Following Casino Royale‘s narrative reset, the film settles into a relaxed groove where narrative urgency doesn’t overwhelm these sequences of beautiful people talking and eating in beautiful locations. This rhythm hearkens back to the Fleming novels, which are largely structured around meals in exotic locations and the conversation that accompanies them. Casino Royale‘s “Montenegro”–actually the Czech Republic–is generally attractive, but lacks any true distinguishing features. If we can’t have the exotic, at least we get the luxurious. Following Casino Royale, the Craig films will unfortunately never again return to this pleasurable tempo, opting instead for the more propulsive feel that came to mark the Brosnan films (and, to an extent, the Dalton films before them).
Bond and Vesper’s primary mode of interaction, extending from their first meeting, remains feisty banter that contrasts their personalities and agendas. In this case of “opposites attract,” both characters somewhat represents the other’s idea of an enemy; for Vesper, Bond embodies the sexist, egotistical, reckless sort of masculinity she’s spent her career struggling against, and, for Bond, Vesper models the bureaucratic control Bond loathes coupled with controlled, powerful femininity.
Bond and Vesper’s “religion” exchange in the cab strikes the right balance of clever and playful, but Bond teasing Vesper about her codename being “Stephanie Broadchest” plays less well. This nod/send-up of the franchise’s penchant for outrageous female character names feels a bit too crass and blunt for this Bond, even taking his impish streak into account. This exchange does, however, reinforce Craig’s Bond’s abhorrence for codenames.
So when Bond and Vesper check into the hotel, he defiantly chucks aside all pretense of cover story. Craig’s Bond prefers to play the spy game as a clearly-defined match between himself and his foe, having little time for what he perceives to be half-hearted subterfuge that amounts to mere pageantry. We’ll see Craig’s Bond do this again and again in the ensuing films, even as a seasoned agent.
Bond’s car gets another upgrade: now MI6 gifts him with a gadget-equipped Aston Martin DBS V12. The in-story justification is that he requires an expensive car to reinforce his backstory as a high-stakes poker player, and the DBS also serves as a vessel for smuggling in his firearm across national borders (which Bond subsequently stores with the hotel desk clerk for easy access later, a clever touch showcasing Bond’s resourcefulness).
Bond and Vesper take the Aston for a spin to rendezvous with René Mathis, a charming character who is somewhat ill-used by this film and is downright abused by its follow-up, Quantum of Solace. Mathis recalls those seasoned, world-weary allies like From Russia with Love‘s Kerim Bey, allies who are largely exposition-machines given a bit of local color and the demeanor of a energetic uncle. Mathis’ first scene, in which he demonstrates his resourcefulness by having the local chief of police (Bond producer Michael G. Wilson, in his traditional cameo appearance) framed and arrested during an afternoon lunch with Vesper, may be his best; for the bulk of the film, he’ll be reduced to over-describing the events of the poker game for the audience’s benefit. But here, he has a sparkle in his eye as he gets to show off his own expertise.
In preparation for the big game, Bond surprises Vesper with a dress, stating that he wants to use her as a visual distraction for the other players in the game. But Bond becomes somewhat indignant when he finds that Vesper has pulled the same move on him, providing him with a chic dinner jacket, noting that his own dinner jacket simply isn’t fine enough to make him look like a millionaire. (The film leaves how Vesper was able to have the jacket tailored something of a mystery. I have always imagined that Vesper requested Bond’s measurements from MI6.)
This plays into a few major strands of the Craig-era’s interpretation of the character: the “working class” streak that we’ve seen the film toy with in the preceding scenes, as well as his place as the films’ primary aesthetic object. The film lingers on Bond as he models the Brioni dinner jacket for the first time, finally clad in the character’s iconic attire. Vesper affably laughs at him, a declaration of her triumph. Bond accepts the light rebuke. He knows he’s been bested. Indeed, Bond looks terrific as he strides into the casino with a panther-like gait that recalls Connery’s own unique movement.
He’s utterly unfazed by his first meeting with Le Chiffre, who greets him with the uneasy warmth of a gladiator greeting another before a tournament. Craig and Mikkelsen anchor all of the card-playing drama that follows, and director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird do a truly wonderful job of simply building moments and exchanges just out of their expressions and gestures, constructing a rivalry that peaks during the film’s memorably nasty and intimate torture scene.
Vesper’s entrance interrupts the game. She wears the dress Bond purchased for her, but she’s unwilling to enter on his terms, choosing instead to be a distraction to Bond rather than the players at the table. Having reveled in the pleasure of seeing Bond’s physique framed by black-tie attire, the film allows us and Bond to observe Vesper in her striking dress. Bond’s open-mouth gape as she enters serves as yet another example of Craig’s under-celebrated ability to create comedy out of facial expression, something he plays with in all of these scenes where he is repeatedly challenged, frustrated, and enchanted by Vesper.
Shortly after Vesper’s entrance, Bond effectively halts the game to order his martini, a recipe taken straight from the Fleming novel (an unforgivingly hard blend of vodka and gin only slightly softened by Lillet Blanc). It’s yet another bit of distraction, as well as a declaration of Bond’s own personal affectations. As much as the moment showcases Bond’s character, the bit I always remember most belongs to Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, whose “keep the fruit” achieves a sublime mixture of preposterousness and coolness (more about Wright’s wonderful Leiter later).
So far, Casino Royale has largely let Vesper have the last word in her prickly interactions with Bond so far. As Bond collects his martini, Vesper chides him for losing so much money so quickly. Bond reveals that he’s been playing strategically; he lost big on the latest hand to identify Le Chiffre’s “tell,” an eye-twitch that shows that Le Chiffre’s bluffing. He walks away and she samples Bond’s martini, entertaining the possibility that Bond might actually know a thing or two.