The opening song of the movie “Casino Royale” by the one and only Chris Cornell contains the lyric “You know my name” – and we couldn’t imagine a more appropriate line being written for the opening minutes of this movie. Everyone knows the name James Bond, he’s arguably the most famous movie character of all time. Even if you’ve never seen a single 007 movie, you know exactly who Bond is, what he does, how he dresses and what he’s all about. But, to be honest, chances are that you’ve already seen at least one of his movies, given that the character first appeared on screen in 1962 and has since been in 25 official movies (and a few non-official ones, because the rights to the character are a little weird – more on that later).
So when, in our list of the top 10 casino movies, we called “Casino Royale” not only the best casino movie, but also the best Bond movie, that should be considered the highest praise we could possibly award it. But what exactly makes “Casino Royale” so good, and why should you watch it? Maybe you’ve never seen a James Bond movie before, or you saw some and thought they were just silly spy fun with gadgets and fast cars. What makes “Casino Royale” different? Well, brace yourselves, because we’re about to dive deep into the best casino movie of all time!
One of the most interesting things about “Casino Royale” is just how it came to be, as the process was very different from how the other Bond movies were made. As you may know, the Bond character was created by writer Ian Fleming, and all 007 movies are (albeit loosely) based on Fleming’s novels. “Casino Royale” was the very first 007 novel, which Fleming dreamed of seeing on the big screen even before its publication in 1952. He soon sold the rights to a producer, Gregory Ratoff, who wasn’t able to get the movie made because every studio he pitched it to thought that the character of Bond was too stupid, sexist and over the top. One studio even proposed changing Bond’s gender and making “Casino Royale” with Jane Bond – can you imagine how history might have been different then?
Ultimately, plans fell through, and a producer by the name of Albert Broccoli managed to negotiate a deal with Fleming to buy the film rights to James Bond as a package deal through his company EON. That same deal is what gave us “Dr No” in 1962, the first ever Bond movie, and continues to give us 007 flicks to this day (with Albert’s daughter Barbara continuing to produce them even today). That package deal, of course, didn’t include the rights to “Casino Royale”, which had been bought by Ratoff and then, after his death, by another producer named Charles Feldman. Feldman attempted to work with Broccoli on the movie, but couldn’t come to an agreement, so he ultimately sold the rights to Columbia Pictures in order to make “Casino Royale” as a parody of James Bond in the late 60s. And that was that.
Columbia, meanwhile, had been purchased by Sony, who were interested in making a movie about some no-name superhero named Spider-Man. As luck would have it, MGM had bought the rights to Spider-Man only a few years prior, but simply couldn’t agree on how to put the movie together. And with 007 being MGM’s biggest franchise, a trade was made: the rights to Spider-Man for the rights to “Casino Royale”. The deal happened in the late 90s, and that’s actually how Sony/Columbia started making Spider-Man movies, which they continue to do to this day, both by themselves (“Venom” and “Into the Spider-Verse”) and alongside Disney/Marvel Studios (Tom Holland’s “Spider-Man” trilogy).
A few years later, it was decided that a fresh start was needed for James Bond – Pierce Brosnan was demanding too much money to return, and the audience was growing weary with the gadgets and other sci-fi elements. That’s why the radical decision was made to fully reboot the franchise and start from scratch with an origin story for James Bond, something that had never been done in the franchise’s 50 year history (at that point). True, he’d been played by many actors, but it was assumed that they all played the same person, and the audience was supposed to ignore that he looked different. This time, however, the new James Bond – Daniel Craig – would be a new person with his own history, personality and aesthetic. Gone were the gadgets, gone were the “Bond babes” (at least as we knew them), gone was the suave charm. This new Bond would be at the beginning of his career, and he would be the “blunt instrument” that Fleming envisioned originally. What better film to start him off with than “Casino Royale”?
