Why Casino Royale Worked So Well
I have written extensively on the current state of sequels, touching on both the positives and negatives. Whether you love or hate sequels, there is a reality that we must accept: they are not going away anytime soon. A decade or so from now, we will likely inhabit an entirely different cinematic landscape, but the coming years will be unquestionably dominated by sequels and cinematic universes. If last summer proved anything, it is that studios must produce quality films to be competitive and there are few better blueprints on how to do this than Casino Royale. This film reinvented the decades-old James Bond formula, while also presenting a refined and compelling narrative. The only way that sequels will continue to prosper, is if studios discover how to consistently reinvent their franchises. They must learn how to do what Casino Royale did best: present a refreshing story for an established character.
Following the poorly received Die Another Day, Sony decided to reboot the Bond franchise, and rehire the director who had helmed Goldeneye: Martin Campbell. Pierce Brosnan was not selected to return, and instead, the relatively unknown Daniel Craig was chosen to portray 007.
After Campbell had left, Brosnan’s Bond films had devolved into cheesy and indolent spy thrillers. The acting, the screenplay, and the direction had all fallen from the quality of Goldeneye in 1995. Seven years after Campbell’s effort, Die Another Day garnered a 6.1 from IMDb, and featured tremendous character introductions such as Bond’s exit from a hospital bed.
With the 007 franchise rebooted, Campbell took Bond in a completely different place than he had been in the last few installments. Where the others were corny, Casino Royale was dark, where the others were unrealistic, Casino Royale was convincing, and most importantly of all, where the others were mind-numbing stupid, Casino Royale was enthralling.
The first James Bond convention is broken at the start of the film. Rather than opening with the famous gun-barrel sequence, we cut between Bond questioning a traitorous associate, and attacking his contact.
By the end of the scene, we realize that in order for Bond to be promoted to ‘00’ status, he would be required to kill two people. We see him gradually killing his first victim throughout the scene, and as the dialogue between Bond and his target plays out, we discover that once Bond kills him, he will have achieved the title of 007.
Once Bond has killed his main target, the scene cuts back to Bond’s first kill, and as James pulls the trigger, we finally see the famous gun-barrel sequence.
This is a brilliant scene that intertwines tension with dialogue. On top of that, it subverts our expectations in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is its placement of the gun-barrel sequence. But the far more important surprise in this scene is its placement in Bond’s life: this is the moment when he becomes 007.
The audience likely expected that Bond was already 007, but by revealing that Bond was merely in the prologue to his time as 007, the audience learns something incredibly important: Casino Royale is an origin-story.
What makes this film so brilliant is that it manages to be an origin story for one of the most famous characters in the modern world, while avoiding almost any exposition and back story.
We don’t watch Bond learn how to fire a gun, instead, this film is about Bond learning when to fire a gun. Because of this distinction, we get to see James Bond truly become 007, without being subjected to long stories about past childhood trauma or extensive training montages.
The action is present at the start of the film, it is Bond’s character, and not his ability, that changes throughout the story. Thanks to this stroke of genius, the first act is an action-packed thrill ride, that still manages to introduce the antagonist and the overall plot of the film with minimal exposition.
In fact, the third scene is a parkour chase scene through a construction site. What is so impressive about this sequence is that, not only are there the mind-bending stunts and cinematography, but we get to understand Bond’s character throughout this scene. It isn’t just mindless action: there is a point to all of it.
We see Bond’s resourcefulness as he chases down someone who is far nimbler, while also getting a good sense of his perspective of espionage.
Bond’s initial assignment is to track down an arms dealer, in the hopes that MI6 will be able to extract information from him and crack down a terrorist network. However, the arms dealer makes his way into an embassy, and rather than letting his target get away, Bond storms into the embassy, extracts the prisoner, and kills him before escaping.
Here we learn that Bond is incredibly task driven, and, as Judi Dench’s M later explains, he is incapable of seeing the bigger picture.
As the film progresses, we continue to see Bond’s character as he evolves.
