Bond is then captured and tortured by Le Chiffre, who is hoping to discover the bank account and login information for the poker money. At the last moment, Bond is rescued by his contact, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Bond awakens in an MI6 hospital, and he and Vesper Lynd run away to Venice together in love. Suddenly, M reveals to Bond that the poker money was never deposited. Bond realizes he was betrayed by Vesper but she is taken away by gunmen, so Bond destroys the building which then collapses into the Grand Canal. The gunmen are killed but, sadly, so is Vesper who drowns. Meanwhile, Mr. White escapes with the money. M reveals to Bond that Vesper likely made a deal for Bond’s life – she saved him by giving away the money. Still, Bond renounces her and he hunts down Mr. White at a massive estate on Lake Como. He shoots Mr. White in the leg and introduces himself: “Bond, James Bond” just as the film ends.
Casino Royale is a brilliant rebirth of the 21st Century James Bond. There are no ridiculous gadgets, or overt sexuality (instead Bond uncharacteristically falls in love with Vesper Lynd). In fact, the entirety of the plot rests on Bond’s ability to win at the poker table (in the book, it was a game of Baccarat). One of the many wonderful additions to the new Bond saga is a noticeable lack of CGI -the movie returns Bond to the “old fashioned way” without flashy gadgets or effects. Plus it also features an inspiring and explosive theme song performed by Chris Cornell, a significant improvement from Madonna’s techno song in Die Another Day. Casino Royale is easily one of the best James Bond movies of all time.