The film’s opening moments reveal to us that, in order to obtain the status of a “00” agent, you need to murder two people. So we see James Bond do exactly that, beating a man to death in a bathroom and then his boss, an MI6 chief turned traitor. Bond has killed many, many people over the years, but it’s always been portrayed as cool and glamorous – a firefight against overwhelming odds to save the world, a fistfight with an evil henchman twice Bond’s size. This couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of “Casino Royale”, at least in its opening minutes. Even though the people he kills are “bad guys”, the movie makes it explicitly clear that he is murdering them in cold blood. A stark reminder that, unlike the previous versions of Bond, Daniel Craig’s Bond is a ruthless sociopath who will go to any lengths to achieve his objective. He may be the main character, but to call him a “hero” would be a stretch, and it’s scary to think about what he would do if he was ordered to do something that’s truly villainous.
The first act sees Bond following breadcrumbs, all leading up to a mysterious banker known as Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen), an investor for some of the biggest criminal names in the world who uses insider knowledge of the underworld to make big profits for both their organizations and himself. Due to Bond’s interference, Le Chiffre ends up losing a lot of money to some really powerful people, which puts him in something of a bind. His plan is to make that money back at a high stakes poker tournament in the titular Casino Royale in Montenegro where he’d easily win over $100 million if successful… But if he fails, it’d mean certain death. MI6 realize that this is a golden opportunity and send Bond to enter the tournament, hoping that after he loses, Le Chiffre will have no other option but to seek asylum with the British government in exchange for dirt on the people he invested money for. With the plan settled, Bond is sent off to Montenegro alongside Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an agent for the British treasury responsible for the $10 million buy-in, and for keeping Bond on a leash during the mission.
It would have been so easy to just set one or two scenes in the casino, enough to advance the plot, and then spend the rest of the movie on explosions and gadgets – it’s certainly what most other Bond films would’ve done. But keep in mind, “Casino Royale” shows us a brand new Bond, both in terms of the character and style. The director, Martin Campbell, understands that you don’t need your main character dangling from the edge of a cliff to have tension in a scene, and that sometimes, a quiet moment at a poker table is all it takes.
Casino games already lend themselves perfectly to these types of stories (there’s a reason why there’s so many casino movies around), and we’ve never seen that captured as perfectly as it is here. The poker games are incredibly tense, the scenes are kept deliberately quiet and focused on the players’ expressions and body language to truly immerse you into the atmosphere with some top-notch directing and editing. Of course, credit should also be given to the actors themselves (Craig, Mikkelsen and Jeffrey Wright as an undercover CIA operative at the same tournament) for being able to convey so much of what their characters are feeling while still keeping their in-character poker face. Truly a joy to behold!
The original “Casino Royale” from the 60s was, in many ways, a deconstruction of James Bond – which is very necessary when you’re trying to do a parody. The movie took essential elements that had been established in the first 4 Bond movies (the only ones made at that point) and tried to break them down, to “flip” them around for the sake of humor. After all, Bond is kind of a ridiculous person, and there’s plenty to mock about both him and his movies. In stark contrast, the 2006 “Casino Royale” is a reconstruction of Bond, and in bringing him from a brute into the stylish Bond from the other movies, a true origin story.
Another reason why the poker tournament is so great is because it puts Bond, the “blunt instrument”, completely out of his element. True, Connery or Dalton would’ve felt right at home in an elegant suit and a martini in hand, but not Craig. He’s anything but an elegant, sophisticated guy – that’s kind of the point. He’s little more than a barbarian, a hired thug that just so happens to be working for the government rather than the world. In an alternate reality he could’ve easily become the type of henchman that previous Bonds have fought against. Fighting a battle of the minds in an elegant suit? That’s not his scene, at all, and he clearly struggles with that role. Again, it can’t be understated just how brilliant Craig is in the role, and why he was cast in it despite his blond hair and blue eyes being a stark departure from previous Bonds (which, believe it or not, caused quite the controversy at the time). This Bond would feel much more comfortable beating Le Chiffre with a hammer than beating him at cards, and that’s why placing him in a situation where violence wouldn’t solve his problems was such a brilliant idea, and why the movie works even though it’s not packed to the brim with action and explosions like other 007 flicks.
