Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
Very seldom does one character define a subgenre. But that is precisely what James Bond, 007 has done with spy/espionage fiction. Since making his film debut in 1962, Bond has appeared in over 20 movies. Moreover, the character has only been portrayed by a mere six actors (officially, anyway). Now that the 25th (official) Bond installment, No Time to Die, is finally slated for release on October 8, I think now is a better time than any to look back at 007’s dossier. I’ll be examining the James Bond franchise to see how these pictures evolved over the decades with each new leading actor. Today’s mission: Casino Royale (2006).
In the past fifty-nine years since its inception of the James Bond franchise, this series has undoubtedly proven two things. First and foremost: no matter who plays 007, his run of films will eventually wear thin and the franchise will continue with someone else and a new tone. Because of its cyclical nature and method of maintaining itself, it could be argued that this franchise alone unofficially created the reboot that’s ever so popular these days. Secondly, as I’ve stated in previous reviews of various entries in this franchise, EON Productions tend to follow the trends of the time to put gas in this franchise’s tank. But, this time around, they tried something else before jumping on a trend. They went back to Bond’s roots and adapted Ian Fleming’s 1957 debut Bond novel Casino Royale.
Many folks who serve in the military go on to have exciting careers. Some of which are directly connected (or at least inspired) by their time in the service. Fleming is one such individual who created the iconic James Bond and his world of spycraft after being inspired by his tenure as a member of the British Naval Intelligence Division. Unsurprisingly, Fleming wrote 007 as a romanticized, fictionalized version of himself. Albeit, this analog character is undoubtedly a more brutal gentleman than his creator.
Casino Royale was published in April of 1953. Upon hitting bookshelves, Bond and his espionage adventures immediately proved to be a hit with readers. So much so, in fact, that publisher Jonathan Cape Publishing ended up doing three print runs in the novel’s first year of release and signed Fleming for a three-book deal. As a debut, Casino Royale is fittingly engaging yet straightforward. Therefore, the book is also relatively short at a scant 213 pages. Perhaps that’s why Casino Royale is the only one of Fleming’s Bond movie’s not to receive a serious adaptation until the film in review.
The novel was adapted twice in two different formats before 2006, though. A year after publication, the book was adapted to the small screen in an episode of the anthology series, Climax!(1954-1958). In the episode, Bond was played by American actor Barry Nelson (who most audiences would most likely recognize as Ullman from 1980’s The Shining). Now, I’ve only watched this episode one time on YouTube many years ago. But, from what I recall, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel as you could almost fit the majority of the source material into the allotted one-hour time slot for TV. Still, it’s nothing to write home about. Following that, the novel served as the very loose basis and title for the spoof and unofficial 007 entry Casino Royale (1967).
You may be asking yourself, “Why was the book not already made into an official 007 movie? Heck, why wasn’t it the first one?” Well, that, my friends, was a simple case of legal oversight. When EON Productions made the initial deal for the film rights to James Bond, Casino Royale was not included in the package. As such, Columbia Pictures eventually secured the rights and used the book as a springboard for the aforementioned satirical comedy. It was only when MGM and Sony/Columbia Pictures settled a $40 million lawsuit that the rights fell into their proper place. MGM agreed to pay Columbia $5 million and trade their movie rights to Spider-Man in exchange for Casino Royale in 2000. In the wake of this settlement, Sony/Columbia brought our friendly neighborhood webslinger to screens a mere couple of years later with Spider-Man (2002). But for EON, Casino Royale took longer to materialize.
While Die Another Day (2002) was panned by critics and audiences alike, it was financially successful, grossing nearly $500 million on a $142 million production budget. As a result, EON desired to retain Pierce Brosnan despite the actor fulfilling his four-picture deal and negotiated a potential $30 million payday. With Brosnan tentatively in the mix, development on his 007 adventure took a fascinating turn.
