Casino RoyaleDespite being the longest running and one of the most successful franchises in movie history, the tried, tested, retried and retested James Bond formula was wearing more than a little thin. Even a revitalisation at the beginning of the Brosnan era had petered out by the 2002 entry “Die Another Day”, a film with many creative ideas but a real lack of focus.  The fans were leaving, tempted away by the grittier Jason Bourne series which saw its inception around the same time, and even the most hardcore fans must have been regularly plagued by flashbacks of Roger Moore dressed as a clown. And while decent action flicks like “The World is Not Enough” were fun in their own right, from a critical perspective, the world’s most famous spy needed more reinvention than revitalisation, a little shaking or stirring certainly wouldn’t go astray. “Casino Royale” makes changes as producers Barabara Brocolli and Michael G. Wilson saw fit, not only introducing us to new, blonde Bond Daniel Craig but guiding a general shift in the Bond universe. Ironic perhaps that sourcing the very first of Ian Fleming’s novels (and the only which had not been adapted as an official Bond film), “Casino Royale” takes us back to the spy’s roots, many components of which had been long abandoned by the film series.

It’s an origin story, introducing us to James Bond just after being promoted to his “double-O” status and his first mission with a license to kill. Opening with a powerful, black and white, almost noir style scene, the producers’ intent is clear: This Bond takes a much darker route. He bleeds for example, he makes mistakes, gets poisoned and quite literally has his balls whipped. It is the tale of how Bond attained the identity of the ruthless and heartless killing machine we know him to be. This was met with apprehension from some fans but after the post-opening-credits chase scene at the very latest, any doubts in director Martin Campbell’s (who was previously responsible for “Goldeneye”) ability to handle the film will be forever dispelled. Comparisons with Bourne are legit in a way, the action is more realistic compared to previous films, but “Casino Royale” finds it’s own middle ground between realism and the fantastic, take the awesomely assembled Madagascar chase: Sebastien Foucan’s acrobatics known as “freerunning” were all done for real (CG only used to remove safety wires).

The plot’s main focus however is a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), private banker to the world’s terrorists. After loosing hundreds of millions of Dollars, betting on a disaster Bond manages to prevent, he organises a high-stakes Poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro for a refund, all the while hunted by his angry clients not exactly pleased that their money is gone. This too is an interesting premise. There’s no grand plan, no giant evil lair where the forces of ill prepare to dominate the world, there’s only poker. Le Chiffre is therefore as much in danger of losing his life as Bond, but how do you make a thriller out of a card game? The games themselves are not exactly fascinating but Campbell punctuates them at repeated intervals with well-staged action set-pieces, some graphically violent, others full of intrigue and suspense, others in turn are heartfelt and moving – the shower scene is one of the most powerful moments in a Bond movie, ever. It’s the balance of these different elements which will really keep you glued. The requisite Bond-girl too is different, Eva Green’s portrayal of Vesper sticks remarkably close to the novel, she’s feisty and holds a terrible secret. Her beauty is perhaps more subtle than some of the helpless incarnations of the past but it’s an excellent role. She manages to pull off something only one girl has managed before: To have Bond fall in love with her. And really, it’s easy to see why he would.

But what of Craig? He had his fair share of criticism both before and after the film’s release, some of it being downright cruel (The Sunday Times stated he looked like Gollum’s younger brother). If you’re going to gripe about the colour of his hair or about his swimming togs, you should really know better because Craig’s interpretation of the most suave of the suave is quite simply excellent. The cold, emotional detachment from his job, the armour he wears while at the same time being an arrogant and vulnerable mess is portrayed very well indeed. He even wisecracks from time to time (best line: when asked if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred he returns “Do I look like I give a damn?!”), and plays cool when needed. The scenes shared with Green have particular sparkle. While it’s a shame that Bond regulars like Moneypenny and Q (even if John Cleese could never replace Desmond Llewelyn) were left out, it makes sense in this, more serious storyline. Only other negative criticism that can be made is that the exterior shots of the house in Venice at the film’s climax just look horribly fake. It’s a combination of model photography and CG apparently but could have been made a lot better.

Casino Royale OSTOne of the elements of the “old” Bond that remained intact for “Casino Royale” is composer David Arnold who has provided consistently good scores for the series since “Tomorrow Never Dies”. The 2006 score is his best yet for the series. Not dominated by electronics like “Die Another Day”, the soundtrack here is both pulsating with orchestral and percussive force for the action but is counterbalanced with a beautifully elegant yet mournful piano theme for Vesper. This theme alone allows it eclipse many of the previous scores. Another intelligent decision was Arnold’s restraint with Monty Norman’s oh-so-famous James Bond theme. As Bond’s identity is not yet completely formed, the theme is hinted at in places throughout the score, only exploding with full force at the very end to the words “Bond, James Bond!” The title song is sung by American rocker Chris Cornell and was (annoyingly) released separately from the score album. The song itself is adequate but nowhere near the series’ best.  Particularly because the title sequence is one of the very best, this is a disappointment. The music however is without question, Arnold’s most mature and best Bond score.

“Casino Royale” is fantastic both as a Bond movie and as an origin story. It is the reinvention the franchise required and sets up infinite possibilities for future continuations. Unfortunately this good thing was screwed up almost beyond repair in “Quantum of Solace” two years later. If you can view this movie without having the direct sequel in mind, “Casino Royale” will rank in the top ten if not top five Bond movies of all time.

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