After the bloated extravaganza that was “Die Another Day”, the franchise had crashed back down to Earth. But for once, the behind the scenes legal wrangling would work to Bond’s advantage as a series of trades, deals and mergers finally unified the Bond film rights under a single studio. With Brosnan nearing his 50th birthday as the last Bond film was released, it was decided that what the series needed was a fresh start, a new Bond and a back-to-basics approach. In fact, the makers would go right back to the beginning, figuratively and spiritually as, having newly reacquired the rights, they set out to adapt the book which began it all: “Casino Royale”. After the critical mauling of their last entry, this wasn’t to play it safe; it was a time to be bold. The reinvention would be a radical one, stripping away the excesses of the past, the gadgets, the fantasy and the gnomic dialogue – everything was to be purged, leaving the series lean, muscular and deadly serious, ready to compete with the Bournes and xXxs of the movie world.
Casting would be crucial and with Daniel Craig, the producers took their biggest risk. Easy to forget now, but in 2004 his casting was greeted with howls of outrage and scorn that have only been equalled in recent times by the announcement of Batfleck. With a script sticking very closely to the original source novel, a new Bond in place and a modern, stripped down sensibility in place, the scene was set for something very special indeed.
When Bond infiltrates and foils a terrorist plot to blow up a brand new airliner, he also disrupts the plans of Le Chiffre, a banker who provides terrorists and warlords with global financial services. Le Chiffre, having gambled his clients’ money on a plot to make a fortune short-selling the airline stock, is forced to participate in a high stakes Poker tournament being held in Montenegro. M sends Bond to the tournament as well, intending to win and force Le Chiffre to cooperate with British Intelligence in exchange for protection.
Director Martin Campbell, who relaunched Bond so successfully in the 1990s with “GoldenEye” is a shrewd choice to do so again, and brings Bond into the 21st century in spectacular style. Initially disconcerting, the pre-credits sequence in black and white is a masterstroke and a triumph of economical storytelling. Packed into its brief running time, we are reintroduced to Bond, this time a raw recruit to the British Secret Service. Clumsy and brutal, this is a world away from the ‘take a guard out with a precision karate chop’ superspy we’d become accustomed to. Here the fighting is dirty, desperate and chaotic. The bathroom fight is framed by Bond’s confrontation with a renegade section chief whom M has ordered killed for selling secrets. The cat and mouse game which ends with Bond pulling the trigger is a sly moment of reassurance that it’s still Bond, that he will grow into the man we’ve been expecting. The use of the gun barrel sequence at the end of the cold open is a stroke of genius and takes us into Daniel Kleinman’s best ever title sequence, a homage to the original 1953 book cover of Fleming’s novel. The title song is an odd choice, and feels a bit too rocky to be a Bond theme but Chris Cornell sings it well and lyrically it’s a fantastic fit for Bond. I kind of dismissed it when I first heard it but it’s grown on me to the point of being one of my favourite theme songs of the whole series.
Campbell brings a rough edge to Bond in the direction and portrayal of the action sequences. The stunts are firmly back into the realm of practical effects and the result is all the better for it. Compare the clinic assault from “Die Another Day” to the embassy incursion which kicks off “Casino Royale” and they couldn’t be more different, despite them being very similar sequences in terms of action beats and story. There’s a real elegance and class to “Casino Royale”, which works well to offset the tougher, rougher Bond we have. Gone are the immaculately coiffured and luxuriant locks of Brosnan, the steely competency of Connery or Dalton or the smirking charm of Lazenby and Moore. Instead we have a reckless, aggressive and muscular Bond, a dirty street fighter who will get the job done at any cost. Daniel Craig is certainly the most athletic 007 we’ve ever had and the parkour-infused sequence in Madagascar is designed to show us that this new Bond has no need of gadgets or quips to bring his man down: his wits, his fists and his gun are all the equipment he needs.
The first half of the film focusses on foiling Le Chiffre plot to leverage his clients’ money into a massive profit and is certainly action packed, which disguises the fact that the plan – a variation of the finale of “Trading Places” – is never particularly clear or well-articulated. It’s also a bit of an excuse to trot the globe, seeing Bond travel to Miami after tracking the bad guys to the Bahamas. For the second time is as many Bond movies, we’re treated to an ‘Ursula Andress moment’, only this time it’s Bond emerging from the waves in a post-feminist twist on things. There’s plenty to enjoy as Bond merrily makes mischief in his target’s life, relieving him of his vintage Aston Martin DB5 and seducing his wife. Bond’s return to the Bahamas is actually a pretty big deal in terms of the history of the movie productions. The choice of location is the result of another legal ghost being laid to rest as the location was tied up in Kevin McClory’s rights to “Thunderball”, which now finally rest with everything else pertaining to the character.
Once the bomb plot is averted, the film’s adaptation of the novel really kicks into gear, changing only a few elements to keep it contemporary, Poker being substituted for Baccarat being the most obvious example. Interestingly, once we reach the eponymous Casino Royale, there’s a distinct lack of action for a Bond film, or at least the Bond films we’ve become accustomed to. There’s plenty of drama and incident, but no real action. It never feels its absence though, because what’s transpiring on screen is so good.
Daniel Craig is a very different kind of Bond but the film is adjusted to fit him like an exquisitely tailored suit and he thrives. He has fantastic chemistry with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, who gives the most complex and powerful performance of any Bond ‘girl’ to date. Elsewhere, Giancarlo Giannini is tremendous as the duplicitous René Mathis, more than making up for Jeffrey Wright’s bland and forgettable Felix Leiter. Mads Mikkelsen is superb as Le Chiffre, although the way the story is structured he never feels as menacing as he could be due being more a puppet than a puppet master, especially to Jesper Christensen’s mysterious Mr White. The only holdover from the reboot which jettisons Moneypenny and Q altogether is Judi Dench as M. So M is still M except she isn’t really, she’s pretty much a different character as demonstrated by her abrupt change of heart regarding her feelings towards the Cold War (she now misses the good old days of the conflict rather than viewing things from it as relics). Whether she’s the exact same character or not, she quickly establishes a wonderful rapport with Craig’s Bond and the scenes the two of them share together are a notable highlight.
The precise nature of the reboot is deliberately undefined which helps make it feel more organic and less disruptive than other franchise remakes have managed. In discarding many of the trappings of the Bond series to concentrate on telling a taut and realistically grounded story of international counter-terrorism, the producers have left Bond both shaken and stirred and yet the cocktail tastes as good as it ever has. After the tired, flaccid CGI-fest of “Die Another Day”, who would have guessed Bond could come back as strong as this?
Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return with Quantum Of Solace…