Casino Royale: a new Bond actor, a new start and a new character development arc

Martin Campbell, “Casino Royale” (2006)

A change of actor from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig to play MI6 agent James Bond provides an opportunity for EON Productions, the company that produces the James Bond film series, to visit the first Ian Fleming novel to feature the spy, “Casino Royale”, after two previous attempts by other studios in making films based on the novel, and to rejig audience interest in the series by making the character young again and giving him a new history starting at the beginning of his spying career. Having just earned his double-0 status at MI6, giving him the right to kill at his own discretion and not purely for self-defence, Bond is put on the trail of Ugandan terrorist Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) to capture him alive but ends up killing him spectacularly. Bond’s chief M (Judi Dench) tut-tuts seriously at him for disobeying her orders to take the terrorist alive and kicks Bond out to the Bahamas to find corrupt Greek official Alex Dimitrios (Simon Akbarian) who is linked to international terrorist / accountant / financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Viewers earlier saw Le Chiffre near the beginning of the film in Uganda where he is introduced by a mysterious fellow, Mr White (Jesper Christensen), to Steven Obanno (Isaach de Bankole) who entrusts Le Chiffre with a huge sum of money which Le Chiffre later uses to buy put options on aerospace manufacturer Skyfleet, betting that a future terrorist attack (to have been carried out by Mollaka) will cause the company to go bankrupt.

Bond follows Dimitrios to Miami where he kills the official and then foils the terrorist attack on Skyfleet’s airliner, causing Le Chiffre to lose Obanno’s money. Needing to recoup the money, Le Chiffre organises a poker game tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI6 enters Bond into the tournament to try to ruin Le Chiffre and pairs Bond with UK Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Bond and Lynd meet a contact Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) at the casino and the tournament begins.

Throughout the tournament, a number of quite hair-raising incidents occur: Le Chiffre is threatened by Obanno, Bond kills Obanno, Le Chiffre’s girlfriend tries to kill Bond with digitalis poison in his martini, Lynd saves Bond’s life. Bond wins the tournament and Le Chiffre pursues him and Lynd to try to steal Bond’s winings. Le Chiffre subjects Bond to extreme torture and is about to castrate him when the mysterious Mr White turns up out of the blue and shoots Le Chiffre dead.

The film follows the original novel fairly closely with the poker tournament as its set piece. This afford an opportunity to build up the characters of Bond, Lynd and Le Chiffre, to make the romance between Bond and Lynd realistic, and Lynd’s later betrayal of Bond and her eventual fate all the more gut-wrenching for Bond and helping to make him the cynical man viewers are already acquainted with. MI6 and M themselves do not come off very well either and this surely will set up a continuing narrative thread through subsequent films regarding Bond’s loyalty to the organisation and the country he serves. Why indeed does Bond continue to work for a cynical employer like MI6 in dangerous work, knowing that if he were to die, MI6 could walk away from him and pretend he never existed, and not follow so many other MI6 agents into becoming mercenaries for hire and enriching themselves in the process?

Craig not only fits the role of James Bond effortlessly but makes the role his own, imbuing the character with energy, passion and even some idealism. His Bond falls head over heels in love with Lynd and their relationship is passionate indeed: the irony here is that Lynd is using Bond whereas perhaps in past Bond films, Bond was using his love interest. Green appropriately plays Lynd as a troubled woman with a hidden secret, and Mikkelsen is equally convincing as the cold-bloodedly sadistic Le Chiffre who will do anything to stop Bond from coming between him and the money he desperately needs.

The tone of the film is gritty and less glamorous than previous Bond films, to accommodate Craig’s style and portrayal of a young Bond who is raw around the edges. Accordingly also, the plot is more streamlined and focused on the card game, and whatever violence occurs or is implied tends to be more closely relevant to the plot. Some set pieces earlier in the film before Bond meets Le Chiffre at Casino Royale, are still overdone in their action and violence, in particular the parkour chase scene in which Bond pursues Mollaka which does very little for the film apart from signalling to audiences that the Bond films are still keeping up with youth pop culture. These sops to please a Hollywood mainstream audience lengthen the film and can be distracting from what otherwise is a lean and straightforward spy action thriller that gains most of its thrills from a good cast who portray significant characters well and help make “Casino Royale” as much a character study as it is an espionage film. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Casino Royale” is the first part of an arc of films in which Bond’s character continues to be shaped by his adventures, experiences and romantic interests.