Movies That Everyone Should See: “Casino Royale”

In 2002, Eon Productions released the 20th Bond film in the series, “Die Another Day”.

Though it was critically panned (57% on Rotten Tomatoes) and generally reviled by hardcore fans, it was still a huge hit. The combination of Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry provided an enormous box office draw. Without taking inflation into account, it was the highest grossing Bond film ever released. It earned $432 million worldwide, and was the sixth highest grossing film of 2002.

The producers were faced with a difficult decision. Brosnan, though still wildly popular, had fulfilled his contract and was about to turn 50. The series had also begun to lose credibility during Brosnan’s run, with the quality of the movies gradually devolving until they were cartoonish action films.

They made the difficult decision to recast the role of James Bond, replacing Brosnan with the relatively unknown Daniel Craig. They also decided to create a more grounded movie… to return 007 to more believable territory.

The result? A movie that not only overtook “Die Another Day” as the series’ box office champion, but one that many fans list as the greatest film in the franchise’s proud history.

“Casino Royale”.

“Die Another Day” was the fourth and final film featuring Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. He was undeniably popular during his term as 007. Regardless of the quality of his films, they were consistently bankable. In order, his movies ranked 4th, 4th, 8th, and 6th in worldwide grosses in their year of their release. His first film, “Goldeneye” became the highest grossing film in franchise history, and “The World Is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day” would raise that bar twice more.

In spite of his popularity, the quality of the films during his tenure had undeniably begun to deteriorate. Not that it’s fair to blame Brosnan, but he had become associated with the tone that the series had taken on.

And that tone had become borderline comical. “Die Another Day” featured Bond parasailing away from a CGI avalanche, a melting ice hotel, a solar satellite death ray, plastic surgery via DNA rewriting, a final battle against a villain in a robotic suit aboard a burning airplane, and perhaps most egregiously, a cameo by Madonna (in order to secure her horrendous theme song contribution).

Something needed to change.

“Once and for all, as far as my connection goes, Bond is over. If you ask me how did it become over, well, it’s hard to find the truth in a town called Hollywood. In the middle of negotiations, everything stopped. I got a call and my agent said, “They’ve ceased negotiations”. I said, “Why? How?”. I never really got an answer, but the producer said they didn’t know how to continue and I said, “Fair enough. Goodbye”. It was good while it lasted. I wish them well, I wish the next man well. And that’s what really happened.” – Pierce Brosnan, Hello Magazine, Nov 2nd, 2004

Eon Productions, the company that had produced all 20 previous “Official” Bond movies, made a decision to make the 21st Bond film a more traditional Bond movie. In spite of the recent success the series had experienced, they were now looking to distance themselves from the recent chapters. They began using a word that had come into vogue with the recent “Batman Begins”… “reboot”. The internet would eventually take to nicknaming the 21st Bond “Bond Begins”.

Brosnan was out (though they halfheartedly attempted to arrive at a one picture deal with him). The role of James Bond would be recast. A sixth actor would receive his license to kill. They announced their intention to make the next movie an would also eschew the reliance on CGI and over the top characters that the series had recently developed, and instead focus on stunt work and story.

And at this particular juncture, EON pictures had a card up their sleeve in terms of stories… an original Ian Fleming novel that had never been filmed in the “Official Series”; the first Bond novel ever, “Casino Royale”.

In 1954, Ian Fleming released his first novel about super spy James Bond. It was a modest success. Convinced the property had the potential for a movie, Fleming unsuccessfully tried to sell the film rights. In the middle of the conservative 1950s, Hollywood studios were put off by the novel’s sexual and violent content. Fleming was forced to settle for a deal offered by CBS for $1,000.

CBS created a one hour-long television special based on the book for their “Climax!” series. “Climax!” was a weekly series of unrelated dramatic stories, occasionally performed live. In this particular episode, named after the novel, Barry Nelson played Bond and Peter Lorre played Le Chiffre. Bond was Americanized (he now worked for , all references to him working for British secret service were removed, and he was referred to occasionally as Jimmy. It made little difference. The episode aired live, October 21, 1954 to hardly any notice.

It was important in one regard, however. Aside from earning Barry Nelson a historical footnote as the first actor to ever play James Bond, it also meant that when Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman purchased the film rights to the Bond novels years later, “Casino Royale” would not be included.

This allowed for one of the two “non-canon” James Bond films that have been made: 1967’s “Casino Royale”, starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress and Woody Allen (the other being 1983’s “Never Say Never Again”, due to a separate legal rights issue). With Bond mania in full swing in the mid sixties, alert producer Charles K. Feldman snapped up the rights and attempted to reconcile the property with the franchise. When he couldn’t arrive at a deal with Broccoli and Saltzman, he decided to make his own movie. A send-up. “Casino Royale” (1967) was a modest success at the box office ($23 mil, good for 13th highest in the year of its release), but wasn’t overly resonant in the pop culture. As a spoof film, the ’67 “Casino Royale” doesn’t oft get argued as a “Bond Film” the way “Never Say Never Again” does, but it did continue the curious odyssey of the rights of the Fleming novel.

