Casino Royale’s legacy is, ten years on, an impressive and slightly surprising one. I’m not sure anyone fully realised in the immediate pre-Craig era quite how far Bond had fallen as a cultural icon. Sure, Die Another Day was at that point hugely financially successful but Bond’s cultural currency was approaching zero. The name was just a name; the film coasted by on a big budget, a likable lead and the trailers’ promise of spectacle. Once released however it was eviscerated by fans and critics alike, the collective sigh going out as it dawned on everyone that the franchise had once again slipped into the Moonraker lows (some would say ironic highs) of absurd self-parody. Casino Royale single-handedly undid all of that. Bond is now more than just a brand people vaguely know as some old movies that your dad watches reruns of on a Sunday afternoon. Craig returned him to an actual, cinematically respected icon and one potentially as popular as ever, with Skyfall even managing the unthinkable and cracking a billion at the global box-office. This is made all the more impressive given the unexpected rise of the superhero genre that the films fought along the way and ultimately succumbed to mimicking – much to the series’ (present) detriment.
It feels bizarre to call the production of a hundred-million dollar budgeted film in one of the most enduringly popular and longest-running film franchises of all time “an underdog story”, but that’s what it was. The sudden loss of Brosnan and his public admission that leaving wasn’t his decision already put the film in a vaguely negative light. The choice of source material raised further Moore-esque eyebrows. Since not everyone knows the ins and outs of the Bond franchise’s notoriously long court battles over the rights to the various properties, the name Casino Royale was a tad infamous for two “unofficial” and near-universally hated Bond entries. Firstly there was the CBS TV movie featuring American agent “Jimmy” Bond (heavens), but more indefensible is the 1967 Carry On-style spoof starring – if you know nothing of this cinematic detritus, brace yourself: David Niven as a retired Bond, Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen as… also James Bonds? And Ursula Andress playing dual-roles as Vesper Lynd but also a traitor giving a slap in the face to the very films that made her famous. (For further eye-opening “are you serious?” names, it’s worth giving the ‘Uncredited Cast’ section of Wikipedia a glance. It’s a bizarre film that ends in a musical number in heaven after native Americans are airdropped into the climactic melee from a 007-emblazoned plane, finally pushing the absurdity of proceedings too far, at which point the casino explodes, killing every character. And you wonder why people fret over branding so much.
The casting of Daniel Craig didn’t so much raise hopes as kick the tepid animosity into full-blown hated. Virtually an unknown (apart from those few of us who vaguely knew him as “the guy from the Tomb Raider film?”), who came from what seemed to be a theatre-heavy background and who had the audacity to be blond. Things were looking bleak. The obligatory online petitions were started to get Brosnan back, boycotts of the franchise were promised and a firm attitude of “Not my James Bond” was adopted – an attitude which rather adorably has persisted to this day in some tiny, echo-chambers online, bless. Craig kept his head down, the film eventually came out and here we are a decade later with the film still regarded as the high-watermark for not only Craig’s tenure but potentially the whole franchise. His inextricable linkage to the character is presently so strong that the producers are happy to wait as long as he wants between films – a far cry from early days when they were knocking these things out annually and getting into very public contract disputes with a certain irate Scotsman who knew how to hold a grudge.
Coming during an upswing in popularity for origin stories by following the likes of Batman Begins, the film enjoyed a praise that the franchise likely wouldn’t receive if such a move was pulled today and similarly wouldn’t have been properly appreciated had it been done any earlier. This timing was a factor in the film’s success but so was bringing back Martin Campbell to direct; one of the only modern Bond directors to return and the man responsible for helming the last hugely successful, franchise-high reintroduction of the character with Goldeneye. Campbell aimed to bring more reality to Bond than the sci-fi CGI monstrosities that Brosnan’s films had descended into. Gone were the invisible cars, chainsaw-helicopters and ice palaces, “in” was Bourne-esque grittiness but with a recognisably Bond shade of cheekiness and spectacle. The film is hardly minimalist – its spectacular destruction of the Aston Martin earned them a Guinness World Record – but compared to previous and indeed later plots, the narrative is suitably low-key as befits an origin story but sufficiently heightened to be an unmistakably Bondian origin story while managing the basics of an action film but with a streak of over-exaggeration that never quite tips into absurdity. No evil layer explodes – a house sinks and collapses in Venice; there’s no elaborate car chase – there’s a very short chase and ridiculous crash; there’s no overly complex torture device to escape from – Hannibal Lecter just beats the bejesus out of Bond’s balls while every man in the audience tries very hard not to visibly wince.
Craig’s Bond is the rawest iteration of the character ever committed to film. Many reviews noted at the time that it was rare to see a leading man quite so consistently and thoroughly pummeled with Craig spending about as much screen time smeared in blood as not. But emotionally too, no other Bond film had attempted such a personal story of betrayal and loss for the character, a trope which has unfortunately marked all of Craig’s outings to increasingly diminished returns. Its effectiveness here is undeniable however and while some of that would have been down to the initial blindsiding of a Bond film attempting something approaching depth, the majority of it can be laid at the feet of solid writing/directing and the superb casting of Eva Green, Craig’s bona-fide acting chops and their highly engrossing onscreen chemistry.
Ultimately, a decade on – and despite SPECTRE’s scorched earth policy regarding undoing all the good of the previous Craig films – this still works as a strong origin story for a character few people thought needed one. It’s still one the best films in a franchise that shouldn’t be able to surprise this late in the game while also delivering one of the most faithful adaptations of the source material in decades – the middle hour at any rate, it’s a short book. The action still holds up owing to a reliance on practical stunt work and a level of smarts in knowing how much would be too much without sacrificing the spectacle associated with the franchise. This is to say nothing of a cast who only seem stronger in hindsight owing to their respective, contemporary fame. And dammit, it even works as a solid romantic drama with a suitably bleak ending. Casino Royale remains one of those rare films that managed to both reinvigorate the enthusiasm of old fans while gaining a slew of new ones and setting a tone and quality that would give the brand a consistent growth of popularity and renewed prestige that’s continued right up to the present.
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