Casino Royale: The Nearly Perfect James Bond Movie

Daniel Craig took over as James Bond 007 in Casino Royale. It was very nearly the best Bond movie all.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This one? Very nearly the best James Bond movie of them all. Building the entire film around one card game is a masterstroke: the simplicity of the premise allows room for the Bond legend to grow.

Umpteen moments of inspiration clamor for attention; Bond inventing the Vesper Martini is a personal favorite. Meanwhile, makers of blue swimming trunks must bow down before the Blu-ray every morning – the collective ‘phwoar’ as Daniel Craig emerges from the sea echoed around cinemas across the world. Someone doesn’t skip the gym.  

The Girl: Okay, I’ll say it – Vesper’s the best Bond girl of all. Honey Rider is a bikini, Pussy Galore a silly name; Tracy and Anya are pretty great but Vesper takes the crown. She’s real (relatively speaking). Sharp yet fragile, intelligent but capable of serious misjudgement (and a sucker for a necklace). Bond’s equal in every way. In many ways Casino Royale is a love story; all that poker stuff is just good filler. Eva Green totally owns the role and casts a shadow over the rest of Craig’s tenure. 

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The Villain: Le Chiffre isn’t quite a classic villain (killed off too early) but I make him the best of the Craig era and perhaps of the Brosnan era too. Weeping blood is a bit “how can we make this guy more evil?” but otherwise the character shines. His rivalry with Bond perfectly complements the Vesper romance.

Mads Mikkelsen has the Christopher Walken that guy just looks bad. Starkly, almost cruelly handsome, a milky blind eye and a gaze colder than midnight frost – he plays Le Chiffre as a human shark. His snivelling before the angry African dictator is refreshing for a villain, although I admit I prefer my baddies to have a bit more bottle. But here the film is right and I am wrong.

Before we get stuck in, let me share a theory. Casino Royale is not one film but three: let’s christen them The Plane, Poker, and Venice. The quality and indeed the fabric of these three sections vary remarkably. Each reaches their own mini-climax, each is essentially self-contained; only Bond, and later Vesper, figure prominently in any two. Hence the effect is less beginning, middle, end, more Film 1, Film 2, Film 3.  

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The Plane is exhilarating but uneven, flitting from parkour in Madagascar to the Bahamas before climaxing at a Miami airport (indeed you could argue the Madagascar segment is the fourth short film but let’s try and keep things as tidy as possible).

The second section of Casino Royale is quite possibly the best Bond film ever made. From the shot of the train snaking through the forest to Le Chiffre falling lifeless to the floor, the quality is so high you practically get vertigo. Nothing’s perfect but there’s very, very little about this section I would change (although serious poker players might disagree).

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The final section, Venice, completely drops the ball. Coherence is replaced by confusion; as yet unseen characters suddenly take center stage. The rest of the film is comfortably strong enough to rise above this steep decline but the crown of Best Bond Ever is lost. Somewhere in the confusion Casino Royale stops and we start watching Quantum Of Solace without realizing it.

The black and white opening is a masterstroke; immediately dragging the audience into uncharted territory. Little actually happens; Bond surprises a double agent in his office, a few words are exchanged, and then the traitor is abruptly executed.

The interspersed toilet fight pads out the scene and introduces the brute force of the new Bond. Like its star, the pre-credits is all sparse confidence and sinew. No need to grandstand – just watch us work. An instant classic of its kind.

The parkour chase, like much of what is good about Casino Royale (including the film as a whole), overstays its welcome. It works brilliantly in establishing Craig as impossibly tough and implacable – two red lights shine behind his eyes. The real star is the freerunner Sébastien Foucan, quite possibly the eighth wonder of the world. Watching him leap and slide around the building site is a sight of mesmeric beauty. The contrast with Bond is wonderful: I love the bit where Foucan acrobatically slips through a gap in a wall Bond promptly bulldozes with his body.

But the chase should end atop the crane. We’ll suspend credulity on the duo getting up there – but then coming down unscathed? Overkill. Have Bond throw the bugger off. The embassy should never be reached. I refuse to accept Bond can outdraw a courtyard of nervous armed soldiers, all of whom are aiming directly at him. Especially when he takes a second to kill the one unarmed man in the place. Still, we get a classic M monologue: “Christ I miss the Cold War!”

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Onto the Bahamas. Is it massively coincidental that Dimitros happens to text the terrorist in the carpark (Bond uses the timestamp to identify his quarry via security camera) or have I missed something? Whatever, it’s a fun interlude and features some enjoyably rudimentary poker (3 Kings good, 3 aces better), although compared to the later casino showdown it’s worthy of the World Series.