With the release of ’67’s “Royale”, the rights were now were in the hands of Columbia Pictures.

Columbia was acquired by Sony in 1989. In 1996, when MGM/UA chief executive John Calley moved to Columbia Pictures, he began looking for a franchise that could provide a bankable return every few years. He purchased the rights to Spider-Man from Marvel (who had just emerged from bankruptcy). Unfortunately, a Spider-Man film had already been stuck in development hell for years (also involving James Cameron and Carolco pictures), and MGM had acquired the rights and pre-production materials involved in development. They sued Columbia over Spider-Man’s rights.

Calley countered. He was well aware of the legal issues surrounding “Never Say Never Again” (MGM and Columbia had co-released that film), and knew that Kevin McClory was eager to remake 83’s “Never Say Never Again” as “Warhead 8”. Between that, and the fact that Columbia/Sony owned the rights to “Casino Royale”, Calley began intimating that the studio was prepared to launch an “alternate Bond franchise”. MGM sued over Bond, as well.

In 1999, the two studios reached an accord. MGM would give Sony/Columbia their rights to the Spider-Man material they had, and in exchange, they would receive “Casino Royale” and any rights Columbia had regarding Bond material.

Both the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” trilogy and “Casino Royale” were free to move forward.

So, with an original Fleming novel available to be filmed for the first time in decades, and a desire to change the tone of the series, the producers began their search for a new James Bond. Karl Urban, Henry Cavill and Sam Worthington were considered to varying extents, but the producers zeroed in on Daniel Wroughton Craig.

Craig was a relative unknown to American audiences, and only slightly better known in the UK. He had had roles in “Road to Perdition”, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”, and “Munich” but his largest role had been 2004’s “Layer Cake”, where he plays an unnamed drug dealer who gets involved in a situation that eventually leads to major violence. Craig would bring a serious intensity to the role, and return the physicality to the part. He had been a semi-professional rugby player, and was prepared to get into top shape for the part.

Fandom at large was divided about the announcement. While many sought out “Layer Cake” and were impressed, others derided his lack of charm and… of all things, the fact that he had blond hair. Promised boycotts and internet protests popped up online. Someone even launched The Daily Mirror ran an article entitled “The Name’s Bland… James Bland”.

But EON knew what they were on to. They also rejected (not so subtle) overtures from Quentin Tarantino to direct the film, and returned Martin Campbell to the Bond movie helm. Campbell had directed the highly regarded “Goldeneye” in 1995, and bringing him back was yet another attempt to restore Bond’s stature.

And right from the opening frames, Campbell’s “Casino Royale” announced that this Bond would be different. The pre-title sequence is black and white, and the traditional gun barrel opening doesn’t appear until after the scene, symbolizing that we’ve seen Bond earn his license to kill. As the phenomenal, playing card themed title sequence plays, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell blasts a modern, hard rock theme song that does not incorporate the film’s title. Then, Campbell unveils a breathtaking action sequence that set the adrenaline charged tone for the entire film. The parkour filled construction site chase scene.

Parkour is the art of “Freerunning”, that sprang from military obstacle course training. It gained notoriety a scant few years prior with the documentaries “Jump London” (2003) and “Jump Britain” (2005). For the film, to showcase the spectacular art form, Campbell and the producers obtained the services of one of the inventors of the sport, the ambassador of freerunning, Sébastien Foucan. Foucan plays a bomb maker Bond chases through a construction site, climbing girders and cranes and jumping over obstacles and through vents. Bond pursues him relentlessly, eventually catching him at the Nambutu embassy, but at the price of an international incident.

Aside from showcasing the dynamic, cutting edge running style, the opening action sequence also establishes the return to practical effects. Long known for their spectacular stunts and action sequences, the Bond films had begun to substitute computer generated imagery in the films of late. “Casino Royale” would proudly feature several notable sequences that were filmed using traditional stunts and “practical effects”. Though CGI was certainly used to supplement their efforts, “Casino Royale” showcases the value of real events in creating onscreen believability.

Also tangible was “Royale”‘s return to the Ian Fleming source material. For decades, the Fleming stories had been exhausted, and the Bond series had been relying on entirely original scripts – with mixed results. Here, Fleming’s novel provides a perfect jumping off point for the screenplay. One that would return that classic “Bond feel” to the film.

Bond travels to multiple exotic locations, has dalliances with gorgeous women, and survives many life threatening situations. But much of the story revolves around a high stakes poker game set up by the film’s villain, Le Chiffre. When Bond foils Le Chiffre’s attempted sabotage of a jumbo airliner’s maiden flight, Le Chiffre is forced to hold a high stakes poker game in an attempt to recoup his losses. Though the poker hands involved defy probability, there’s no doubt that movie-making magic keeps a card game riveting. With a fight scene and a poisoning sequence interspersed within, the entire game is an exercise in tension between Le Chiffre and Bond.

Mads Mikkelsen provides a fantastic turn as a Bond Villain. With a scarred eye that weeps blood, Le Chiffre joins the proud lineage of Bond villains with notable physical defects. Mikkelsen imparts him with a chilling stoicism befitting a Bond adversary as well.

