Casino Royale

Movie Review by Dr Kuma

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Martin Campbell

The scent of popcorn and sweat in the Odeon Leicester Square [London] are nauseating at two in the afternoon on the opening day of Bond. The Westlers hotdog hits the taste buds with an acid shock and the fear and tension suddenly becomes unbearable.

This is obviously not what appeared in the original draft of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book Casino Royale in 1953, but my own take on the novel’s opening as it fitted perfectly the way I felt as I awaited the film itself. Although several of the most well informed Bond fans I know had given the film their seal of approval, this was still a big deal as each of those masterminds all listed a different title as “the ultimate Bond film”. Bond films, like the books, are a personal thing. I wanted to make up my own mind.

This was no normal trip to the cinema for me as I hadn’t been this excited since attending the Bond films of the early 80’s when my obsession with the franchise was, to use another 007 reference, at an All Time High.

Although these days I tend to spend most of my time on the music scene photographing bands, my love of the James Bond books and films has never left me since they entered my life as a 14 year-old as I settled down after my Sunday night bath to watch DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER on TV. Although I’d seen all the previous Bond films up to that point and the more recent ones at the cinema something clicked that night and I was never the same again.

Being a photographer has enabled me to meet and capture all of the 007 stars (bar Dalton) as well as many of the co-stars and the legends behind the films such as set designer Ken Adam and composer John Barry but it is the cinematic adventures of 007 where my fascination began. This hopefully explains why I was so exited that the first Bond book I ever read was now finally being transferred to the screen as part of the official series, after such a troubled history. The story itself revolves around high stake gambling but in reality, the biggest gamble here was taken by the producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. In the film version $50 million is at stake. The 007 franchise is worth far more than that and more than Fleming could ever have envisaged and by introducing a new Bond and returning to a more human Bond after the cynical DIE ANOTHER DAY, the producers had really gambled all their previous winnings by investing on what was seen as a wild card. They couldn’t bluff. In Fleming’s time, the winning number in cards was 21 in chemin de fer (or baccarat). This was officially film 21, so it had to beat all competition. Although their last gamble had made them a fortune by luck rather than a winning hand (over $400 million) this turn of the cards would prove their most important in decades. As half the world’s population has seen a Bond film at one time or another, it was more than queen and country who depended on 007 raising his game when playing against the other contenders such as Jason Bourne rather than a villain with an eye patch in the game of the Hollywood house of cards. So did 007 play a winning hand or did he simply fold under the weight of expectation?

I’m happy to say that he played an ace to a full house at Leicester Square, all willing him on.

The great gamble here was casting Daniel Craig and it is his wonderful performance as Bond that enables the cinema going public to leave their red baize seats the winners.

The story had been previously filmed twice very poorly and was therefore thought a lost Fleming title to Bond fans. In the first incarnation of Bond in 1954, Barry Nelson (great British name, very American GI haircut) played “card sharp Jimmy Bond” in a “Climax” production which was filmed live and had all the hallmarks of an amateur dramatics’ panto, bar the presence of the sinister Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. 1967 brought us the disastrous film version, which bar a couple of scenes with Peter Sellers and a wonderful turn by Orson Welles as Le Chiffre was a waste of time for all five directors and the numerous talented incarnations of James Bond. On paper it looked great, but after filming, you realize it must have been toilet paper.

When it was announced that the new 007 movie would be a return to the essence of the character, we were excited but had obviously been their before with Moore’s FOR YOUR EYES ONLY bringing Bond back to Earth after previously being an astronaut as well as Dalton’s much underrated turns in the franchise. Many have said that this current film is the best since ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. They could be right, but why?

In essence it’s because in these two books, Bond shows his vulnerable side. He falls for the girl. He let’s his guard down and has no fancy gadget from saving him from falling, not down some ravine, but in love. Both Casino Royale and OHMSS feature two of the series most memorable female characters. The reason that these two films now find themselves in the upper echelons of the Bond movie franchise is because, bar sticking to the Fleming source, they both feature superb actresses playing these strong female roles. Diana Rigg as Tracy may not be drop dead gorgeous or possess a name which has a double entendre, but a strength of character that Bond and the audience warmed to. Eva Green follows her illustrious fellow actor, but where Rigg showed Tracy’s strength, Green also shows the characters vulnerability. She soon shows she’s 007’s match with wordplay and intelligence, but when she enters Bond’s world of assignation and death, she reacts like most would, with shock and revulsion. It is to Craig’s credit therefore that his Bond shows Vesper that he is merely a pawn in the game and will protect her from people…like him.

I have to admit, I was taken back when it was announced that Daniel Craig would play the next Bond. I thought he would make a good villain but not 007 himself. Later I realised a childhood dream as I was finally one of “the world’s press” that covered the announcement of a new Bond. However, I was still a fan of Brosnan and the negative press from that day on the Thames (Craig stupidly derided for wearing a life jacket on a speed boat and such) haunted the films production and led to sites such as http://www.danielcraigisnotbond.com/.

