SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.
Pierce Brosnan was let go after Die Another Day (to his chagrin) and, for the first time, the series was definitively rebooted. The producers wanted to film Ian Fleming’s first novel, in which Bond is a rookie double-O agent. It was the bravest, boldest move the series has taken. And my God, did it work. The movie begins in black and white, shot like a film noir – but then we cut to glorious, eye-popping colour for the beautiful title sequence. A triumph of graphic design, it’s both old-school and modern, timeless and fresh, just like the rest of the film. Casino Royale has a justified and earned confidence about it – at every step, it makes the right decision, takes the correct turn. As with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell’s contribution is immense. He drives the storytelling with powerful momentum, but also a delicate touch. Tension is created especially well: huge chunks of the middle third are scenes of people sitting round a card table, but our attention and engagement don’t flag. The film is 138 minutes yet never feels dull or fatty. This is all muscle. The first two Bourne films had recently raised the bar for action cinema – both in terms of spectacle and emotional resonance – and Casino Royale clears it with ease. Crucially, we always see the results of the story’s events, both physically (Bond is often bleeding and bruised) and emotionally (Vesper has a breakdown after witnessing a violent death). This is blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order. Licence to Kill is, and will remain, my *favourite* James Bond movie. But Casino Royale may very well be the *best*. Ten Algerian love knots out of 10. Christ, 11 out of 10. A million out of 10.
Bond: Lots of people reacted skeptically or downright negatively when Daniel Craig was announced, fearing he was too short or too blond or too ugly or just nebulously not right. How fucking stupid do those craigisnotbond.com idiots look now?! He is superb. This is recognisably the same man we’ve been enjoying for 20 movies – cocky and charming, clever and cultured – but Craig brings a new sophistication of emotion as well as a fantastic physicality to the role.
Villains: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, excellent) is our lead bad guy. He takes puffs from an asthma inhaler, his eye weeps blood, and he’s clearly under pressure from his bosses. His cat-and-mouse games with Bond – ending with a brilliantly played torture scene taken from the book – are a joy. He gets killed off with 30 minutes to go by Mr White, a shadowy fixer from their unnamed criminal organisation. There’s also bent MI6 station chief Dryden; bomb-maker Mollaka (played by the guy who invented freerunning, Sébastian Foucan); Ugandan warlord Obanno, who invests $100m with Le Chiffre then wants it back; Alex Dimitrios, a dodgy middleman who loses his 1964 Aston Martin to Bond in a card game; dialogue-less bomber Carlos; Mr White’s colleague Adolph Gettler, who wears mismatched sunglasses; and Le Chiffre’s bald bodyguard, Kratt.
Girls: Le Chiffre has a girlfriend, Valenka, played by Ivana Miličević (who was Angelique in an unaired pilot for a Dark Shadows remake in 2004). Bond seduces Dimitrios’s incredibly sultry wife, Solange, to get some information – her first scene, where she horse-rides along the beach in a bikini and Bond steps out of the water in swimming trunks, has something for everyone. The hotels in the Bahamas and Montenegro both have pretty receptionists. But the star of the show is Vesper Lynd. “I’m the money,” she says when she meets Bond. “Every penny,” he says, clearly and understandably impressed. That opening scene is a sexually charged flirtation where we’re skillfully told an awful lot about both characters. The actors are just terrific: it’s a high score draw. Vesper has a vital role in the story and a seismic effect on the character of James Bond. She’s played sensationally well by French actress Eva Green. Perhaps her English accent is ever-so-slightly off now and again, but no matter: she ranks alongside Tracy di Vicenzo and Pam Bouvier as one of the very best female characters we’ve seen. She is also *extraordinarily* sexy (and, frankly, has the best boobs in the entire series).
Regulars: Creepy bad guy Mr White will appear again. Despite the reboot, M is still played by Judi Dench (yeah, it doesn’t make sense: get over it). The first time she speaks in the film she gets a rattling-good monologue: “Who the hell do they think they are? I report to the Prime Minister and even he’s smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don’t care what we do. They care what we get photographed doing. And how the hell could Bond be so stupid? I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.” We see both her home – an expensive flat with views of Canary Wharf – and her husband. All the M/Bond scenes are great. There’s no Moneypenny or Q, however: in the former’s place is a male aide called Villlers, in the latter’s is a team of computer boffins. René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) is a character from the novel who will be in the next movie too. And we get a new Felix Leiter, played with pensive worry by Jeffrey Wright.
Action: We see Bond’s first ever kill: a frenetic, violent fight in a gents. The freerunning sequence near the beginning of the movie is *fantastic*. Outlandish, breathtaking, but always grounded in plausibility and full of character, it’s the greatest foot chase in cinema history (step aside, Point Break). Bond and Dimitrios struggle silently in a crowded museum, Bond stabbing him to death without anyone noticing. The extended sequence at Miami Airport is wonderful – plot, character, tension, action and wit all in evidence. Le Chiffre and Valenka are attacked by machete-wielding thugs; Bond has a very violent fight with them in a stairwell. During the card game, Bond is poisoned – cue a terrific scene in which he has to call MI6 HQ for advice on how to restart his heart (after he passes out, Vesper saves the day by administering the vital defibrillator shock). When Vesper is kidnapped, Bond chases after her in his Aston Martin – the scene ends with a dramatic, done-for-real crash where the car flips over and cannon rolls seven times (a world record for a movie stunt). Finally, there’s a mad dash through Venice (Vesper the only person wearing red so we can spot her in the crowd) and the climactic sequence in a sinking building (superb).
Comedy: Much more than some people assume. “Put your hand down!” orders a frustrated Bond to undercover ally Carter, who keeps touching his earpiece and giving himself away. When Bond later breaks into M’s swish Docklands apartment, she asks him, “How the hell did you find out where I lived?” He replies, “Same way I found out your name. I thought M was a randomly assigned letter. I had no idea it stood for–” and then M interrupts: “Utter one more word and I’ll have you killed.” In the Bahamas, Bond crashes a Range Rover to cause a distraction then casually throws away the keys. When flirting with Solange, Bond suggests a drink ‘at his place’. When she asks if it’s close, he drives quickly round the hotel car park and back to where they started. Richard Branson has a blink-and-miss cameo. Bond’s laconic ‘ow!’ when injected with a tracker device is very funny. When he teams up with Vesper, Bond reads aloud their assigned cover story: “…and you’re Miss Stephanie Broadchest,” he lies. The banker controlling the poker game’s stakes, Monsieur Mendel, is a deliberately camp and quirky character. When asked, for the first time, if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond snaps, “Do I look like I give a damn?” Twice, Bond returns to the card table after Le Chiffre thought he was dead: Mads Mikkelsen’s dry double-takes are very good.
Music: David Arnold’s fourth score in a row. The best bit is early action cue African Rundown. Because this is essentially 007’s first case, the full-blown James Bond Theme is held back until the very last shot. The theme song is Chris Cornell’s dull-but-inoffensive You Know My Name.
Personal connection: I went to see this at the cinema twice – firstly with Mark Wright at the Odeon Marble Arch on Tuesday 21 November 2006, and then with Robert Dick at the Odeon Beckenham on Saturday 20 January 2007. It demanded to be seen again.
People I’ve met: In 2003, I briefly worked with actor Robert Jezek, who has a tiny role as a policeman in Casino Royale.