Sunday, 5 October 2008

Casino Royale (2006)

For as long as the Broccoli family have been making the Bond series, they had always secretly wanted to make Casino Royale; for almost as long as I can remember developing an interest in the series, I'd always felt that the great unmade Bond film was Casino Royale. Both of us had to wait a long time for our dreams to come true - and when they did, the result was quite something else indeed: a third animal, the tougher, grittier James Bond with new added feeling.

If you look way back to the first Bond film, Dr. No in 1962, the very first sight of Sean Connery is at the Baccarat table. For the next four decades, the Broccolis would occasionally wheedle other tiny elements of the novel into their subsequent epics: a famous torture scene in Goldfinger has a golden laser threatening one particular part of Bond's anatomy, as in Casino Royale; a Baccarat game also pops up in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as indeed does a tragic ending. A romanticised TV action biopic of Ian Fleming, Spymaster (starring Jason Connery), contained a similarly tragic love interest (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas), with echoes of Casino Royale's ill-fated heroine Vesper Lynd.

The reason for all this shying away from the actual novel itself was of course because the Broccolis and United Artists did not have the rights to adapt Ian Fleming's original story. That privilege had been granted in the early days to Columbia Pictures - who did make a film in 1967 which bore the title Casino Royale, but little else.

Brief mention should be made of this turkey, not because it's one of the biggest ever wastes of time, money and an all-star cast - with the essence of being made as one big Swinging Sixties party - but for its brief transference of the novel to the screen, with a fragmentary moment of suspense as Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers - posing as Bond) mentally jousts with Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) at the Baccarat table, and with the help of glamorous Vesper(Ursula Andress), manages to win, but with unfortunate repercussions.

Whatever may have resulted from director Joseph McGrath's version version of the film will never be known, as McGrath was kicked out soon afterwards at Peter Sellers' insistence, and then Sellers himself (in something of a state of near mental breakdown) also walked out.

Desperate to make a film that would out-spoof the official spoofs, producer Charles Feldman came up with the madcap idea of overloading the film with another five directors (including John Huston and Val Guest) and several stars, including David Niven (Ian Fleming's original choice) to play "Sir" James Bond. The 1967 film was fun - for those in the mood, and for those making it at the time - but the novel had been shamelessly lampooned and dismembered, with little resemblance to its original plot.

Roughly a decade before, there had also been an intriguing American live TV version for NBC's "Climax Theatre", with Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre overshadowing Barry Nelson's uncomfortable looking Bond - switched from a British to an American Secret Service agent. But by and large, proper cinematic justice had not been done to the original novel, and up till recently it seemed that perhaps it never would.

But then in 2002, after Die Another Day had taken the gadgets and the elaborate action (and in-jokes from the previous 40 years of Bond films) that little bit too far, speculation was rife that the series was about to be injected with new blood. Various star names were banded about for the lead role such as Russell Crowe or Clive Owen. The new choice to replace Pierce Brosnan however, when it came, proved to be a highly controversial one for many of the fans.

My own initial reaction to the casting of Daniel Craig was admittedly one of abject surprise; Craig is normally the sort of actor generally more suited to hard-edged villainy than that of the protagonist himself, and up till then Bond had also nearly always been associated with being suave and black-haired. On the other hand, it sounded like a welcome return to a more hard-edged 007 in the tradition of Timothy Dalton and Sean Connery - and most exciting of all, it was to be an adaptation of the first Bond novel (at long last) following on from the recent vogue for "prequels" that allowed established characters to be reinvented in a new format.

With a certain amount of trepidation at how exactly they were going to "modernise" the novel (keeping such recent elements as Judi Dench as "M"), I rubbed my hands together in anticipation.

Fleming's debut novel has all the elements of intrigue, suspense, glamour, romance, politics (intrinsically the Cold War - not the War on Terror) and ultimately, tragedy. It's also the only one of Fleming's yarns that I felt sufficiently motivated to read (in the mid-1990s), to get a proper impression of the story, after seeing the largely unsatisfying and unrepresentative film versions.

As in the novel, the centrepiece of the 2006 film is not the high-octane action (which includes a very energetic chase sequence with stuntman Sebastien Foucan), but the pivotal card game (changed from Baccarat to "Texas Hold 'Em" Poker for modern purposes.) It's to the credit of the scriptwriters and director Martin Campbell that this long running batle of wits holds the attention - keeping true to Fleming's style with the occasional tense moment of action thrown in, such as an assassination attempt not on Bond, but on Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) by some of his vengeful African creditors. Having ironically saved the enemy he is hoping to destroy, Bond comforts Vesper (Eva Green) sitting fully clothed in the shower trying to calm herself. Much attention was focused on this new "humanist" approach (as written by co-screenwriter Paul Haggis) which Daniel Craig was instrumental in helping to bring about.

The other notable interruption to the card game (in the novel) is in the form of an unexpected intervention by an agent of Le Chiffre's with a lethal walking stick (a striking resemblance to the "poisoned umbrella" that killed Russian defector Georgi Markov and more recently Alexander Litvinenko.) In the new version, Bond swallows a lethal substance (administered into the obligatory glass of Martini), and only thanks to the quick thinking of those back at MI6 on a live link-up, is he able to bring himself back round, with Vesper coming to the rescue too.

The two characters of James and his lover are also more closely established that in most Bond romances. As well as the aforementioned bathroom scene, there is also a moment when Vesper enters the casino, resplendent in a gown that Bond has ordered her to wear (to distract the other players) but she walks in so that James can see her. Bond is likewise touched by the gesture. Although Eva Green's slightly stilted French speaking of English makes for not the most ideal chemistry with Daniel Craig (various actresses such as Thandie Newton tried and failed to seure the role), and the climactic action scene in Venice is pure nonsense (with a nod to The Maltese Falcon and its "heroine left in the elevator" finale), the quality of the story and the characterisation still comes through.

What seems most remarkable about it all, apart from the amount of faith kept with the original novel, is how the central character is of much greater interest than the actual plot or the action, coming through against all the opposition about his casting (as well the track record of all the previous Bonds), with his reputation and his Manhood intact, and setting a striking new note on a film character 44 years and 21 films old.

I choose this as a favourite because it was the film I'd always hoped would be made (properly), and for being so unexpectedly good - but I do wonder how long the freshness will last. Previous Bonds such as Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and even Sean Connery, had the tendency to fade after the first vivid impression - and films like the upcoming Quantum of Solace may well revert once again back to the gadgets and the outlandish action, rather than the combination of characterisation and sheer belligerence which made Casino Royale so effective.

The last scene of the 2006 film excitingly sets the stamp on this new leaner, meaner Bond. The first time I first read it, I knew that the book's famous last line (which does make it into the film) would be a hard sell for the Broccolis, and that Bond would have to be seen taking some sort of vengeance on his enemies. Sure enough - and satisfyingly enough - the mysterious Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) stands over the beautiful Lake Como, receives an unexpected phone call, and is suddenly struck by an assassin's bullet. Out steps 007, who stoops over his adversary, and utters the famous line.

To paraphrase, by the end there is one unmistakable impression left on the whole enterprise:

The name's Craig...Daniel Craig.

1 comment:

Derek said...

A fantastic film! "Casino Royale" was an excellent way to re-launch the 007 series. I thought Daniel Craig was an interesting (and worthy) choice as Bond.
Here is the new version of the DVD:

Can't wait to see "Quantum of Solace" in a couple of weeks.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films