Around this time, writer-director Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) offered a very specific take on the source material. He wanted to make a faithful adaptation of Fleming’s novel, to the point where it would’ve been akin to noir mixed with a spy thriller. Furthermore, he wanted to set in an alternate universe in the 1960s, wherein Brosnan would again play Bond, but the previous pictures would essentially be ignored. Tarantino reportedly also wanted to cast Uma Thurman as Vesper Lynd and Samuel L. Jackson as Felix Leiter.
Unsurprisingly, the studio and production company turned the filmmaker down. As always, EON Productions will only take a certain amount of risk with their golden goose. Moreover, the fact that Tarantino’s take would most likely result in an R-rating was not going to fly. But just as the company said no to Pulp Fiction director, Brosnan reconsidered and gave up his 00 status in 2004.
But, by this point, the producers knew the trends they wanted to follow for this iteration of Bond. Seeing as Casino Royale is Bond’s origin story, the producers understandably chose to take that same tact — making the film the first reboot in the franchise. To achieve this, they cited Batman Begins (2005) as an inspiration. Furthermore, they wanted to be gritty with practical action and stunts in the vein of The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004).
EON then approached a filmmaker with some experience in grounding Bond. I’m, of course, referring to GoldenEye (1995) director Martin Campbell. Now, if you read my review of that film, you know I think it’s of the best Bond installments to date. Hence, I think it was a no-brainer to bring Campbell back to the helm Casino Royale. That said, the director later admitted he only returned to the franchise because he didn’t have any other projects on the development slate. Thankfully, though, you wouldn’t know that was Campbell’s reasoning as he brings his all to this film. One portion of which includes his input on choosing the next actor to portray James Bond.
As you might expect, a wide net was cast to find the next 007. Of course, several established actors were considered, such as Colin Ferrell (The Batman) and Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — neither of whom I think would have been appropriate for the part. Following that, unknown actors were considered. One of whom, according to Campbell, was none other than Henry Cavill (Zack Snyder’s Justice League), but he was ultimately deemed too young at only 22-years-old. I think it might have been interesting to see Cavill play a youthful 007, as he might have had the right qualities for the role. And that’s saying something considering I’ve been none-too-impressed by him in iconic roles thus far.
When neither of these approaches produced an actor to take up the mantle of the world’s greatest spy, the producers ended up trying something a little different: they searched for actors who were established, but not necessarily big names. After all, the goal here was to establish James Bond for a new generation. Hence, you wouldn’t want the actor playing 007 to overshadow the character himself. Enter British actor Daniel Craig (Knives Out), who, up to this point, had been steadily making a name for himself in a myriad of supporting roles and working with acclaimed filmmakers.
Unfortunately, Craig did not receive the warmest of welcomes from the fanbase or the media at the time. I regretfully admit that I, too, was a tad wary of Craig in that moment. While I thankfully did not jump on that silly #NoBlondeBond bandwagon, I was initially thrown by his casting primarily due to his physical appearance. The guy is not traditionally handsome in a way that I would associate with Bond. Then again, neither was Timothy Dalton. But Craig is attractive in more of a rough-edged, pub brawler way. Well, it turns out that’s just what this interpretation of Bond was calling for, thanks to the tone of this film.
As I mentioned earlier, the Fleming novel is reasonably short and to the point. Thus returning screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with newcomer Paul Haggis, essentially follow the book’s narrative. A newly-minted 007 James Bond (Craig) accepts a mission involving high-stakes poker to stop government-funded terrorism. But the screenwriters had to come up with original material to get to that feature-length runtime. Thankfully, though, all of these new story elements are not simply padding. On the contrary, this screenplay establishes a more grounded universe for Bond and the characters who surround him. Moreover, unlike most of its predecessors, Casino Royale feels truly dramatic and rooted in a reality which is only somewhat exaggerated. Due to the film’s tone, I’m always a little surprised to see that Purvis and Wade (who are largely responsible for the adventures we were both treated and subjected to during the Brosnan era) co-wrote this script; some of their previous efforts were downright bonkers. I’m sure Haggis’s extensive rewrites are largely responsible for this film’s significant amount of gravitas.
