An outsider’s take on the James Bond saga: ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) (Movie review)

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ith “No Time to Die” coming out in November, I’m looking back at the eight modern-era James Bond films from the perspective of a newcomer, from July 11-26. Next up is the 21st Eon-produced film and first starring Daniel Craig, “Casino Royale” (2006):

OVERALL THOUGHTS

The James Bond saga moves into the 21st century by successfully stepping onto the resurgent train of gritty, realistic action films as popularized by the “Jason Bournes” and “Mission: Impossibles.” At the same time, the writers (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) don’t forget this is a “Bond” film. Indeed, “Casino Royale” is the first of a new continuity starring Craig, which is appropriate because it comes from the first of Ian Fleming’s books.

Daniel Craig and Mads Mikkelsen have enough presence that their mere staredowns have as much tension as a good action sequence.

Although it had been adapted twice before – once in a live-action TV episode, once as a parody film – legal rights issues had kept it out of Eon’s lineup until this point. I had found director Martin Campbell’s movies to be workmanlike up to this point, but “Casino Royale” is a big step up from his previous Bond entry, “GoldenEye.” Perhaps he’s the type of director who delivers what he’s asked to deliver.

I didn’t like “Royale” in the theater in 2006, but I’ve since learned how to appreciate spy actioners, even a long one where the centerpiece is a poker game that lasts the better part of a day. The film seems loyal to the 1953 book, treating as novel some things that are now widely known after the Texas Hold’em boom of the Aughts, such as bluffing and tells. Craig and Mads Mikkelsen have enough presence that their mere staredowns have as much tension as a good action sequence.

TITLE/SONG

In a departure from recent entries, Chris Cornell’s song isn’t built around the title – which is simply the name of the main location in Montenegro (although that actually makes it easier to remember than some of the bombastic titles). Instead, the Soundgarden frontman performs “You Know My Name,” which outlines some of Bond’s traits.

BOND GIRL

Eva Green has a full arc as MI6 accountant Vesper Lynd, assigned to accompany Bond on his mission to win a poker game that will keep the villain from continuing to serve as a banker to terrorists. It seems she’s a turncoat, but it’s more complex than that: She is being blackmailed. The writers and the actress make this look effortless in the way the Pierce Brosnan films made it look nearly impossible to create a complex female character.

Green and Craig have good chemistry, and while Vesper is a fully formed character, her greatest value might be in establishing Bond’s view toward women. “Royale” marks his first mission as a double-0 agent, and his approach toward Vesper is different because he actually likes her. Then when she tricks him and turns on him, it establishes his tendency to avoid serious romantic relationships.

VILLAINS

As Le Chiffre, Mads Mikkelsen delivers the charismatic brand of badness that would later serve him well as the lead on TV’s “Hannibal.” Plus, Le Chiffre has a wounded eye that sometimes cries blood – a pretty great villainous affectation, if gross.

In a new approach for the saga, we get hints of higher-level criminals at play in the shadows; Le Chiffre is a small player in a bigger game. I suspect we’ll learn more about the big picture in upcoming films.

BEST ACTION SCENE

As he did with “GoldenEye,” Campbell makes a strong statement up front, establishing the tone of this new series. In a stunning practical stunt, Bond runs after a bad guy up the side of a tilted crane, and they duke it out in the sky amid construction equipment and the skeleton of a new building.

MOST RIDICULOUS MOMENT

Within an hour of being poisoned and shocked back to life by emergency resuscitator in his car, Bond is back at the poker table.

BEST GADGET

Well, considering that it saves his life, I can’t short-change that emergency resuscitator.

SEXUAL/GENDER POLITICS

This early career version of Bond openly prefers married women because of the clarity of a one-night-only relationship. He hooks up with the wife (Caterina Murino’s Solange) of a small-time villain in Miami while probing his way up a criminal chain. But “Royale” is different from the Brosnans in that Bond doesn’t exactly frolic in a worldwide playground of women; he only has eyes for one.

When they meet on the train to outline their upcoming mission, Vesper successfully sizes up Bond (after he does the same to her) and caps it off by complimenting his butt. They don’t sleep together until it’s clear both of them like each other, having bonded over traumas such as Bond having to kill two attackers, Vesper saving his life with the emergency medical kit, and both of them being tortured by Le Chiffre. When Bond tells Vesper he loves her, he means it.

Then he gets burned by her, but Vesper is not evil; she was following a scheme to free her previously unmentioned boyfriend. Bond can’t be sure if her affection toward him was genuine, or if she was using him. The heartbreaker gets his heart broken here, showing that it cuts both ways and that we’re in for a more robust take on relationships in the Craig films.

BEST ONE-LINER

James Bond (returning to the game after almost dying): “I’m sorry. That last hand nearly killed me.”

Schedule of Bond reviews:

Saturday, July 11: “GoldenEye” (1995)

Sunday, July 12: “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

Wednesday, July 15: “The World is Not Enough” (1999)

Saturday, July 18: “Die Another Day” (2002)

Sunday, July 19: “Casino Royale” (2006)

Wednesday, July 22: “Quantum of Solace” (2008)

Saturday, July 25: “Skyfall” (2012)

Sunday, July 26: “Spectre” (2015)