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The Best of 2006/Honorable Mention: 'Casino Royale'

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One of the most interesting aspects in the world of James Bond doesn't happen to be anything obvious involving the girls, the gadgets, the cars, the villains, or the adrenaline pumping action that many spectators often single out. In terms of production, nothing seems to be more unusual than the film production stories surrounding Ian Fleming's original book, Casino Royale. In order to review the newest adaptation of this book, we must also look over the previous ventures and their intentions.

Casino Royale was not only Fleming's first book, it also was the first story put to screen. Fleming was having difficulty in the early 50's trying to make his secret agent story popular, and in 1954 he sold the rights to his baby in order to give it more exposure. In 1954, a telemovie starring Barry Nelson, Linda Christian, and Peter Lorre went on CBS airwaves introducing the world to the very first incarnation of James Bond. This broadcast of Casino Royale in an hour long block (45 minutes without commercials) went widely unnoticed and it wasn't until years later did the film turn up again and be put to better use.

In 1967, Charles K. Feldman acquired the rights to the book, Casino Royale, and this telemovie. He originally wanted to work with the EON Productions duo, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, to produce a new cinematic adaptation of the novel starring Sean Connery. Broccoli was in fact Feldman's protege and was anxious to work again with his former student. However, Connery had become fed up with playing James Bond and wanted to move on. Broccoli/Saltzman were also a little unsure to work with another outside producer again after their rocky joint production with Kevin McClory on Thunderball. Feldman feeling that doing a serious film without Sean Connery was financial suicide (this was before Lazenby came along) decided to come up an alternative plan while still trying to maintain his original concept. He cast David Niven as James Bond (Ian Fleming's original and only choice to play James Bond) and decided to make a two-picture deal. A spoof would be mainly worked out in order to make back returns that could be lost in a film due to the absence of Sean Connery. The other project, in which Peter Sellers was hired and personally wanted to do more than the spoof, would be a serious version of Casino Royale starring most of the main actors with Niven playing 007. When the spoof's budget however ballooned from $6 million to $12 million, the serious film's future was in danger. The spoof did however go to make a good return at the box office in '67, but was considered a financial flop due to its 'mini-Cleopatra' budget. Feldman eventually died after the production and all that was left of the serious adaptation was canned. The film was also left in huge litigation matters.

It was not until 1981 that a can labeled Casino Royale was discovered, and was almost destroyed until its discoverer noticed a black and white piece. The original intention behind Feldman's CR was to use the older telemovie version as flashbacks to the new material. Therefore, Niven's veteran Bond would be juxtaposed to Nelson's trainee Bond. Considering both CR's involve an analytical approach to the beginnings of Bond, it is interesting how both films tackle said storyline although Fleming's novel was never about his beginnings.

Because the original serious CR was buried by time, next generation Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson took it upon themselves to remake this film. But not only remake it-- reboot the entire franchise. As seen in various avenues of Bond fandom, many were displeased and worried over the future of Bond. Brosnan was given the boot (due to supposed old age which can be considered bureaucratic nonsense), no Q and Moneypenny was written in, and most alarmly, Daniel Craig won the coveted role. Some people booed and hissed and others waited in quiet anticipation. The third Casino Royale finally was released late this year to many positive reviews. Some say it's the best, some even say its one of the worst. So what does this film have to say, and what does it say for the future and for many Bond fans who have been watching since the 60's to the 00's (possibly pronounced double-0's)?

So far, the most universally agreed factor that makes the film work is the performance of Daniel Craig. I agree. I applaud his respect for watching every Bond film (yes, every single one) to get an idea who this man is. As I have said before-- when there are this many films in a series, it becomes more about the consistency of the character than the actor's interpretations. And he appears to be carrying the legend well so far. As for the film, the intention is to redefine James Bond almost in the methods of how eras in the world of comics do. For example, Superman had a very impressive series of stories from its first incarnations to its last in the 1980's with "What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" This was considered the last comic of the Silver Age Superman; starting a new series all over again with Superman's origin and beginnings told in a new way than seen previously. We have the same thing here, but now with more attempts to see Bond's emotional side. A side that had been explored in some Bond films (From Russia With Love, [significantly] On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, and Tomorrow Never Dies), but went largely ignored. More cinematic tricks are used and Bond is no longer seen as a spitting image of fashion, but as a fashionable image of spit. Meaning, he is a lot more tarnished than clean. In this story, James Bond (presumably still a Commander recruited from the Royal Navy although never mentioned) acquires his 00 status. The idea is novel, but as it is presented in the film feels almost irrelevent as it occurs only at the very beginning. The film goes on without any real emphasis placed on the difference between being a double-O and not being one. One of the film's high points is the emphasis placed on Bond's journey from rough, egotistical, impatient, impudent trainee scoundrel to compassionate, understanding, sympathetic, patient, and experienced 'good man' who wears nice clothes. Bond's apparent undisclipined demeaner does however come into question considering a Royal Navy officer should have quite a bit of discipline, but the film seems to conveniently forget about this. The film's point here still comes across well. In the serious CR (which can be seen only through rarely sold DVDs on Ebay), Bond as a trainee is somewhat of a juvenile who doesn't quite get the witticisms down like his later version does so well (Craig's Bond seems to this as well leaving room for development as the film progresses), but still has a good sense of disclipine and only comes off cold when dealing with the ladies and holding back information. The original CR's main focus is to show where Bond has been and where he is now. The new CR shows this, but its 'now' is not as clear as its 'been.'

