Serial, Super Serial: Casino Royale

Daniel Craig

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components

I didn’t feel too bad about never seeing The Man with the Golden Gun or For Your Eyes Only, but you can have legitimate beef with me for never seeing Casino Royale. I have no good excuse other than holding out on Bond films because I hadn’t seen any of them. For that, I apologize.

I’m not yet sure if I think Casino Royale is the “best” Bond film, but it has a definitive case. I would probably have an easier time saying that it may be the best film of the series without any Bond context. There are certainly enough Bond touches and homages to consider this a true “Bond film,” but it is actually pretty difficult to straight-up compare Casino Royale with its predecessors. This film has obviously different goals than most of the other films — though these goals are certainly much loftier.

Instead of going along with the previous films, which kept a slight strain of continuity between them, Martin Campbell (directing his second movie of the series) decided to cut the cord and start fresh. It’s not a perfect transition — mostly confusing with Judi Dench still around as M, which seems to keep some of the continuity around but scraps everything else — but the good certainly outweighs the bad (and I can’t blame them for keeping Dench around). This fresh start allows the film to get back to the basics and actually analyze its characters. Without presenting itself as a reboot it probably still would have worked, but with all the cloudy history of the series, why not just hit the reset button?

[Bond, James Bond]

I wouldn’t necessarily call Casino Royale a “character study,” but it gives us more character analysis of Bond than all of the other films combined.

Up to this point, there have been two basic ways the films have handled character transitions — either opening with a mysterious, shadowy view before a big reveal or (in the cast of Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore) simply showing Bond in action. We learn everything we need to know about Daniel Craig’s Bond in the opening scene — he is relentless, violent, and a cold-hearted man of action. When we see him fist-fighting in a tiny bathroom before drowning his enemy in a sink, he almost has an anti-hero allure. It’s unclear whether Bond outright enjoys killing people, but he has absolutely no problem doing whatever he needs to do to best his enemies, even killing them with extreme prejudice.

This idea of Bond “doing whatever he needs to do” is expanded to present him as somewhat of a rogue individual. In previous films we’ve seen touches of this — like when Bond retires in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or when he has his license to kill revoked in License to Kill. The difference in Casino Royale is that he finds a way to work within the system while still rejecting authority. The few scenes between Bond and M are the best ever, totally demolishing any tension between M and the Brosnan incarnation. There is also a fairly subtle scene early on that perfectly describes the “whatever it takes” attitude — Bond is shacking up with the wife of an enemy just to get some information (something we’ve seen countless times); when he discovers that her husband is on the next flight to Miami, he leaves her without any physical pleasure. Could you imagine Connery or Moore giving up great, easy sex for work? There is also a fairly cynical undercurrent of Bond straight-out using this woman that fits with his brooding figure.

With this film starting at the beginning, it is also more interested in where Bond came from. Honestly, it’s never been a question that has been on my mind — in fact, until he’s sized up by Bond Girl Vesper Lynd, I didn’t realize how absent any Bond back-story had been. Though we never get a personal confirmation, Lynd guesses that Bond came from a poor background, possibly an orphan, who found his way going to Oxford but was constantly reminded of his past by his associates, classmates and friends. This possible reading of Bond is appropriate for Daniel Craig’s character, as he doesn’t have the natural charm of all previous portrayals.

[The Mission]

Casino Royale has a pretty weird mission plot. Bond isn’t needed to stop a bomb or recover a space shuttle or really even stopping a maniacal madman from killing millions. No, he has to win a poker game. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any stakes, as the game has been set up by the “private banker of the world’s terrorists” in order to pay back his debts. If the villain wins, he has $100 million dollars to fund mass-killing around the world.

The bulk of the film’s middle section is all poker game, which is pretty daring for an action movie. It doesn’t ever get really boring, but the poker scenes are very much a movie representation of poker. Every person has a “tell” and every hand seems to end in a full house or straight flush. With MI6 having to get involved, this also builds the premise that only Bond or the villain have a chance to win — even if they are the best two players, poker is still a game where the best will not always win. I suppose poker is a good microcosm for understanding people in stressful and confrontational circumstances, but it’s not exactly the most interesting thing to watch. Luckily, the film is able to deliver enough action in the first and third acts, and keeps the poker scene moving quickly.

This main mission plot ends with about 45 minutes left in the movie, and the poker game actually ends pretty abruptly. The final act of the film is very spoiler-heavy, and because this is actually a film that you should see, I’ll try to tread lightly through the rest of this overview. There is a lot of interesting discussion of themes and character that would rely on minor twists, but I will hopefully have enough worthwhile to say.

[The Villain]

As I’ve said, the main villain of Casino Royale is a banker and overall genius called Le Chiffre, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. First of all, Mikkelsen is a pretty great choice to play a Bond villain, as he meets many of the prerequisites — he is naturally debonair, but with the physical state to hold his own in any action, and is vaguely “European.” Still, the film seems more interested in giving him touches than fully fleshing out his character. There are a number of weird traits that certainly qualify him as a suitable Bond villain (asthma problem, bleeding eye), but don’t quite add up.

