In 1953, Ian Fleming published his “spy story to end all spy stories,” which would eventually led to the longest continually-running franchise in the history of film. It took nearly 50 years before it finally got the big screen adaptation it deserved. That would be 2006’s Casino Royale, the best James Bond movie ever made.
(With one week until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with 2006’s Casino Royale at number 1!)
When Eon Productions, the production company behind the official 24 film canon of the Bond series, scooped up the rights to the James Bond character and Ian Fleming’s novels, it was without his introductory novel Casino Royale. Instead they decided to adapt Dr. No as the first Bond film.
Fleming had sold the rights to his first Bond novel separately from the adaptation rights to the following 13 Bond novels and collections, which eventually ended up with Eon Productions.
Two adaptations were made, a televised play in 1954’s Casino Royale, which made James become Jimmy Bond, an American out to stop the criminal gambler LeChiffre. The second adaptation was a very campy celebrity-cameo type of satirical film with 1967’s Casino Royale starring David Niven and Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl Honey Rider in Dr. No.
You may have seen this film. I’m sorry if that is the case.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Eon Productions finally obtained the rights to adapting the original James Bond novel, and in 2004 it work began on adapting Casino Royale for it’s first proper film, originally for Brosnan.
After the notoriously campy Die Another Day, the franchise’s creative team felt they needed to recast the role, and do a moderate reboot of the franchise. Though Die Another Day had been a very successful film financially, and moderately successful critically, it felt dated and ridiculous following the weight of concurrent terrorism attacks and looming threats which dramatically altered the public perspective towards war and espionage.
Brosnan’s era looks particularly dated when compared to the introduction of the more-serious Jason Bourne franchise with 2001’s The Bourne Identity. However, the Bond team, rather ironically, brought back 1995’s GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, who had successfully introduced Brosnan in the Bond role.
Together with Eon Productions, Campbell decided on bringing in the relatively unknown, very left-field choice of actor Daniel Craig to take over the Bond role. Actor Henry Cavill was supposedly a close second choice, but just missed out. He eventually made his big break as Superman in 2013’s Man Of Steel.
While Connery had been a relatively unknown actor when cast as Bond in 1961, by 2005 people were used to being familiar with who the new Bond actors were. Roger Moore had rose to popularity in the successful television show The Saint, and Pierce Brosnan was a fan favorite for the role after his stint as Remington Steele in the television series of the same name.
Craig’s most notable role at the time was probably playing the lead in 2004’s Layer Cake. It’s a common thought that Layer Cake is what inspired the Bond franchise to consider him in the first place.
Most people by now, with Craig’s fourth film being this year’s SPECTRE, have rescinded their objections, because Daniel Craig has done nothing but kick ass since his first black and white, cold-blooded kill in Casino Royale.
Unlike the 19 official James Bond films before it, Casino Royale doesn’t open with the famous gun-barrel sequence to the tune of the Bond theme. Instead the film opens in black and white, with Bond earning his double-0 status by assassinating a corrupt MI6 section chief, and one of his contacts, in an extremely violent bathroom fight (becoming a 00 requires two sanctioned kills).
The bathroom fight ends with Bond picking up his gun off the ground, just as the man he’s fighting jumps up. Bond points and shoots, and we are treated to a creative adoption of the classic gun-barrel as it transitions into a very different title sequence.
Gone are the days of dancing semi-nude women and interpretive shapes and colors. Daniel Kleinman, the title designer of every Bond film since GoldenEye (except for Quantum of Solace) went with a completely animated sequence featuring playing card symbolism as Bond brutally fights off the shapes of attackers, representing the harder-edged Bond from Daniel Craig, the poker theme of the film, and also representing a nod to the original cover of Ian Fleming’s first novel.
After the title sequence and song “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden fame, we get an introduction to our main villain, LeChiffre, and his representative Mr. White, who work for a mysterious organization (sound familiar?) that finances terrorist groups and other questionable activities on a global scale.
