Martin Campbell | 2hr 24min
With a new era of James Bond came a re-invention of not just the character himself, but an entire sub-genre of action espionage films. Here is an actor throwing his body into a role like a Buster Keaton-type stuntman, building a full identity out of that visceral recklessness, and carrying it off with all the class we would expect from a character so notorious for his charm and seduction. When asked if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred after losing a round of high-stakes poker, his response is a sharp “Do I look like I give a damn?”, marking an abrupt departure from his cool, aloof predecessors.
This is the image of 007 that has become inextricably tied to Daniel Craig, and yet the success of Casino Royale goes beyond his central performance, oozing stylish elegance in Martin Campbell’s sleek camera movements that avoid harsh cuts where a simple pan, tilt, or rack focus would suffice. The latter in particular efficiently guides our attention between Bond and the subjects of his scrutiny, letting visual information emerge organically without the need to move away from his face.
Building up this character even further are Campbell’s spectacular set pieces, each one revealing different aspects of Bond’s identity. The first one, a chase across cranes, scaffolding, and construction sites in Madagascar, sees Bond pursue a bomb-maker with a knack for free running. While the target is sliding through tight spaces and leaping fences with ease, Daniel Craig’s Bond simply can’t keep up. Luckily his devil-may-care attitude and resourcefulness is more than enough compensation. He runs through drywall as a short cut, and he takes possession of a bulldozer to wipe out any obstacles in his way. The denouement in which Bond assassinates his target against official orders pays off on his established rebelliousness with a final stinger, uncovering a dangerous ego which lies beneath his otherwise quiet allure. And all throughout, Campbell’s camera never stops moving in agile, controlled motions, imbuing the scene with the same energy and momentum that makes James Bond such a dynamic character.
Facing off against Bond in this instalment is Mads Mikkelsen’s sumptuously wicked banker, Le Chiffre, a truly reprehensible villain to behold. A “derangement of the tear duct” causes him to weep blood, and with a scar slashing across a clouded eye, he is set apart as an inhumanly damaged force of malevolence. The scenes of Texas hold ‘em poker distils his conflict with 007 down to a game of wits, in which both foes are fairly evenly matched. Even then, Bond’s smarts aren’t enough for Le Chiffre’s dishonesty, who, after losing all his money, kidnaps, strips, and beats the MI6 agent. As superhuman as Bond seems to be at times, Daniel Craig’s vulnerability here reveals an exposed man with nothing to rely on but a smart-ass attitude. Though his fortitude remains, his elegant style isn’t inherent in his being. At his core he is a reckless, egocentric asshole, always wanting to get in the final word.
In the striking final set piece of a large building sinking into Venice’s Grand Canal, Bond displays his first true bit of selflessness in trying to rescue his associate and love interest, Vesper, from her doom. As they say goodbye beneath the water, he reaches through the bars of the elevator that she is trapped within, watching the life drain from the only woman he was ever willing to give up everything for. As much as James Bond is typically considered a standard action hero archetype, Martin Campbell’s masterfully efficient set pieces paired with Daniel Craig’s complex performance of a man fighting with his ego thrillingly rejuvenates this classic mainstay of British film, and together hold Casino Royale up as a remarkable piece of character-driven, action cinema.
Casino Royale is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.