RETRO REVIEW: Casino Royale (2006)

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd and Daniel Craig as James Bond in CASINO ROYALE — Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing / Eon Productions.

Directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) — Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis.

Now that Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond appears to have come to an end after the release of 2021’s No Time To Die, I thought it would be fitting to take another look back at his first Bond-film, Casino Royale. From GoldenEye-director Martin Campbell, 2006’s Casino Royale was meant to reinvigorate the franchise and bring it into a new era distinctly different from Pierce Brosnan’s tenure that ended in 2002. With this film, the series’ new leading man, Daniel Craig, who was, bafflingly, the subject of much online and press criticism due to his blonde hair and blue eyes, proved to the world that he had the potential to be arguably the best Bond on the big screen.

Essentially an origin story for Agent 007, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale follows James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) on some of his first missions, the most important of which revolves around the private banker Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen), a mathematical genius with an injury to his left eye. Alongside treasury employee Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green), Bond is sent on a mission to Montenegro to bankrupt the increasingly desperate Le Chiffre, who, through failed investments, has lost a lot of money that belong to a terrorist group. Bond, alongside CIA’s Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright), will have to take part in a high stakes poker game to bring Le Chiffre to his knees and prevent government money from falling into the hands of the wrong people.

When I talk about this movie to my family and my friends, I have started to describe it as arguably the best Bond film, featuring arguably the best Bond, arguably the best Bond woman, and arguably the best Bond villain. Each time I watch this film, I actually think it gets better, so at some point I may actually drop the ‘arguably’ from that brief description. I think Casino Royale is a near-masterpiece that enriched audiences’ understanding of James Bond and updated the franchise’s approach to action. It is often said that Casino Royale is inspired by the action of the Bourne-films (this is also very much clear to see in Quantum of Solace), which I think is true, but it is also clear that the film is to some extent a product of the news of the era. Its release fell in between the 11th of September 2001 and the financial crisis of the late 2000s, and I think the film actually reflects that period very well in a way.

When compared with the previous films, Campbell’s film sets a distinctly different tone already in the pre-credits sequence. We get to see Bond earn his license and his 00-status, but Campbell’s film does it in such an interesting way. The fact that the opening is in black-and-white is just a fabulous choice. It fits so well with this gritty introduction to this iteration of the character, as we see him do the dirty work from the get-go. I also feel like the opening manages to get us inside of Bond’s head space without much dialogue. There is close-up shot of him that really tells us everything we need to know about the character here, as he is still starting to absorb the new responsibility and pressure. He is still getting used to his license to kill, which fits perfectly with the later scenes wherein we see him and Vesper discuss whether or not you can preserve your soul in this line of work, as well as this generally more vulnerable approach to the character.

Daniel Craig shows a lot of promise in his first Bond film, and I think his quieter scenes say a lot about how different his portrayal is. For example, I think of scenes such as the intimate and compassionate scene in the shower with the Vesper, or the scene where he is cleaning his wounds. I also just think that he has a great rapport with his supporting cast, including especially Green, Wright, and Mikkelsen. I especially love the chemistry that he shares with Eva Green. Craig’s Bond and Green’s Vesper are just so great together. It is a relationship that is built so well. She is never a step behind him, she is knowledgeable, she is witty, and I just think she is his equal. These characters’ relationship is just lovely. I’ve never been this emotionally attached to a Bond-relationship before.

But another way that his iteration of the character distinguishes itself from the rest is with the action, as teased previously. The most memorable action sequence in this film must be thee parkour chase scene in the first act. It showcases that this Bond isn’t rusty, he isn’t as elegant we may presume. He is risky, he is direct, and he is brutal. When the guy that he is pursuing jumps through a hole in the wall, James Bond instead just barges through the wall. I think the sequence says so much about him. He is a blunt instrument, as one character mentions.

I also think that the film gets a lot right structurally. I think it is so smart that the film, on the other side of the fantastic title sequence (which is paired with one of the very best Bond songs, Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”), let’s us get to know Le Chiffre. He is established as a character — and his most important business relationships are teased — before Bond ever knows his name. Of course, the film is also blessed with a fantastic actor in the role of the antagonist. Mads Mikkelsen’s English-language breakthrough role is every bit as iconic as you remember. It isn’t just his somewhat classical Bond-villain character design with the scarred eye that makes him who he is.

The film goes to great lengths to establish Le Chiffre as a human character who struggles and who is vulnerable. He is ominous but he is also fallible, and, perhaps more than anything else, he is desperate. Mikkelsen perfectly communicates that desperation and makes the character his own with a sometimes sinister elegance that makes him a convincing foe for Bond. The poker scenes are genuinely entertaining to watch because Mikkelsen and Craig manage to sell that their characters are trying to outsmart each other. Of course, Mikkelsen and Craig, who are both fantastic here, also share the screen in the unforgettable and now iconic interrogation scene.

The only teeny tiny issue that I have with the film is that the final Mr. White (played by Jesper Christensen) scene feels a little bit removed from the film. I understand that it not only tees up a sequel but also gives us the iconic closing line, but I think they should’ve maybe added in one or two scenes to further set up Mr. White for the closing scene to be as effective as I think it ought to be. But, other than that, I think this is just a fantastic Bond film. I think it works as an origin story for the character, I think it makes us more emotionally invested in the character than we’ve ever been, and I think Craig and the supporting cast just turn out some flat-out phenomenal sure-to-become-iconic performances. Martin Campbell successfully reinvigorated the franchise and reinvented the central character with his second Bond-film, Casino Royale, which I think is a near-masterpiece and, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite James Bond-film ever made.

9.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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