Slightly smutty but amusing tangent on the aborted tryst of Bond and Solange. Lying atop Bond on the floor, I remember the whole cinema stiffening as she descended towards his groin and out of shot. For a few seconds everybody (especially the parents) believed we were watching the inaugural Bond blowjob (it’s actually just stomach kissing). Was such a reaction common or was my cinema just dirty minded?

Miami airport slips down nicely. Amid all the action, my favourite two moments keep quiet. Bond and Dimitros’ silent struggle for mastery of the knife, played out almost as a mime. And Bond’s smile as the would-be terrorist unwittingly blows himself up. Craig is wonderful from his first line but the smile marks the moment he utterly takes ownership of the character. Remarkable: most Bonds require a film to get comfortable.         Keep Pussy Galore, forget Anya Amasova: Vesper Lynd is surely the greatest Bond girl of all. Her first encounter with Bond is exquisite, the pair playfully trading barbs over dinner. Flirting with fangs, so to speak. The brief Omega advert (Bond practically reads out the pricing) slightly mars the scene, but if you can’t enjoy – “How was the lamb?” “Skewered. One sympathizes.” – then I pity you.

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Without question theirs is the truest relationship of the series. Bond and Tracy fall in love by montage; Vesper and Bond take the entire film – well, mini-film – to progress from mutual attraction/suspicion to besotted lovers. Her casino entrance in the purple dress, his cradling of her in the shower – everything is shown, not told.

Particularly lovely is Vesper’s giggle on seeing Bond preen before the mirror in his new tuxedo. It is impossible to imagine any other Vesper than Eva Green. This is a testament to Green’s wonderfully nuanced performance – at once brittle, sexy, vulnerable, and fiercely intelligent – and the strength of the character.      

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I must admit: I never quite understand Vesper’s role in the betrayal. Is she the one who warns Le Chiffre about the tell? How exactly are Quantum using her? Surely, as Le Chiffre is playing to repay Quantum, Vesper would be helping him covertly – which wouldn’t be all that difficult. Either I’m being dumb or the plot isn’t adequately explained. I know my suspicion (obviously) but if somebody could clear it up then I’d be very grateful. The brilliance of the poker lies in the simplicity of the set-up. Two desperate men going head to head in what is essentially a battle to the death. Yes, the hands are ridiculous – but in fairness those who don’t play poker far outnumbered those who do, and this is a Bond film, not Rounders. Anyway, the point isn’t the cards but the psychological struggle between Bond and Le Chiffre, the advantage tilting one way then the other.

So many wonderful moments at the casino. I’ve mentioned Bond’s mirror pose, but what about the creation of the Vesper? A brilliantly funny thirty seconds that subtly feeds into the best line of the film, and one of the best of the entire series – this being the snarl of a defeated Bond to a waiter’s “shaken or stirred?” inquiry: “Do I look like I give a damn?” The welcome reappearance of Felix Leiter, now a pleasingly hangdog Jeffrey White (I really hope White isn’t gone for good). Gradually the legend builds itself around you. It’s a giddy experience.

Daniel Craig? Yeah, he isn’t bad for a blonde lad. I don’t want to write too much on Craig here because contemporary critics do that enough. Suffice to say I bet a lot of people felt very, very silly when Casino Royale was released. Those reviews must have been sweet.  

Can we have a quick “Praise the lord!” that the producers didn’t go full origin story on us and release James Bond: The Teenage Years. Craig’s maturity softens the prequel effect: Bond the man emerges as fully formed as he did in Dr. No. Good hypothetical: what if 22-year-old Henry Cavill got the nod? He reached the last two – and his subsequent career proves Bond would have been well within his capabilities, perhaps even then.

I’m not sure if we need the African dictator fight. It feels a little jarring: a piece of the previous film colliding into this one. Does the Casino Royale not have any security cameras? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the scene: but remove it and I think the film still flows. But then what about the shower cuddle…? Tough business, this screenwriting lark.

The poisoning incident, however, is very good. I love the jarring white of the toilet as Bond downs his salt: very trippy. And the highly amusing commentary from MI6 (Casino Royale is much funnier than many people credit). How Bond could to forget to plug in the defibrillator. Vesper sure sussed it quickly – must teach you all sorts on accountancy courses. Presumably she was too soft-hearted to follow her mission and let the unhelpful agent die.

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Even better is Bond’s aborted suicide mission on Le Chiffre after losing his stake at the card table. For a few seconds you really think he’s going to do it. It’s always good when a ‘how’s he going to get out of this?’ situation is satisfactorily resolved. Felix accomplishes this trick. 

Okay, let’s talk poker. Can’t resist. As a moderately keen player I appreciate the lunacy of the hands without getting overly aggravated – as some of my more serious poker playing friends do. There’s no point in deconstructing the poker but let’s enjoy the following:

* The fact Le Chiffre has possibly the most blatant tell ever seen round a card table: twitching uncontrollably every bluff. And nobody but Bond has ever noticed this before now.