Unlike many previous 007 pictures, the screenwriters and the director give this film time to breathe as we become accustomed to a much darker take on Bond. This more severe approach is easy enough to accept following the Brosnan era thanks to Campbell’s direction and the phenomenal action sequences which enrich and punctuate the narrative instead of fueling it. A prime example: we’re not treated to more action for another forty minutes after the opening action set-piece. Nevertheless, you would be hard-pressed to notice the absesnce of large set-peices as the first two-thirds of the movie move along at a steady pace. Moreover, the action you do get feels more extensive than many in this franchise’s history.
However, the true highlight of Casino Royale is not the action, but its perfect cast. Despite his brutish features, Craig certainly looks the part of Bond when he dresses as fashionably as you would expect from 007. But, even if he did not look the part, Craig brings something to Bond that most previous actors have not: a realistic multi-dimensional quality.
Sure, Craig presents us with a James Bond we all want to be or with whom we want to be. But Craig’s Bond is also a man who is tortured on some level by the life he leads. In this performance, we get to see a Bond with some humanistic flaws again; an aspect of the character that had been largely lacking in the franchise since Timothy Dalton’s all-too-short run as the character. On that note, I’d go so far as to say there’s some crossover in the way both Dalton and Craig play Bond.
I’m happy to say that all the other characters in this film also bring that deeply human quality with them. Heck, even Judi Dench — who reprises her role as M from the previous era — gets to play her iconic role differently. Her approach feels somewhat fresh because Dench and Craig have a completely different dynamic than the one she had with Brosnan. Oh, and lest I forget, the ever-underrated Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) takes up the mantle of Felix Leiter. In doing so, Wright becomes the only Felix Leiter in my mind.
Then there’s the main Bond girl of this film, Vesper Lynd, portrayed by the eternally alluring Eva Green (Sin City: A Dame to Kill for). Like Craig, Green brings genuine pathos to her part; a quality I’m not sure any other Bond girl has ever possessed or, at least, not so overtly. In previous 007 pictures, the romantic relationships were nothing more than flings — with the notable exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) of course — but with Casino Royale, the relationship between Bond and Vesper feels sincerely legitimate, even with all its twists-and-turns.
Of course, what would Bond be without an adversary? In the case of Casino Royale, that villain is none other than Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a poker-playing terrorist who short-trades the markets. Based on that brief description, you might think Le Chiffre to be one of the more stereotypical villains in this franchise, right? Ah, that’s not the case at all. Instead, Mikkelsen brings us a homicidal sociopath laced with insecurities which make him a bit more complex. And it’s these touches of flawed humanity, along with Mikkelsen’s general otherworldliness, that makes him a pleasure to watch here.
Many folks have called Casino Royale the perfect James Bond film. To me, it’s almost perfect. While I love that the movie has plenty of room to breathe from a narrative standpoint, the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime can definitely be felt in the third act, during which it occasionally drags and gives us multiple endings. Aside from the occasional bump in pacing, I also don’t love the opening credit sequence or the late-great Chris Cornell‘s “You Know My Name” theme song.
But, even with those minor quibbles, Casino Royale (2006) is one of the best Bond films to date. More than that, though, Casino Royale is undeniably a Franchise Expansion! For a film that ultimately takes the reboot/prequel approach, it achieves that goal while retaining everything we must have from a Bond picture. Furthermore, this entry is the first film (and era in the franchise) that genuinely takes the sequelization route. What comes next will all be connected … for better or worse.
Casino Royale (2006) is Available on All Home Video Formats
James Bond Will Return For Another Installment of Franchise Expansion or Implosion with Quantum of Solace (2008)
007’s Newest Mission, No Time to Die, Will (finally) Be in Theaters on October 8th
Read About Bond’s Past Missions:
Casino Royale (1967)