For example, in the first act of the film, we see Bond seduce a woman to extract information regarding his target. In most 007 films, Bond would have pursued the woman, and then eventually completed his task. In Casino Royale however, as soon as Bond learns what he needs to know, he heads off to the airport and chases down his suspect.
This is the James Bond that Campbell conveys to the audience: a cold-blooded and driven assassin.
If I have one gripe with Casino Royale’s portrayal of Bond, it’s that at certain points he feels a bit too smart. There is nothing wrong with Bond being intelligent, as one of my favorite parts of Skyfall was when Bond reacted to Silva’s plan before Q (the computer genius of MI6).
My problem lies with how Craig’s Bond acts intelligent in this film. At times, he’s a bit too witty. It is a small gripe, and overall, Casino Royale delivers my favorite portrayal of Bond aside from Skyfall.
The film’s antagonist also manages to propel the story in interesting ways. Rather than an omnipotent villain, as we saw in Specter, Casino Royale’s villain is not actually the lesser evil in the story.
Le Chiffre manages the funds of terrorists across the globe, and occasionally uses his client’s money to gamble. His initial gamble the film was to bet that Skyfleet’s stock would tumble after their latest airliner was destroyed by one of his henchmen. After Bond stops his plan, Le Chiffre loses millions of dollars, and knowing that his clients will be tracking him down, he decides to invest his funds in a poker game, where he could have a chance of winning it all back.
After learning this, Bond is tasked with playing in the tournament and winning the money.
Admittedly, Casino Royale’s plot does not make much sense. If MI6 knows that Le Chiffre is guilty and knows exactly where he is going to be, there is no reason given why they do not arrest him immediately.
But the film makes the absurd scenario feel incredibly realistic, and provides an intense experience throughout the long poker scenes. This is even more impressive considering the action slows considerably after the first act, with the focus being of Le Chiffre’s dilemma rather than chases across airports and construction sites.
We also get our introduction to Vesper Lynd at the beginning of the second act, and as the story continues, we begin to see why she plays such an important part in Bond’s life.
After Bond wins the poker tournament, Le Chiffre is completely out of options and resorts to kidnapping Bond and Vesper. There, he tortures Bond through one of the simplest, yet most gruesome techniques that has ever been put on films. Even though this analysis contains spoilers, I do not want to spoil this scene for anyone who has yet to see it.
What I can say is this: Daniel Craig delivers my all-time favorite performance in any Bond film as Le Chiffre batters him. He gives this incredibly dark scene a hilarious edge that saves it from feeling gratuitous, and I doubt any previous Bond would have been able to do the same.
One of the film’s most brilliant decision is to have Le Chiffre die before the climax, and to have one of his clients kill him, rather than Bond. Ultimately, Le Chiffre is not the point of this film, 007 is, and as we transition into the third act we discover what truly made Bond the character we all know.
After Le Chiffre is killed, the money from the poker game is transferred into an account, and Bond must simply give it to MI6.
Whereas the first act was an action ride, and the second was an intense thriller, the third act is a love story. I will admit that certain scenes in the third act felt far too ‘romancy’ given the rest of the film’s execution, but there is a point to all of it.
The two travel to Venice, and it is here that the true climax beings. As it turns out, Vesper was planning to steal the money the entire time and give it to the terrorist network, and once Bond realizes this, his romanticized outlook on their relationship is completely shattered.
Despite Bond’s efforts, Vesper dies at the end of the film. It is here that Bond denounces her, and becomes an emotionless shell.
Although Bond is told that the trail had gone cold, he finds another lead in the last scene of the film. Bond shoots him in the leg, and as he walks towards his target, we hear the classic 007 theme playing.
Bond’s final lines in the film are his most famous words: “The name’s Bond, James Bond”.
Many argue that Casino Royale is the greatest Bond film ever made, and while I disagree, I understand why. It reinvented a decades-old franchise, while providing an origin story and fantastic action. It felt like a James Bond film, while feeling completely different than any that had come before.
This is a shining example of a reboot that pushed its franchise to new heights. And if other studios want to emulate the success of Craig’s Bond, they should be taking note of this decade old film.