As in all versions of CR, the villain is named Le Chiffre. His role has changed in various versions. The book labels Le Chiffre as a member of SMERSH, a real Soviet organization that specialized in the killing of Western agents. The original CR has Le Chiffre as a member of Soviet Intelligence working closely with the French Communist party and as a window for the Soviets into the Western world. Due to his compulsive gambling, he has lost a large quantity of Soviet funds and plans to win it back by gambling high. Bond is assigned by Combined Intelligence to make sure Le Chiffre does not accomplish his goal. One of the many things that makes the original CR so interesting is the great stakes involving Le Chiffre winning back his money. If he does, Le Chiffre can put the money back into SMERSH that can result in the deaths of various Western agents. In the parallel story, the second story of Le Chiffre is that he is trying to lure Bond into a trap and then erase the past with the delivery of Bond. The new CR has Le Chiffre as "an international banker to the world's terrorists." This does pose another problem in the writing. In fact, most of the problems are in the writing that is not based on Fleming's original material. Terrorists firstly don't need one big international banker. They each have their own in order to make sure that no one can trace them. Putting this aside, Le Chiffre has lost his own large sum due to betting on terrorist operations that have been everted all by Bond. A little hard to believe (Bond usually stops big operations in one location and not in three locations which would make him incredibly lucky) even for Bond. Now he has to win it back or he, like his earlier incarnation, will be killed by the organization(s) whose money he lost. However if this Le Chiffre wins the money back, it will simply just give back the terrorists' their money. Here comes a fundamental problem in the writing: terrorism is a very general threat. The impending threat with the SMERSH Le Chiffre is that if he wins back his money SMERSH can instantly use it to kill agents... maybe even Bond. If this Le Chiffre wins back his money, the terrorists will just do their thing. They can wait for a while till they blow something up or maybe not even do anything at all if you're talking about terrorists from all over the world with their own specific pursuits. SMERSH is a very concentrated threat; terrorism is too general. Now if Le Chiffre worked for the Fleming/McClory developed, Maibaum refined organization of SPECTRE like in the earlier versions, we understand the more immediate threat especially if SPECTRE is up to something very soon after that card game. Less imagination usually leads to disinteresting places for your characters to be. One of the more obvious problems is the difference in acting interpretations of Le Chiffre. Peter Lorre's Le Chiffre is a classy, patient, masochistic, tough as nails threat definitely to be reckoned with. This Le Chiffre is as charismatic as Orson Welles' Le Chiffre as well. Both are incredibly large men who wear a white dinner jacket against type when villains usually wear black suits to emphasis "evil." Mads Mikkelsen's underplayed Le Chiffre is a very subtle, soft-spoken, thick accented, businessman who wears a black suit all the time. Because we get the idea that the earlier Le Chiffre has other business with other significant assassin-types, we understand that Le Chiffre understands exactly how to handle himself and others. This new Le Chiffre spends all his time playing cards and using other people's money for his card games. So when the sh*t hits the fan, he doesn't seem to know how to handle it. Therefore making his character less of a threat and more of a pacifist when compared to Craig's intimidating Bond. The events surrounding Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre are incredibly disinteresting when compared to the original CR's Le Chiffre's backstories.