Right at the beginning of the movie, we already know that Bond doesn’t really have the best opinion of women – his relationship with his direct superior M (Judi Dench) is mostly respectful, if strained, but that’s pretty much where the line is drawn. Early in the movie, before the tournament, Bond seduces the wife of a corrupt Greek official involved in Le Chiffre’s schemes, and later, due to his own actions, the organization that Le Chiffre works for ends up torturing her to death – which Bond clearly isn’t particularly bothered about. That’s very much in line with the Bond we know, the one who sees women as little more than objects for his own pleasure and nothing more. Once he’s had his way with them, they’re of little consequence. He is neither willing nor able to get attached to anyone in that way, or possibly in any way.
And then… There’s Vesper, the very antithesis of a Bond girl. She’s not defined by her relationship with Bond, or any other man – in fact, Bond’s mission entirely depends on keeping himself in her good graces, because she can cut his funding at any point and call off the entire mission. After all, if things go south, the British government would be directly funding terrorists, which obviously can’t happen, meaning that it’s on her to pull the plug if things go south. Obviously, she quickly clashes with Bond’s confident, headstrong nature, so that quickly throws out any hope Bond might have had of simply having a one-night stand with her and leaving her behind. As he grows closer to Vesper, we see Bond leaving himself emotionally vulnerable for… Pretty much the first time in the entire franchise (hell, he wasn’t even that vulnerable with his wife in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”). But don’t forget that this is supposed to be James Bond’s first real mission, his origin story which shaped him into the person he would end up becoming. Part of it is learning to order his martini shaken, not stirred. Another part is closing his heart to anything that might resemble real attachment or emotion.
Most 007 movies, including newer ones like “Skyfall” (as successful as they may be), aren’t really much more than popcorn entertainment. We watch them to see Bond beat the crap out of bad guys, bed beautiful women and ultimately stop the bad guy, and we like them for it. Not every movie has to be smart, or have deep, complex themes that can still be examined and dissected a decade and a half later. But “Casino Royale”, in stark contrast to its successors and predecessors, decided not to simply follow that trend. Its writer and director, alongside Barbara Broccoli, Daniel Craig and everyone else involved in the production, saw the casting of a new actor and the return of the rights to the original Bond novel as a chance for a truly fresh start. And, in all honesty, if they hadn’t done that, it is our firm belief that James Bond movies probably wouldn’t have been around today.
The world of action movies is always movie forward, and the franchises that refuse or are unable to conform to this change get left behind. Just as “Die Hard” and “Hard Boiled” shaped action of the 90s (leading to the most successful movies of the decade, like “The Matrix”, following in their footsteps), “Bourne’s Identity” shaped them for the 00s, giving us masterpieces like “The Dark Knight”. “Die Another Day”, the last Bond flick before “Casino Royale”, very much felt like a 90s movie in terms of its plot, cinematography and action. It needed that step forward, that leap into the world of gritty, down-to-earth, close and personal action that Bourne had ushered in. “Casino Royale” did that, and so much more. It did what many 007 movies before it could not: bringing the entire franchise into a modern era.
The sequel to “Casino Royale”, “Quantum of Solace”, was the first ever Bond film to begin immediately after its predecessor, continuing its story and featuring many of the same characters as Bond went after the bosses of Le Chiffre. The third part of the trilogy, “Skyfall”, became the most financially successful Bond movie of all time. While the fourth movie, “Spectre” was a disappointment with both fans and critics, the fifth and final film of the series, “No Time to Die”, was the first to give Bond a definitive ending and a concrete conclusion, ending a saga 15 years in the making. And none of this would have happened if “Casino Royale” wasn’t as good as it was, or as revolutionary as it ended up being. If you’re a casual casino fan that hasn’t seen it already, we honestly couldn’t recommend it enough, and if you’re a Bond fan, or even just an action movie fan – let’s face it, you’ve already seen it. So this sounds like a good time for a rewatch!