Casino Royale (2006)

Even after dedicating myself to watching every Bond film ever made, I’m still no Bond fan. Yet even I won’t deny that the series flirts with greatness from time to time. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service comes close to telling a fantastic and beautiful Bond story while The Living Daylights showed a more complex and darker side of Bond. But it’s in Casino Royale where everything finally comes together and I can unequivocally say I love a Bond film.

And what makes it work so well is the fact that this is the James Bond (Daniel Craig) story where we get to see the man become the myth of 007. Sure, it’s built around a game of international politics when bad guy banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) hosts a high stakes game of poker in a desperate attempt to raise funds for his terrorist clients, but it’s all a means to explore the character of Bond.

And Daniel Craig proves to be quite the Bond. There’s this raw, animalistic physicality housing an almost mechanical mind. But this Bond has a chip on his shoulder and an ego so big he doesn’t think he can lose at anything. This makes for a Bond that I’m not sure if we’re supposed to like, but one I find fascinating to watch.  His grasp exceeds his reach and it’s enthralling to watch him slowly become dangerously daring.

I do think Craig is charming in his own way, but his tongue’s sardonic edge makes his smoothness almost sinister and hideous in some of the scenes. He says all the right words, but ever letter feels like it’s laced with just a bit of malice, lust and arrogance. He’s endearing because he often uses these to poke fun at the kind of people that should be brought down a peg, but when aimed at the wrong target, he comes off as an ass.

The best part is that the film doesn’t let him get away with it. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the treasury representative that backs Bond in the game, plays a perfect foil to bond’s biting cynicism with her aggressive sarcasm. She’s an equal to Bond on the word front, able to battle his arguments and also finds a way to encroach her own ideas about how they should conduct the mission onto Bond.

Their relationship, to me, is the highlight of the film. The way it starts off as this playful game of reading and testing each other’s limits gives way and evolves as the reality of their work begins to encroach upon their relationship. It starts off as Bond using Vesper as a sexual distraction at the poker game, but evolves into something much more complex when Vesper is faced with the reality of Bond’s work.

The film also does a fantastic job of balancing the various elements of the story. The core poker game could quickly devolve into a dull set of poker hands (which is how I remembered it), but it does a fantastic job of breaking up the games and building little character and plot points in-between each game. The poker hands themselves also serve as a way to develop the Le Chiffre character, making him one of the most memorable and fleshed- out Bond villains.

Credit should be given to the screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who have been writing for the Bond series for a while, but perhaps not too much as they are responsible for two of the more lackluster Bond stories: The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. With the help of Paul Haggis, Purvis and Wade step up their game and the three together craft what is, in my mind, the best writer Bond film to date.

In fact, their story is so good that up to this point I’ve neglected to talk about the strong direction by GoldenEye’s Martin Campbell. I’ve also not talked about the astounding action set pieces executed by a fantastic stunt team and spliced together by editor Stuart Baird who has a fantastic sense of momentum and timing. It’s also worth emphasizing how much the film relies on real stunt work instead of resorting to cheap CGI.

And as much as those elements make the film even better, I can’t help but continually return to the writing. It’s what makes this film more than just another existential escapade of sex and violence in the name of queen and country. It’s the most soulful and emotionally involving Bond film ever made. Therefore, I’ve no qualms in calling Casino Royale my favorite Bond film of all time.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing