Why CASINO ROYALE is the Best James Bond Film
by Michael Neelsen
I was lukewarm on James Bond movies before I saw CASINO ROYALE. I had really enjoyed GOLDENEYE and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH as an adolescent, but as I grew older I began to grow weary of the over-the-top cornball approach taken by the majority of the films (epitomized by DIE ANOTHER DAY). I had no reason to care about the character of Bond — he’d become too unreal. Too untouchable. Too unlike a human being.
When the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, CASINO ROYALE, were finally acquired, the Broccoli family went forward with a plan to re-imagine James Bond in Fleming’s original, realistic image. No invisible cars, no exploding pens. They brought James Bond into the post-9/11 world and turned him into a human being.
As with every film evaluation, we begin with the director. When done right, everything in the finished film passes the director’s sniff test. With CASINO ROYALE, the Broccoli family brought back GOLDENEYE director Martin Campbell — perhaps the single biggest reason the film turned out as strong as it did.
Campbell’s direction is mature, disciplined, and story-focused. It’s clear he’s studied his Hitchcock and he never gives in to the Paul Greengrass school of shaky-cam filmmaking like CASINO ROYALE’s juvenile follow-up QUANTUM OF SOLACE does. Some people have told me they like CASINO ROYALE except for the actual casino scenes that make up the majority of the film’s middle portion. I couldn’t disagree more.
Just think about what you’re watching. It’s a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, a game that this author doesn’t know how to play, yet somehow I can follow the power play throughout. In the script, the writers overcompensate by having the supporting character Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) narrate everything that happens in the game for Bond’s love interest, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). While some of this narration still exists in the film, it feels like 25% of what was in the script.
In fact, what makes the casino scenes work is Campbell’s controlled use of the Kuleshov Effect, where the collision of two unrelated shots combine to create a third meaning (i.e. a shot of villain Le Chiffre next to a shot of Bond looking at his martini glass creates the third meaning of “Bond’s been poisoned”). This is why you study your film theory, kids.
Perhaps of equal importance to his direction was Campbell’s treatment of the script (You can download the script in PDF form here). When you read the screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, you see that there is a good amount of superfluous on-the-nose dialogue which Campbell had the good sense to cut out.
One of the most egregious examples comes at the end of the opening parkour chase sequence. In the script (and in the movie) Bond breaks into the Nambutu embassy in an effort to capture a bomb maker only to be cornered by a group of soldiers with automatic rifles. Frustrated, Bond drops his gun and releases the bomb maker.
In the movie, Bond then whips out a second pistol and shoots the bomb maker in the heart and a gas tank behind the soldiers, incapacitating his enemies just long enough to make his escape. In a moment that defines the new, darker James Bond, he kills an unarmed assailant. It reminds one of Han Solo shooting Greedo in the STAR WARS cantina.
Unfortunately, in the script, the writers went on-the-nose to try to justify Bond’s actions. Check out this passage:
The goal of giving the bomber this dialogue is two-fold: 1) to give the audience more reason to accept Bond shooting him and 2) to give Bond an okay one-liner. But ultimately, this writing of the scene comes from the exact same mindset that made George Lucas have Greedo shoot first in the STAR WARS re-issue — the hero needs to be retaliating, never instigating. I can’t express how glad I am Campbell cut this out and kept Bond cold.
Let’s keep on the subject of that opening chase sequence — that is the best opening chase in James Bond history. Why? One can point to the use of free-running, the beautiful construction site setting on the shores of Madagascar, and the structure of the chase being Bond chasing rather than being chased. But the most important reason this scene stands out is that it is constantly informing the characters. The chase is a great “Tortoise and the Hair” scenario with the bomber being much faster and more agile while the slower Bond keeps up with his intelligence and resourcefulness. You have to remember — CASINO ROYALE was the first Bond film without Pierce Brosnan in over ten years. We didn’t know who Daniel Craig’s Bond would be or how he’d be different. This opening chase scene gives us everything we need to know.
Getting back to the script, by and large the writers’ work on CASINO ROYALE was fantastic. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Ian Fleming’s novel, so I don’t know how much of the dialogue was directly lifted from the text, but the writing really shines in the scenes between Bond and Vesper Lynd, in particular their first meeting.
The dialogue in this scene stands out from the rest of the script, but not in a negative way. It reads and sounds like the great film noir CASINO ROYALE was meant to be. It is perhaps the one scene where we get a glimpse of what the whole script would’ve been like had Quentin Tarantino written it as he desired.
This next applause is mostly due to Ian Fleming’s book, but I’m going to say it anyway. This is a Bond film where the villain’s plot is foiled in the first act! What’s the last Bond movie you can remember that did that? Le Chiffre’s (Mads Mikkelsen) plot is to blow up a new jumbo jet so that Boeing stocks plummet and he collects betting against the market. Bond stops the attack within the first 30 minutes of the movie and for the rest of the story Le Chiffre is just trying to recuperate. But the unique handling of the villain doesn’t stop there — in CASINO ROYALE, the villain is killed at the end of the second act with over 30 minutes yet to go! Some people complain about the formulaic nature of James Bond movies, and if you don’t like the formula, you should love CASINO ROYALE.
Let’s talk about the music. I had mixed feelings about the Chris Cornell title track “You Know My Name” before seeing the film, but once I saw how the melody of that track would be worked into David Arnold’s orchestral score I was won over. The classic James Bond theme isn’t played until the very last scene in the film to symbolize Bond’s rise to icon status, so the filmmakers needed a piece of music to carry the movie. The melody to “You Know My Name” practically made me forget about the Bond theme throughout the entire film, an achievement neither QUANTUM OF SOLACE nor SKYFALL (films that also don’t use the classic theme) were able to do. The Vesper theme Arnold wrote for the film was so good in fact that they brought it back for QUANTUM.
Finally, let’s talk about the theme of the movie: trust. CASINO ROYALE was written by Ian Fleming when he was just about to get married in the Bahamas and was reflecting on the Bohemian bachelor life he was leaving behind. The story he wrote is Bond doing the same thing. Bond falls in love with Vesper and decides to leave MI6 to spend his years happily with his woman. This story requires us to fall in love with Vesper the same way Bond does or else the twenty minutes where the two characters float around in Venice would be a momentum killer. Thankfully the characters are handled well and one feels like one could see a whole movie of Bond and Vesper’s travels and enjoy it thoroughly.
Of course, this can’t last forever and Bond has everything he cares about torn from him. His trust is betrayed in the worst way imaginable and whatever warmth that was salvaged by Vesper’s love is dashed on the rocks. Bond has become a cold-hearted bastard and his misogyny grows to an all-time high. He transforms into an anti-hero (a’la The Man with No Name) for the first time in the film franchise. And Vesper’s death is just about the saddest scene the Bond franchise has ever filmed. Shortly after, M (Judi Dench) calls Bond and asks, “You don’t trust anyone anymore, do you Bond?” He replies, “No.”
“Then you’ve learned your lesson.”
CASINO ROYALE is the strongest story James Bond has ever been a part of and for the first time he’s touchable. He bleeds. He’s human. All this and more make CASINO ROYALE the best Bond film ever.