Casino Royale review: Bond begins
James R | On 26, Sep 2021
Invisible cars. CGI surfing. DNA machines. Where could James Bond go after Die Another Day. Casino Royale came up with the only logical answer: back to the start.
It isn’t the first time the franchise has tried to return to its roots. In fact, it’s the third, maybe even the fourth, reboot that 007 has undergone, each one designed to recalibrate the series back to zero. Hot on the heels of the overblown Moonraker, for example, For Your Eyes Only did the same thing during Roger Moore’s heyday.
At the helm? Martin Campbell, returning after GoldenEye to do what he does best: reboot the Bond franchise to fit its era. His 2006 cocktail kept the cold-blooded part – a cornerstone of Ian Fleming’s character – and added in a dash of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s sorrow. But it’s more than that: as well as nailing Bond’s character, Casino Royale knows when to blow things up and when to sit things out. Gone are the CGI surfboards and ice palaces; in their place, clever exchanges of dialogue and games of cards. After an explosive first half (and some bold opening credits), it really does feel like we’re back in Dr. No territory. Casino Royale doesn’t out-Bourne Jason Bourne by punching people in the face. It does it by staying quiet for the middle act and letting Craig’s throbbing landmine take centre stage.
The result is a stripped-down thriller that removes most of the familiar elements from the 007 formula. The car chase is scaled back to a single, high-speed drive down a country road that almost immediately wrecks the Aston Martin; the bad guy, Le Chiffre, works in finance and is concerned with maintaining his bank balance not world domination; the conversations with M take place in her flat, not Vauxhall Cross; the flawless music, by David Arnold, studiously avoids the Monty Norman theme tune until the end credits, although the Chris Cornell theme song is rooted in its chord structure. Even colour is taken away: the film starts with a black-and-white prologue, the only time Bond has embraced monochrome, its office set of glass and shadows a long way from the lush Technicolor visuals of the Caribbean-set Dr No or the CGI surfing of Die Another Day.
It’s as thick a line as returning director Martin Campbell could draw between Craig’s Bond and the one played by Pierce Brosnan. And it sets the stage for Craig’s future as 007: what else could motivate a cold-hearted spy other than betrayal and loss? That was, after all, the starting point for Ian Fleming’s books.
And then there’s Eva Green, whose independent streak makes her the first Bond woman of the series to properly best him, emotionally and intellectually, even getting the lion’s share of their opening conversation. She’s the perfect counterpoint to Mads Mikkelsen’s quiet, calculating Bond villain, both of them adding realism rather than camp humour to proceedings.
The script is nonetheless playful. “Shaken or stirred?” Bond is asked during a particularly hairy moment. “Do I look like I give a damn?” comes the grim reply. Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter (“brother from Langley”), meanwhile, is a delight. But it’s never less than serious, and Craig is the anchor to make that new tone work, bringing a disdain and simmering anger to the cool yet hotheaded newly promoted 00-agent – a reckless but focused hero who isn’t super and doesn’t quite make every jump he goes for. And who isn’t above smiling with cruel satisfaction when he beats an opponent. The result is nothing like Bond yet, by the time he finally introduces himself formally, he’s immediately recognisable in the role. Casino Royale: Bond Begins.