Bond’s trail to LeChiffre begins with a bomb-maker in Madagascar, who Bond chases through an elaborate series of stunts at a construction site into the embassy of a nation of the film’s creation. It’s this sequence that introduces us to the revolutionary style of action that’s now standard in the Bond franchise.
Long-time Bond stunt crew worker and first time Stunt-Coordinator Gary Powell’s Bond work sees an escalating series of stunts, in this case beginning with a fast-paced foot chase developing into Bond and his target climbing multiple stories of construction framework, then up onto a crane several hundred feet above the ground, then jumping off onto a series of rooftops, into another building, ending with Bond tailing him to an embassy, charging in, and shooting the guy and blowing the entire embassy before getting away.
The bomb-maker Bond is chasing, Mollaka, is actually co-creator of the sport of Parkour (or “Freerunning”), Sébastien Foucan, who was hired and cast specifically for the sport’s urban-navigating characteristic. This was among the first times the sport was portrayed in a major Hollywood film, and has since been mirrored by almost every modern action film.
With Foucan and Craig doing most of their own stunt work, the sequence is absolutely breathtaking and really divides Bond from competitors like Bourne and the Mission: Impossible franchise, finding a balance between the realism of the former, and the elaborate nature of the latter.
Bond breaks in to the home of his new boss, M. - confusingly portrayed by Judi Dench again, as she was also M. during the prior four films pre-reboot. In Casino, she’s plays a different person in the same position, the film-makers just wanted to keep her in the role.
Bond uses her access to the MI6 network to track a message reading “ELLIPSIS” he found on Mollaka’s phone. After a lecturing from M., one of the most quotable scenes in the entire franchise, Bond is suspended, but continues to the Bahamas to follow the origin of the message.
Bond discovers Dimitrios, the man who recruited Mollaka to blow up a prototype plane at Miami Airport. After winning Dimitrios’ Aston Martin DB5 off of him at a game of poker and snagging his gorgeous wife, Bond follows him to the airport. Bond kills Dimitrios and goes after the new hired terrorist across the tarmac in another exciting, elaborate chase that sees Bond wrestle a fuel truck, an airport security car get blown away in an aircraft’s turbine exhaust, and a very close call with the world’s largest aircraft, the Skyfleet Prototype.
Just as a quick note, the Skyfleet Prototype is actually a combination of scale models and a Boeing 747, the very same 747 featured in the Volkswagen Tuareg towing test on Fifth Gear, which is also the same plane parked in the background of the Top Gear test track! You can read more about the trickery used to sell the effect here.
LeChiffre had invested his criminal clients’ funds against Skyfleet’s stock, where he would have reaped massive rewards through purchases of put options had the company’s only Prototype been destroyed. Since Bond intervened, he lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Being extremely masterful at the game of poker, LeChiffre sets up a high-stakes poker game to recoup his clientele’s lost funds.
Bond, being the best poker player in the service, is sent to Casino Royale in Montenegro with Vesper Lynd, a representative of the government’s treasury, who are funding Bond’s 10 million dollar buy-in to the game with the option for 5 million more if he loses and has to buy his way back in. Ian Fleming named the Vesper Lynd character to sound like “West Berlin,” as the novel was written when Berlin was divided between the Soviet sectors and Western sectors.
Bond and Vesper’s meeting shows the two clashing over the morals of using government funds to potentially fund terrorism directly through playful banter. It’s clear from the beginning that Vesper won’t just be another shallow Bond girl, shocking Bond with their verbal sparring.
The two meet up with MI6’s field contact Rene Mathis, who’s characterization rivals that of the great Kerim Bay in From Russia With Love. He has the police chief arrested (a cameo by Bond producer Michael Wilson), and fills both Bond and the audience in on the basics of the poker game.
Somehow the film-makers manage to keep the poker game exciting, with action-packed breaks inter-cut. During the expanse of the poker scene, Bond get’s his famous tuxedo, has his first signature “Vesper” martini, and has his ass saved by the CIA’s Felix Leiter after losing and not being permitted by Vesper to buy back into the game.
