'Casino Royale': The Movie That Saved James Bond Turns 10

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Daniel Craig in 'Casino Royale' (MGM/Sony)
Daniel Craig in ‘Casino Royale’ (MGM/Sony)

By Oliver Lyttelton, Yahoo Movies

Ten years ago today, time seemed to be passing James Bond by. The model movie franchise, a reliable hit-maker since 1962’s Dr. No, was showing its age. Pierce Brosnan’s 007 films had fallen into a creative rut after a strong start in the mid-’90s, even if the box office numbers didn’t suffer when the previous Bond outing, Die Another Day, arrived in 2002. Meanwhile, a new era of big-screen secret agents, led by Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, presented an alternative that felt fresh, different, and more in tune with 21st century audiences.

That was the challenge of reinvention Casino Royale faced when it debuted in theaters on Nov. 17, 2006. Against steep odds, the 21st official Bond movie and the first starring Daniel Craig, passed its test; it would make the character relevant for a new era, take in billions of dollars at the box office, win over the critics, and even inspire some Oscar talk. On the film’s 10th anniversary, it’s a good time to remember how 007 and his team got their mojo back.

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James Bond debuted in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale. A ruthless secret agent with Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, he had a license to kill, a taste for martinis (“shaken, not stirred”), and a limitless attraction for beautiful women. A Fleming Bond novel was published every year through 1966, and in the early ’60s the character made a smooth transition to the big screen, where Sean Connery made the role his own under the auspices of producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. This team brought Fleming’s 007 stories to the screen via their Eon Productions with one exception: Movie rights to Casino Royale were held by a different producer, Charles K. Feldman, whose 1967 film of the book was a famously chaotic and poorly executed spoof starring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles.

Finally, in 1999, the book returned to the long-standing Bond production team when MGM secured the rights for them after settlement of a lawsuit with Sony. Work soon began on an adaptation by regular Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. While Die Another Day, Brosnan’s fourth film in the franchise, had been the biggest-grossing Bond movie worldwide, it was mostly savaged by critics, who pounced on elements seen as too far-out for the franchise: 007 on a surfboard, an invisible car, a Madonna cameo.

During development, the present-day Bond producers, Albert’s daughter Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael G. Wilson, began to rethink their approach. They revoked Brosnan’s license to kill (“it was pretty gut-wrenching,” the actor would later tell GQ), and after flirting with future Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn, put Martin Campbell, who had launched Brosnan as 007 in Goldeneye, the best received of the actor’s Bond films, behind the camera.

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As ever when there’s a 007 vacancy, a very public casting process took place, culminating in four serious contenders doing screen tests: future Superman Henry Cavill, Australian Avatar star Sam Worthington, E.R. actor Goran Visnjic, and 37-year-old British actor Daniel Craig, whose star had been rising in films like Road To Perdition, Munich, and Layer Cake.

Craig was their controversial choice: Some fans objected that Craig didn’t look right — too blonde, not traditionally handsome enough. They circulated petitions and launched hate-sites against him, some of which continue to this day. But the choice boldly signified the producers’ shift in intent. Craig was a respected, acclaimed, and serious-minded actor who would play a Bond unlike any seen before.

The script (which was rewritten by Paul Haggis, the writer/director of Oscar winner Crash) certainly backed up that intent. It stuck closely to Fleming’s novel, yet expanded upon it with an action-heavy first half. Bond travels to France, where he aims to bankrupt the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre (though here, as played by Mads Mikkelsen, he’s a financier for terrorists rather than a Soviet agent, bringing the story into the post 9/11 era) with the aid of colleague — and love interest — Vesper Lynd.

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By adding realistic character development, and leaving plot threads dangling for future installments by setting up the mysterious organization that employs Le Chiffre, the series was both adapting to and anticipating a new era of blockbuster, popularized by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and the Marvel movies, where character continuity and ongoing storylines became increasingly important.

Unlike most Bond movies, it also involved us emotionally: Vesper Lynd was a complex, real, breathing character — a departure from traditionally one-dimensional 007 ladies — who needed an accomplished actress to play her. Casting director Debbie McWilliams would later reveal that Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron had been approached, and French actresses Cecile De France and Audrey Tautou were also considered, before the role went to Eva Green (The Dreamers). Her excellent performance added emotional stakes not just to this film, but to the follow-ups as well.

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Riding a wave of publicity and some of the best reviews the franchise ever had (“Bond as we’ve never seen him,” raved Salon, while the New York Times called it “leaner, meaner and a whole lot darker”), Craig proved the doubters wrong. With nearly $600 million at the global box office (almost 50 percent more than Die Another Day had earned), the producers had staked out a place for 007 in the 21st century.

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Craig’s era has since had its ups and downs. Immediate follow-up Quantum Of Solace was rushed into production ahead of a writer’s strike and suffered for it. Skyfall in 2012 was a billion-dollar smash that picked up five Oscar nominations and won two, an unprecedented achievement for a 007 film. But then last year’s Spectre received a much more muted reception, and earned less than its predecessor at the box office.

As a result, the franchise is at another crossroads as we head into 2017: Sam Mendes, who directed the two most recent Bond movies, is done with Bond for now. Reports vary about whether Craig wants to continue in the role (he said while promoting Spectre that he’d “rather slash my wrists” than make another film in the franchise, though he’s walked that back a bit since), and there’s been no firm news about or target date for the next Bond film. But if it ends up the franchise needs to reinvent itself yet again with a new star, all involved will be lucky to have a curtain-raiser as effective or successful as Casino Royale.

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