* Bond losing to Le Chiffre “recklessly” with a full house of aces over kings. Only one hand on the entire board could beat him: four jacks, which of course Le Chiffre has. But the odds of that hand are ludicrously long. If Bond folded it wouldn’t just be the most amazing call of all time – he’d have to be cheating.

* Le Chiffre loses to Bond on the final hand with a full house of aces over sixes. That’s a worse hand than Bond had when he supposedly went out “recklessly.”

* On the final hand there’s an eight on the table. Le Chiffre doesn’t even have the best full house out there. He seems pretty confident for a man facing an overcard.

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* The Japanese player rocks up to the most loaded table in history – on which three other players have bet heavily – with a flush. Admire your balls sir.      

* And finally, the stage whispers of Mathis throughout: “Bond will have to go all in to call his bluff.”   

I should stress, none of the above is a critique. It’s written with love. A realistic poker game would be an audience tranquilizer – and, come on, it’s a Bond film. But the permutations give me much joy and I wanted to share it.

Question: why, after the car crash (Bond’s adamantium bones save his skin) does Le Chiffre say: “your friend Mathis is actually my friend Mathis” when Mathis has nothing to do with him? How does he even know Bond suspects Mathis? Do Le Chiffre know of Vesper’s duplicity – presumably not, as otherwise wouldn’t he taunt Bond with this little nugget in the hope of breaking him? Never mind: life’s too short for such quibbles.

Le Chiffre’s interrogation of Bond has a case for being the best scene of the series. It isn’t, quite, but if somebody argued for it I would certainly listen. Two desperate men with nothing to lose. A battle of wills. The most wince-inducing use of a rope ever depicted on screen.

For one of the great heroes of cinema, Bond is rarely heroic. Superhuman frequently but rarely heroic; being infallible means you rarely need to be brave. But faced with certain death he never falters. Never even blinks. The “no! no! to the left! to the left!” scream of agony brought nervous laughter, and even a few gasps, from the audience of my cinema.

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Watching his bravery, I don’t think I ever wanted to be Bond more, or felt further away from him. Anybody can run up a crane because nobody can; but sat in Bond’s chair I highly doubt my ability to wisecrack. Props to Mads Mikkelsen here; his escalating desperation raises the stakes but I particularly love the deep sigh of acceptance and the weary, almost amused: “You really aren’t going to tell me, are you?” Mutually assured destruction has briefly united the two men. Gorgeous, gorgeous scene from everybody: actors, writers, director, even the guy who made the chair.

But enter Mr White and exit Le Chiffre. This must be so. Not only does it mimic the book but the Le Chiffre storyline is done, the game is over. The problem is this storyline is also the story of the film: there’s nowhere really left to go. But of course Vesper must be exposed so on we plod to Venice. Yet the dramatic tension is lost; the climax has come and gone. It’s like those cartoons where Wile E Coyote keeps running on thin air having not yet realised he’s run out of cliff.

My theory? Spiritually the last twenty minutes of Casino Royale are in fact the first twenty of Quantum Of Solace. All the issues that bedevil the latter film suddenly rise to the surface: incoherent action, random characters introduced seemingly on a whim, and absolutely no attempt to explain what’s going on.

Why has Vesper withdrawn the money? Who is the guy with the eyepatch? Where did Mr. White come from? Some questions are answered, some are left unresolved, but the whole thing would work much better with a bit of prior explanation.

Essentially, the film bottles it. The need for action at the close trumps narrative coherency. You can’t introduce a random foe in the final act and expect the audience to care. Even if he does have a eyepatch. In fairness it’s hard to plot a satisfactory ending. In the book she just writes a letter which obviously wouldn’t work; an exposition-heavy climax, in which Bond discovers and confronts her only minus all the gunfire, would also be hard to pull off, especially after the torture scene – the exact equivalent for Bond and Le Chiffre. At the very least Eyepatch should have been introduced much earlier in the film.

Shame to end on a downer so let’s celebrate the neat final line of “Bond, James Bond” and Monty Norman at full blast. We don’t get much Monty in Craig, a decision I rather agree with; by this point the theme has become a sideshow, a character in itself. I’m not sure you could take any scene it soundtracked entirely seriously: the self-referentialism would hang too heavy.    

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And there we have it. An instant classic from the moment it came out. Daniel Craig proves himself the best Bond of the lot bar the untouchable Connery. This is his finest hour. And pretty damn fine it is.

Best Bit: Got to be the torture scene. But I do love the Vesper creation.

Worst Bit: Venice as a whole. Drops the ball, albeit not catastrophically.

Final Thought: I like Bond’s line to Vesper: “That’s because you know what I can do with my little finger.” Let’s hope his confidence is well placed because after the rope that little finger may be all he has.