Judi Dench reprises her role as M, Jeffrey Wright makes his first appearance as Felix Leiter, and Giancarlo Giannini portrays Bond ally René Mathis. All of whom make solid contributions to the film, and collectively comprise a solid cast. But aside from the new Bond, no one shines as brightly as the film’s “Bond Girl”, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd.

Green is gorgeous and sharp, here. She matches wits quickly and caustically with Bond. Lynd is a representative of the treasury department, forced to play Bond’s romantic partner as cover while attending the poker game. She winds up seeing what a 00 agent does a little too closely, and has trouble coping… which in turn draws she and Bond closer. A romance forms that puts Bond in a difficult position when Lynd is alternately put in danger and involved more deeply in the situation than previously suspected. Green plays all of this with a dignified, classy air. She’s a beautiful woman intent on having not being seen strictly as a pretty face, and she makes it plainly evident that she is Bond’s intellectual equal.

Inarguably, she is one of the best Bond girls in series history.

All of these elements blended together perfectly to create an unforgettable Bond movie. A darker, more physical Bond. A return to practical effects. The first script based on an Ian Fleming novel in decades. A great Bond villain and a world-class leading lady.

Audiences responded enthusiastically.

“Casino Royale” became the highest grossing film in the Bond franchise, wresting the title from its predecessor, “Die Another Day”. It grossed $167 million in North America, and $594 million worldwide, becoming the 4th highest grossing film of 2006.  Critical response was enthusiastic as well, earning a 95% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and appearing on several annual top ten lists. But perhaps most importantly, the film reinvigorated the Bond faithful. It was instantly discussed as one of the best films in franchise history, and many fans award it the top spot.

It’s an exhilarating action film that showcases the best that modern filmmaking has to offer while simultaneously harkening back to the classic films of the Bond era. It’s part of a proud heritage, yet stands alone as an independent movie with no prerequisites for the uninitiated viewer. It has healthy portions of action, drama, romance and style… a fantastic combination that lends to an engrossing, exciting film.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

55 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Casino Royale”

  1. Casino Royale is not only my favorite spy movie, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, period. Craig has made a great Bond and I’m really looking forward to seeing SKyfall this weekend.

  2. Love your take on this as well as all of the back story on getting this film made, Dan. Great work as always!

    I went to see Skyfall yesterday with the same friend I went to see Casino Royale with when it first came out, and we started talking about that first experience with Royale. That was one movie that I certainly consider an “event” – one that I still remember details about the first time seeing it because I was so bowled over by it.

    From the gritty opening kills, to the insanely cool title sequence with a kickass Chris Cornell song, and the non-stop, top-notch action. I loved the dedication to making gripping action sequences with physicality at the forefront instead of gadgetry.

    When I saw Bond’s bomb maker jump from the crane on the big screen and Bond follow suit, I remember my heart catching in my throat. Then there’s the crazy sequence on the runway with Bond jumping from a moving vehicle, missing being run over by inches and a crazy car flip, and tons of up-close-and-personal combat. So many of the sequences in this movie are stand outs for me.

    And Craig’s Bond is such a cool badass. Try to get him to valet park for you, and he’ll crash your car. Why? BECAUSE HE CAN.

    This movie is quality and style from start to finish – a definite favourite of mine.

    • 😀 Nice read, right there. LOL I was grinning along, nodding. Fun stuff.

      Thanks for the props, glad you enjoyed the post. 😀

      I agree, this one was a huge “Event”. Skyfall is kind of turning into one of those too, now that its the 50th anniversary and all. Craig’s Bond undeniably IS a bad ass. More than any other Bond, its believable that he would be on an ass kicking rampage like this. I do hope they return some fun to his life, though. Maybe after what he went through in Skyfall, they can have him develop a “Life is too short” mentality. That would be cool. Watch him have some fun!

      • I agree about Skyfall becoming an event. I’m itching to go back and see it again. Wanting to see a film multiple times during its theatrical run is the highest praise I can give it – and the movie is so beautiful, it begs to be seen on the big screen.

        I think it’s an event also in the sense that it’s a return to the tried and true Bond. With Moneypenny, Q, and M’s new setup, I think they’ve taken their time to get in the groove of the Bond traditions and make them in some ways organic instead of simply making them winks to hardcore Bond fans.

  3. Pingback: Ranking the Family of Bond | It Rains… You Get Wet

  4. Enjoying cable giving this one some airplay to heighten current Skyfall hype.
    Speaking of Skyfall, did you ever announce on you blog who won blu ray contest; maybe you already did on facebook. I was just curious if you did any mention on FMR.
    -Cheers 🙂

    “sorry that last hand nearly killed me.”
    -Casino Royale, Bond(Craig)

    • Noooo I didnt announce it. The winner wound up being someone who signed on through the Giveaway app, who I didnt know. I felt a little awkward about making a deal of it, so, I didnt announce.

      I can assure you though, she got the set, and was plenty happy to receive them!

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