Felix provides him the five million buy-in, and he defeats LeChiffre and wins the game. The deal is that MI6 gets the winnings, the CIA get LeChiffre.
Over a celebratory dinner, Bond becomes suspicious of Mathis, who seemingly fed information to LeChiffre during the game, causing him to lose initially. As he races out of the hotel, Vepser is kidnapped and Bond gives chase in his government-provided Aston Martin DBS. During the chase, Bond flips the Aston and is captured and tortured by LeChiffre, with his suspicions of Mathis confirmed.
The torture scene is extremely graphic, with Bond stripped nude and sat in a bottomless chair, LeChiffre swinging a knotted rope into his bottom-bits trying to get Bond to give him the password to access the winnings account.
Mr. White returns, the mysterious man from the first scene of the film, killing LeChiffre for losing the mysterious organization’s client funds.
During Bond’s rehabilitation from the torture, him and Vesper slowly fall in love, and Bond retires from MI6 to go off to Venice to live happily ever after with Vesper. This is interrupted when Bond is notified that the British treasury never receives the winnings from the game that Vesper had supposedly deposited.
Bond follows her to the bank, where he spies her withdrawing the funds, and meeting with a mysterious man in an abandoned house. Bond is spotted and Vesper is locked in the elevator. During the shootout, the airbags holding up the house are ruptured, causing it to slowly sink into the Venice waterways.
As Bond attempts to save Vesper, she locks the cage, tells him tearfully she is “sorry,” and the cage drops into the water. Bond dives in after her, but can’t open the cage in time, witnessing her violently drown as she reaches out for him.
Bond pulls her body onto the rooftop, now at water level, desperately trying to resuscitate her. We see Mr. White overlooking them from a distance, the briefcase of money in his hand.
After returning to MI6, Bond is led to Mr. White by a message left for him in Vesper’s phone, with the film ending with Bond shooting him in the knee, and delivering the classic “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”
In a slight nod to the previous Bond films Casino Royale separated itself from with the reboot, the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 makes a return, with Bond winning it in a poker game.
Since it is another person’s car, it isn’t equipped with gadgets, but this instance is by far my favorite DB5 homage, with the rest of them feeling too forced, as I detailed here.
Craig benefits from his first film featuring not just one, but two Aston Martins!
The not-yet-released DBS model was put in the film to help boost the car’s release once the film hit theaters. The Aston Martin team used the DB9 platform modified to appear as a DBS, as the car was still in the early stages of development during filming.
Bond flipping the DBS while chasing after Vesper’s captors was actually filmed at the Millbrook vehicle proving ground. The stunt also broke the world record for number of flips on film, with the car tumbling a cringe-inducing seven times.
While it wasn’t exactly as decked out as the DB5 in Goldfinger, the DBS does have a stowaway for Bond’s Walther P99 handgun and a portable defibrillator.
Speaking of violently restarting things, director Martin Campbell’s comeback proves he is one of the great Bond directors. He just seems to understand the character and delivers a fantastic film for both general audiences and hardcore fans. Casino Royale uses some very dangerous artistic liberties: starting the film in black and white, moving the gun barrel, altering the title sequence, keeping Judi Dench as M., etc., and it’s his overall approach to filming the story that set Casino Royale far above the rest of Craig’s films.
As I mentioned in the review for GoldenEye, Campbell has eye for pacing, capturing strong characters without relying simply on dialogue (Skyfall suffers for this, in my eyes), and managing to tell a very visual story at a pace that never feels rushed, and never feels boring—even through something as monotonous as a poker game.
Eva Green’s casting and portrayal as Bond’s first serious love interest, Vesper Lynd, is brilliant and effective. I’d go so far as to say she is the best Bond girl in the series, especially given the unusual weight of her character. She pulls off the “as smart as Bond” personality in spades, and she carries a very dramatic screen presence, stealing the show with every appearance.
Casino Royale’s big distinguished skill is how it has maintained it’s modernity - or perhaps succeeded at reaching a timelessness. It has yet to be surpassed in terms of production by any of Craig’s follow-ups, and the plot doesn’t rely on any devices that significantly age the story, save for a few chunky phones and loose suit-pants.
As an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s original novel from 1954, the story is adapted in a surprisingly effective and recognizable way. If you read the book and then watched the film, there is quite a lot that would stand out to you, until you got to the sinking house finale. For an adaptation set half a century after its origin, it’s surprising how effectively it was managed.
I find very little notable faults in Casino Royale, but for some there are always a few things wrong.
Many people dislike the sinking house finale, claiming it feels too insincere and acts as just another elaborate action set piece, diluting Vesper’s death. I don’t follow this, as I think it was a creative way of finishing the film, and elevates the drama to a new level with the ticking-of-the-clock that is the house sinking.
Another common complaint is the lack of fan-favorite characters like Q. and Moneypenny. I don’t agree with this either, as no Bond story should ever rely on anything other than Bond. Watching the film, the common tropes of previous Bond films not being present doesn’t distract me - I hardly even notice it.
My bottom-line is, Casino Royale is just a tight, exciting, emotional and fun story with no glaring faults.
Casino Royale manages to pull off so many critical changes with the potential to kill the franchise: a new, uncharacteristic Bond actor, an adaptation of a 50 year old story, and throwing everything out and wiping a decades old slate completely clean.
But damn, did they pull it off. Casino Royale blends old and new into the “spy story to end all spy stories,” and simply put, it’s the best James Bond movie ever made.
With a tragic love story between Bond and Vesper similar to that of Bond and Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale manages to beat it out thanks to a stellar performance by Daniel Craig. As much as I want to defend Lazenby’s Bond, he is no Craig.
The locations and scenery are breathtaking, Vesper ranks among the very best Bond women, and it feels as though every single actor, big role or small, was completely committed to selling the story without overselling their act, which is an issue many Bond films fail to avoid.
This is one of the few Bond films that has a very solid feeling - a clear beginning to end, completely enveloping the audience in Bond’s first mission as a double-o.
It’s the Bond film that made me a Bond fan. It’s the reason I can enjoy Quantum of Solace. It’s the reason I follow every day of the production when there’s a new film. The franchise has more than 50 years of film history, and another decade of literary history beyond that to lose yourself in - and Casino Royale is the door to all of it. It’s the apex at which Ian Fleming’s Bond comes the closest to gracing the big screen, and I don’t think I will ever be convinced anything else is better.
I often sell this film to people by having them picture themselves as a Bond fan in 2006—someone who was born long enough ago to see every film on the big screen, from 1962 to 2002, or someone (like me) who managed to catch up in time.
They re-read Ian Fleming’s first story in preparation, and fight the small but potent nagging thought in the back of their head that Casino Royale could never be properly adapted. They go to the theater to see Daniel Craig’s first Bond film, with memories of CGI surfing and terrible characterization in Die Another Day.
They’re slightly surprised by the black and white opening, and patiently relax into that slow climax to the moment Craig’s Bond kicks a guy through the bathroom stall and drowns him in a hand sink.
That moment, they will never experience again. I will never experience again. Growing up on VHS and DVD copies of the franchise, barely grasping the entire concept that was the 19 Bond films at that point, and seeing such a visceral film with an ending that put a lump in my 12-year-old throat, with that deep wave from tears of pain to tears of joy; it’s a moment, sitting stunned and incredulous in the theater as the credits rolled, I fear I will never have again.
I hope I do, but until that day comes, I cherish Casino Royale as simply the best.
Thanks for watching, and thanks for reading this 10-week series of reviews. I’ll be reviewing SPECTRE as soon as I can get my ass in a seat when it releases stateside November 6th, so look forward to that.
Until then, check out the rest of the list.