It’s quite the epic, and one that could have been shed right down to the bare bones if they had wished to. Instead, not only do we get a good opening (where Bond earns his double-o rank), but we get an elongated plot that sets up the game before we arrive at it half way through the film. And through this weaving of details we get some pretty impressive action beats. The first made great use of base jumping. I don’t know if this sequence will date over time – but it was jaw dropping stunt action when seen for the first time on the big screen back in 2006, and on the small screen re-watch it was still very impactful – very few action sequences get to develop character. This one establishes Craig as a Bond to be reckoned with.
The second large set piece saw Bond on a smackdown at the airport – again Bond is constantly mobile and using his smarts from start to finish to get the better of the situation. But even in between these first two big pieces of action we get a very calm confrontation with Bond at a game of cards with his intended target (which sees him winning his Aston Martin) and then at a gallery exhibition where he finally takes the guy out. All of this and we haven’t reached Casino Royale yet!
A nervous studio would have hacked away at all of this and brought the running time down by an easy 30 minutes. The film in total is 20 hours and 2 minutes. Bond is not on his way to Casino Royale until the hour mark. A studio wanting a tight slim picture could have made any of the action an opening credits piece and then lead it to bond getting his mission to go play poker. It would have worked as even Eva Green’s Lynd does not appear until this time. The extended set up we get works well for both story and character though; so instead of the studio playing it safe, they held their nerve and allowed character and action beats to drive us slowly to where we are going. And where we are taken is right into the arms of Vesper Lynd. We know who Craig’s Bond is, and now enters the woman who is about to take him on, and essentially help shape the character to go on to become one of cinema’s greatest.
Thankfully this film manages to deliver its first likeable theme song in quite a while. Chris Cornell can have an over-bearing voice, but he largely keeps it selective for the “You Know My Name” track. And we are also introduced to a new style of opening credits,probably the most eye catching since Goldeneye. The film-makers have always tried to keep the themes of the each film relevant in the title cards since Brosnan took over, but often they have relied on an overuse of CGI. Here the effects are grandly stylised. As for the actual pre-credit scene – having it shot in B/W helps us move from one era of Bond films into a completely new game. It is perhaps not too flattering to see men’s room tiles behind Bond when he does the shooting down the barrel shot, but this is a grittier look for Bond.
It is all very confident and secure, even despite the initial reaction to Craig becoming the new James Bond. That all goes away after about 10 minutes. And it was clever on the part of the film-makers to give us some pretty full-on action as we don’t get him displaying much of his character until the arrival of Lynd and their journey to Casino Royale. And even here instead of letting him rip in confidently as the character we know – instead Lynd gives him a good dressing down on his background, and then even dresses him up in the suit that he will go on to wear. Even the smaller traits of Bond are dismantled. When asked how he would like his Vodka Martini at a tense moment, he simply replies “Do I look like I give a damn?” Dr No aside, this is probably the most confident and close to perfection anyone has ever entered the franchise.
Getting back to Lynd and Bond, the initial bickering pretty much shows them both at fault. He is egotistical and smug; she is bitter and resentful. Not exactly a winning formula for an audience, but in reality an attraction for both of them to each other.
Green has the hard part in the film of making her not only strong, but also sympathetic to the point where we believe firstly that Bond would be interested in her, but that he would also eventually fall in love with her. All of this and also the fact that she is hiding her dark secret right up to the climax of the film where her story is all turned on its head. For the most part it works thanks to the interplay between the two characters. But it is given a few easy steps to get there. A fight in a stairwell at the venue is the biggest helping hand. Firstly it gives the audience some action (that they have been deprived of for a while), and secondly it gives Lynd a chance to vent some of her emotions in the aftermath. It also gives Bond a chance to be more sympathetic towards her.
This is almost destroyed however when an over-confident Bond gets kicked out of the game and she refuses to put up the money to let him back in. Surely at this point we can have no sympathy for such an ice queen. Although it does open up the opportunity for them to introduce a wonderful Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter to step up and instigate what becomes a long term friendship, by subbing Bond the funds on behalf of the CIA. Lynd finds redemption when Bond is poisoned in yet another thrilling sequence which sees him having to try to restart his own heart; Lynd of course steps in finally to help him out.
The game itself is switched from the book to poker. This is forgivable – but it does mean that sadly we have a supporting character in the background explaining the rules of the game to Lynd and the audience which is very sloppy scripting and the films first sign of weakness (non-poker players won’t mind so much). It is here in the game though that Bond gets to have most of his time with the films main antagonist Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). The tension is kept tight with some clever game interplay as well as pointed action beats in between.
Even after the game has reached its climax we continue to what you would expect to be the action climax. Instead what we get is a pretty gruelling torture scene as Bond is captured by his foe. It can’t be said enough how restrained Mikkelsen is in the part (and will reap benefits for it for years to come). The scene isn’t without its comic relief – which you kinda need in a torture scene like this. The real shock comes when Le Chiffre is killed by an unknown assailant and not by Bond.
It seems like an anti-climax to have our hero bailed out, but oddly it seems very fitting and then leads us into a prolonged love culmination for Bond and Lynd. This is probably the only part of the film where it seems to start to drag. But again, repeat viewing soothes this feeling as we as film viewers are not used to having a film end and then go on for another 20 minutes (unless you are a big Lord of the Rings fan). But it has to deliver the blow of Vesper being the traitor all along. It often points to the fact that she became sympathetic to Bond towards the end, fell in love, and perhaps even was about to give her own life up in order to save his.
The end of the film has been panned pretty badly by critics. It is perhaps a set piece too far and your initial response to it may raise a few of those Roger Moore-esque eyebrows, but on repeated viewing it stands up fairly well. It does have the difficult task of wrapping up the Vesper Lynd twist and delivering us with an ending that is close to the book. Although the book can be read in a way that Bond does not care for her death as she was a traitor; the film delivers the same line, but it seems more of a case that Bond here doesn’t want to deal with it in words so he sounds more dismissive than resentful to her death. Of course Quantum of Solace sees him taking his revenge as he discovers the background to her betrayal. But that’s another story altogether.