Really, this isn’t a film that is about the villain. In most Bond films, Bond has been the constant — he doesn’t change and we don’t need to really learn anything about him — with the villains being the variable. Here, though, Bond is now the variable, the character we need to learn about and analyze. Because of this, I’m willing to look around the fact that the film doesn’t do a lot to set up its villain or make him compelling in any way besides a few strange ticks.

One small nugget that we do get, however, is that Le Chiffre is a villain without any control. Before this point, all Bond villains either have complete control over their situations or are looking for the final pieces to create terror — and it is up to Bond to stop the death and destruction. Here, Le Chiffre made some bad business dealings and lost a lot of money because of it. Once Bond beats him in poker, he has little hope. Really, Le Chiffre is a henchman given the main stage — we haven’t really seen a Bond villain who’s biggest threat wasn’t Bond, but other terrorists.

[The Bond Girl]

Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green) is an accountant commissioned with keeping Bond responsible for the money staked to him to enter the poker tournament and any winnings he may receive. She is a smart, tough woman, but like most Bond Girls is characterized mostly through her beauty. This is explicitly shown once the tournament has begun and she is most useful being Bond’s trophy girlfriend, being able to distract the others with her good looks. She is also quite clearly a damsel in distress through much of the film, literally being tied up and in the middle of road at one point in the film.

Her interactions with Bond are very much a part of the typical Bond formula. At first she is cold to his advances, but once they get put in serious situations together, it becomes a pretty sweet, loving relationship. She is definitely the Bond Girl type that is in a bad situation, way over her head, and the two lovers are able to bond over that.

As I previously mentioned, there are crucial plot twists in the last twenty minutes that give a lot more information and background to Vesper, which also makes her a much more interesting character. I won’t spoil any of the specifics, but she isn’t all that she seems to be. And then it is realized that she isn’t all that she seemed to be again. The twists are well played because it allows the film to fully develop her character, giving her a context which falls in line with the Bond archetypes, but in a unique way. The repercussions of the character’s situation are far more tragic than we’ve seen before, partly because of Bond’s reaction to them. He isn’t passive or hopeless as with similar situations, and his emotions boil over.

[The Gadgets]

Gadgets? We don’t need no stinkin’ gadgets.

[The Song]

Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” is a very middle-of-the-road alternative rock track. It’s nothing special, but also won’t damage your ears or musical taste.

“Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you willing to die?

The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name”

More interesting is the title sequence, which is a perfect homage to those before it, while perhaps being the best of the entire series — hey, kind of like the film…

[Random Thoughts]

- In Madagascar, we see a fight between a mongoose and a cobra. I was a little disappointed neither seemed to be man-eating varieties.

- I love how the first vehicle Bond drives in the film is a huge bulldozer. And it’s totally unironic. If Roger Moore was behind the wheel, I think he’d also be in a clown suit.

- Yes, Bond CAN be sweaty and dirty.

- Another sign of great filmmaking: the parkour scene doesn’t feel terribly dated. Can’t say as much for all the poker.

- Bond catching a gun thrown at him and throwing it right back is literally one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

- What better way to establish Bond as a “blunt instrument” than having him run through walls?

- At least some things don’t change: Bond gets to go to the Bahamas.

- Daniel Craig doesn’t quite meet the chest-hair quota. Hrm, I may not be totally on board with his casting after all.

- Is a machete the Ugandan drug lord’s weapon of choice no matter the venue?

- The Felix Leiter reveal during the movie is pretty awesome — hell, Jeffrey Wright is just plain awesome.

- For being a high stakes poker game, people get up and attend to other business an awful lot.

- There weren’t any 18-year-old online poker prodigies invited to this game? Totally not realistic.

- You know that Le Chiffre is definitely villainous when he raises when two others are already all-in.

- Did Le Chiffre ever consider an eyepatch? Emilio Largo knows a guy.

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in QUANTUM OF SOLACE

tags: casino royale, james bond, martin campbell, super serial

  • Anonymous

    You often mention “For Your Eyes only” as an example for a bad Bond-film, but your review for the film seems quite positiv. Whats your real opinion?

  • Aaron Pinkston

    That’s a good question. I think it’s mainly one of those Bond films that I enjoyed while I was watching it, but has just sort of been forgotten in my mind. When you’re watching a lot of these in a short amount of time, they tend to run together in your mind, I guess.

    And I didn’t mean to make it seem like FOR YOUR EYES ONLY was a particularly bad film in the comment that I made in the opening, just that it’s one that you never really heard mentioned all that often, so there was no real reason for me having to see it without this serial.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • aaaqoa

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  • aaaqoa

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