Ian Fleming describes Bond as slim build, eyes blue and hair black. Now Craig had blue eyes, but a blond Bond has been a major problem with most fans (including myself). Obviously, Roger Moore’s hair wasn’t black, but he fitted the idea of what Bond should look like e.g. an Englishman. After the fuss that was made over George Lazenby’s beard at the premiere by the Bond team themselves in 1969, furious that Lazenby didn’t “look like Bond” I would have thought that darkening Craig’s hair (he’s an actor, they do these things in roles you know) would have been a good move and perhaps alleviated of the “arrogant” tag that’s followed him around since that initial press conference. The thing is, Bond, the character, is arrogant and perhaps Craig was merely using the press as a way of getting in character; he seems quite method.

In stills, as has been said, Craig doesn’t look like Bond; his short hair and hard face differing from all before him. It’s worth pointing out though that at his introduction on the Thames, where he sported longer hair and a beautifully tailored suit, he looked more like our ideal 007 than in the finished film! However, seeing Craig on screen is seeing Ian Fleming’s literary creation brought to life.

I’m one of the warm blooded heterosexuals that Fleming said he was initially aiming the books at but I just couldn’t see how Craig could match the Connery’s or Brosnan’s of this world until my wife pointed out that Craig is “sexy” and it’s his confidence that makes him attractive rather than the buffered good looks of those past. I disagree, but in all honesty, if you were to stick to Fleming’s description of Bond as “Hoagie Carmichael”, then step forward Mads Mikkelsen who plays Le Chiffre! He’s more Fleming’s description of Bond than Craig. It’s an interesting thought – the dark Bond was last seen in Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, who, I’m sure you know, was actually Ian Fleming’s cousin.

The casting of Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre is another great move by the producers and is up there with the greats such as Robert Shaw as Red Grant and Gert Frobe as Goldfinger. As with all the great Fleming Bond villains, he has a flaw that makes him unique, in this case he weeps blood, a very nice touch. Of course, what makes all three memorable is that they give great performances and this is something that CASINO ROYALE is littered with, from the beautiful underplaying of Mathis by Giancarlo Giannini to the wonderful turn by Judi Dench as M, the film exists without a Moneypenny or a Q and even the gun barrel is missing from the film’s opening moments and it is this opening which is perhaps the only real flaw in the film. The only classy thing about the first ten minutes is that it is shot in black and white. Even if the scenes are not simply introducing a new Bond, but showing how Bond came to be, they seem just a little too harsh. Previously some of the Bond films had shot their bolt in the first pre-credit sequence (OCTOPUSSY for example) but this film doesn’t really come to life until the introduction of colour via Daniel Kleinman’s superb opening credits. The reason I say this is that although I fully understand from reading the books that spying isn’t really glamorous, it’s worth pointing out that what we are watching is a Bond film and to someone like my wife who knows Bond via the previous films alone, the uber violence of the first ten minutes just doesn’t work. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth that, for her, didn’t quite go away. After this initial stumble (the opening was just too BOURNE IDENTITY or Harry Palmer) we enter the world of Bond proper – and what an adventure this is. The scriptwriters have done a fine job of updating Fleming’s story while keeping the novel’s retro essence, helped no end by excellent cinematography, great score and tight direction. It also bravely retains the torture scene and the bitter last line of the novel – something you’d never thought you’d ever see in a Bond film. CASINO ROYALE is in fact a Bond film you thought you’d never see. The action scenes are superb, but it is the quieter moments that make this a great 007 film.

The first great scene is when Bond comforts Vesper after she witnesses a kill at first hand. It’s the best shower scene since PSYCHO. The Hitchcock connection doesn’t end there either (and no I’m not referring to Michael J Wilson’s cameo). Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST is seen by many (including myself) as the blueprint for the look and style of the Bond films and the meeting on the train of Bond and Vesper Lynd reminds you of the classic dining car scene from that film. The sexual tension fairly sizzles between the two leads, as it did in the original Hitchcock thriller, but the CASINO ROYALE scene is nearly let down by the worst piece of “scripted” product endorsement I’ve ever seen in a film, which nearly ruined it (in the same way 007 Up was too obvious in MOONRAKER). In the scene in the Hitchcock film, Cary Grant is quizzed over dinner as to why his matchbox has R O T on it when his full name is simply Roger Thornhill. When Eva Marie Saint asks what the 0 is for, Grant simply replies “Nothing”. It’s a great line but if Eva Green’s Vesper had asked a similar question to Craig, he would have said that the 7 was his identification but, unlike Roger Thornhill, these two 00 represented everything. In other words he is Bond, James Bond and has a ‘license to kill’.

The only similarity between this film and the INDIANA JONES and the STAR WARS franchises that once threatened to kill off Bond, is that this is a prequel of sorts. However, whereas Lucas aimed his prequels at a kid’s audience, as he had done originally, the Bond team have made a film that will appeal to those who’ve grown up with 007 and although it’s a great thriller in its own right, CASINO ROYALE is the fans’ dream film. After years of disgruntlement from fans like myself perhaps the team at EON can finally remind us that the paperback of Casino Royale was re-titled “You Asked For It” in America in the 50’s and can now say to fans old and new “So Here It Is”.

Cubby Broccoli would have loved this film and would be proud that Bond is back at the top of his game once more.

Verdict: A Full House. You win, Mr. Blond!

6 out of 6 stars

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