Preposterous surfing in the hostile waters off North Korea. Perhaps the least realistic torture scene in cinematic history. An improbably gorgeous spy arising from the Caribbean Sea. Another round of middle-aged, CGI-surfing, this time in the wintry seas off Iceland. And, to cap it all off – an invisible car. Take yourself back to 2002, and these – the risible elements of Pierce Brosnan’s final turn as James Bond, in Die Another Day – were evidence of just what a storytelling black hole the Bond series had fallen into. Brosnan’s increasingly anonymous stint as Bond had taken the franchise to the creative nadir that Roger Moore’s slightly more permissible, camp ’70s incarnation of Bond had just about avoided. Maybe it was that the Brosnan era of Bond existed in the hinterland of genuine global-political intrigue. The Cold War was over (though the producers tried to mine the legacy of this in Brosnan’s best Bond effort, GoldenEye, 1995), and 9/11 and its ramifications had come just too soon for his Die Another Day swansong.
Thus the producers and screenwriters were forced to manufacture ludicrous conspiracies and to indulge in the increasingly infantile parlour game of naff stunts, convoluted gadgets and truly groan-worthy gags. There was Jonathan Pryce’s ridiculously over-the-top media mogul of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) which would give Mike Myers’ Dr Evil a run for his money; the nigh-on indecipherable nonsense of The World is Not Enough, 1999 (something to do with oil machinations and a case of Stockholm Syndrome, though all I remember is Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist and Brosnan’s immortal quip about her: “I thought Christmas only comes once a year”); and the utterly hackneyed North Korean-diamond shenanigans of Die Another Day.
But then 9/11 happened and suddenly the landscape of espionage seemed infinitely more dangerous and thrilling, though not in a conventional national-military paradigm. Along came a new breed of movie spy – emblematised by the Jason Bourne of Doug Liman’s ingenious The Bourne Identity (2002). In it, the very foundation of the spy (his name, his identity, his nationality, his affiliations) was deconstructed. He was faceless, a cipher, a blank canvas in a disarmingly sinister global age. This loosely hearkened to the spirit of the Bond of Ian Fleming’s fiction and the early Sean Connery films. The man was a finely honed lethal weapon, an agent operating in a murky world where the concept of honour was highly elastic. All signs pointed toward a necessary recalibration of the Bond series – perhaps the most substantial in its near 45-year cinematic run – but would the producers, naturally concerned about safeguarding the franchise’s commercial reliability, take the plunge? Fortunately for us, they did, and what we were left with was arguably the greatest Bond film of all time, Casino Royale (2006), which celebrates the tenth anniversary of its release this month.
Some of the fresh, novel ingredients of Casino Royale have been more than well documented. The most significant of which was the casting of Daniel Craig as the new Bond. Though Clive Owen of Croupier class would have been an equally effective selection, it is unquestionable that in Craig, the producers found a suitably tarnished and brutal icon for this new iteration of Bond. Not conventionally suave or sophisticated, Craig brought a unique cocktail of machismo, raw intelligence and significant acting chops to the table. He had been exceptional in a range of recent productions from John Maybury’s Love is the Devil (1998) to Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia, (2003) and Roger Michell’s Enduring Love (2004). Of course, the fact that Craig was blond and a physical specimen only added to the epochal feel of his casting. This was to be manifestly a Bond for the new age: the story was going to be a reboot (we were returning to the origin of Bond as a spy and Ian Fleming’s first source novel), the action was going to be portrayed more viscerally and realistically, and, of course, there would be genuine feeling from Bond in his interaction with other characters.
Casino Royale delivered. In fact, it’s right up there with the best films of the entire franchise: Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). It thrilled from the off with its gripping black-and-white, pre-credits origin coda, and blitzed the viewer through other stunning setpieces – the best of which was the quite brilliant Madagascar parkour chase. Other timeless moments include the Bond-Vesper train sequence, and the overlooked fact that almost the entire second half of the film is set within the confines of a casino – honouring the skills of Bond the spy and playboy, while also compressing the story down to a confined space and a game of poker.
Beyond Craig, the entire casting for Casino Royale was inspired. Eva Green was an expert choice with her Anglo-French allure proving exactly right for the ambiguous character of Vesper Lynd, and Mads Mikkelsen (exceptional), Giancarlo Giannini, Isaach de Bankolé, Jesper Christensen and Jeffrey Wright complete a tasteful and cerebral ensemble. One of Sam Mendes’ biggest oversights with Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) was going straight for the more obvious, middlebrow, post-Hollywood casting of the likes of Javier Bardem, Christoph Waltz and Léa Seydoux.
Perhaps the greatest unsung aspect or hero of Casino Royale was its director Martin Campbell. Previously best known for his competent handling of the finest Brosnan Bond, GoldenEye, he was a safe pair of hands to kick the reboot off – and he did a super job, handling the thrilling action sequences but equally the greater dramatic quotient of the film. Looking back at those best Bonds of the Connery era, they too were directed by solid industrial hacks – Terence Young and Guy Hamilton – and perhaps there is a correlative between Bond the ultra-professional being captured by an equally no-frills pro behind the camera.
Ironically, the huge critical and commercial success of Casino Royale may have heralded the early demise of the franchise’s newfound creative inspiration. Although immediate sequel Quantum of Solace (2008) is an underestimated piece of work, once esteemed luvvie and literary filmmaker Sam Mendes got his mitts on the franchise, this obsessing over the origin of Bond (chiming with the industrial trotting-out of superhero mythologies across the pond) was in full effect. Mendes and the franchise screenwriters misappropriated the spirit of the reboot and began to ogle too much on Bond’s core sense of trauma and status as “damaged goods” and churned out the most un-Bondian films yet in Skyfall and Spectre. Bond had been fatally reimagined as a bruised sentimentalist with a severe case of Freudian angst. Surely the 007 of Casino Royale, brilliantly spitting out the line “Do I look like I give a damn?” when questioned on how he would like his vodka martini, would have hated that.