Another set up that could have been better organized if Richard Maibaum were still around involves the placement of Vesper Lynd, Rene Mathis, and Felix Leiter. In the original CR, Vesper Lynd is a silent threat unlike her Eva Green (does a good performance) interpretation who surprises us with her secrets near the film's end. Rene Mathis has been combined with the leading lady character into Valerie Mathis. What this does is create a triangle where Bond only has Valerie and Felix Leiter who comes into the form of Clarence Leiter (presumably can be said is his brother-- interestingly enough conincidentally considering how much the new CR's Felix Leiter mentions the word, brother). The new CR has Rene Mathis back in as in the book, but cinematically this poses a problem. When reading a book, you have plenty of time by the established pace of the reader to explore a huge assortment of characters. In a film, you only have two hours; less depending on how often the character appears. Now that Bond is in a square where he shares his time with Vesper, Rene Mathis, and Leiter-- Bond now has to share time to discuss the plans with both Mathis and Leiter. You save time and make a relationship more concentrated if its only one character when sharing the exposition. Fleming agreed with this decision before and had they done it now they would have been able to develop Felix Leiter's character more than a mere introduction; granted he does have the weight of his previous adventures with Bond, but seeing this as a standalone picture-- Jeffrey Wright (a very great actor) does not have much to do.

***SPOILERS***
The biggest problem probably occurs during the beginning of the third act (or end of second act). The infamous torture scene which was altered in the original to having Bond's toes broken via pliers has been restored to its original balls-busting experience here. One of the things you can do with the original CR's torture scene is maintain a dialogue and a witnessing between Bond and Valerie considering Bond does not have to be naked. The elegance of the scene is still very apparent with Bond still in his tuxedo, though wrinkled and bloody. The new CR has Bond naked, but completely vulnerable to what "suggestively" is being done to Vesper in the next room. Subjectivity does play a role in which is more frightening here. But here comes the problem: As in the book, Le Chiffre is interrupted during this new torture scene and is killed on the spot. The entire third act is now missing our villain! In the original CR, Le Chiffre is not interrupted and in fact finds the check that Bond is not willing to surrender. Le Chiffre stays alive till the very end until Bond takes him out personally. As in the book's denouement, Vesper and Bond spend time with each other until Vesper meets a man with an eyepatch to turn over Bond's winnings. If you don't know that Vesper is a double agent, the audience is clueless as to what conflict is left and impatiently waits for the climax. Mathis also becoming a double agent convolutes your narrative with too many characters' getting their dues. Killing your main villain also eliminates your main threat. Thus, making any other additional villains not as interesting as your big baddie. Now in some Bond films, the villain is killed and then henchmen come around later to take a swipe at Bond, but this always occurs very late in the film. So taking out the villain so early makes your film lose 90% of its conflict. The original CR's Le Chiffre is just a better placed villain in its story.

One of the more apparent difficulties of the film is its long card game. It can be argued that the original CR's card game is its action sequence. The stakes are indeed high, figuratively and literally. The game is also Bacarrat as in the novel. This new adaptation uses Texas Hold 'Em Poker instead. One of the big problems with filming Poker is that unless you have a good handle on the game, you won't be able to understand. A film that requires the audience to have some form of outside expertise to understand an event in the story can lead to losing a portion of the audience's interest. In the new CR, it is the events that happen in between the card games that is more interesting. This is actually what keeps our interest in the second act mostly. The game of Bacarrat also happens to be a far more cinematic game (all you need to know is who is closer to the number 9 and the tricks behind bluffing to get the other to go over or further away number 9) and far easier to understand. In fact, it is explained far better in the original CR than the Poker here. Because Bacarrat only requires one other person to play it with, the conflict is more concentrated. The Poker here requires others, and the other characters are not developed including Leiter.

The best thing the new CR has in its story is the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd. In the original it was nonexistent, here we get what is in the novel. In fact, we can honestly say that it is Vesper who makes Bond the classier gentleman we remember him as. Takes a woman's touch to soothe the savage beast it seems. The relationship is somewhat similar in aspects to Bond and Tracy from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but fortunately CR does not attempt to make Vesper the new Tracy for good reason. The new additions to Fleming's material involving Bond chasing a spidery suicide bomber and dispatching a bomber attempting to destroy a new experimental plane are excellently shown through spectacularly physical action sequences, but almost seem like a moot point when they only function as a lead up to the card game. The point to them is to show Bond's tenacity and compassion to save the day, and that's really it. In conclusion, what I haven't mentioned has already been mentioned in other avenues, and what I have mentioned that has been said already elsewhere was done to emphasize more on the apparent issues. The new Casino Royale is a good film, but not the best Bond film as some have said. In comparison to the original serious CR, it is a lot more messy in its narrative. In comparison to what many consider the best, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, its villain and its female romance pales in comparison to some of the most infamous as seen in OHMSS. The film speaks for itself and says what it has to say well, and it's loudest speaker is Daniel Craig. Some say the film is the worst because of him. However, he seems to be the most widely acclaimed part of the film as well and this can only lead to better things down the road. Perhaps, CR's greatest virtue is that it can hopefully lead to new directions for the world of Bond past the shortcomings inherit in the new remake of Casino Royale. Obviously, it is better than The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, but that goes without saying.

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