Post 9/11, society was crying out for realism as much as escapism in its action hero movies. The Bourne films meant every leading male actor tasked with saving the world had to endure a few more bruises in the pursuit of the punch-perfect action movie. Enter a new James Bond in one of the most iconic movies ever—Casino Royale.
Was Casino Royale the best James Bond film? Was it Daniel Craig’s finest hour? And, perhaps most pivotally, did the poker scenes help or hinder the movie as it went all-in for greatness? We take a reflective look back at the legacy of a classic movie and its roots in the greatest card game on Earth.
Dealing Drama from the Beginning
When he was announced as the new James Bond, Daniel Craig famously arrived for the press launch via a literal launch in the form of a speedboat. Sadly for Craig, so effective was his nausea on the ride that his pallor and shock of sun-whitened hair led to him being dubbed ‘James Blonde’ on the cover of a British tabloid.
If it was an inauspicious beginning, it was a false one. Daniel Craig’s James Bond was launched, and from the very first scene, audiences were gripped. With makers rewinding the history of Bond to effectively give the latest version a full reboot, this new 007 was a first-time double-o agent, and the opening scene ended with both his first and second kills.
The theme, entitled “You Know My Name,” was written and performed by the late, great Chris Cornell, and the artwork in the background was a pulsating montage of poker themes as the casino lifestyle of the film’s title was brought to stunning visual life in the opening credits.
Poker Scenes Divide Opinion for Bond Fans
Casino Royale had a poker consultant on set to monitor the authenticity of the movie’s moments that play out at the poker table. The final showdown, where Bond takes on the terrorism financier Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen) in a high-stakes No-Limit Hold’em poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro is one that splits opinion. On the one hand, it is truly enthralling to watch, and on the other, it was proclaimed too fanciful to be realistically dramatic. Was the poker consultant asleep at the wheel, or did the filmmakers choose to ignore sense in deference to sentiment?
Bond is first busted by the enigmatic Le Chiffre, who uses a fake ‘tell’ of an eye that weeps blood. Bond, tilted at having his original stake taken, manages to broker a rebuy from the FBI, but not before he’s almost killed during the add-on break. It’s genuinely dramatic, and despite knowing—at this stage of the franchise’s history, anyway—that ‘James Bond cannot die,’ poker and Bond fans alike were genuinely on the edge of their seats.
Returning to his seat, Bond transforms from poker schmuck to card sharp. Turning Le Chiffre’s perception of him on its head, our hero manages to get his opponent to get all his chips in with the worst of it on a completed board. The only problem? Almost every aspect of the final hand stretches the limits of believability to breaking point.
For a start, each player gets their chips in while being oblivious to the most basic knowledge of fold equity. Add to that a comical disregard for chip values—one player (main picture) powerfully raises all five fingers of his right hand to symbolize a big blind for each finger!—and a statistically unimaginable set of hole cards for the four final players, and it’s a car crash in poker form.
Just try to look away from the action as it plays out.
Having won the poker game, Bond wins the day, as Le Chiffre ends up paying for his foolhardy overvaluing of ace-six offsuit with his life. Sure, Bond ends up losing even more than money after the poker game, but he won at cards, fulfilling one of the oldest clichés in the book in the process. Lucky at cards…
The Legacy of Casino Royale
To date, the metrics posted by Casino Royale mark it out as arguably the most successful of all the 25 EON produced James Bond films. Making $606 million at the box office on a budget of $150 million, it is the second-most profitable production behind 2012’s Skyfall. In critical terms, the movie rating site Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 94%, which is better than any film other than the taut opening trio of Dr No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, all of which were directly based on Ian Fleming’s literary masterpieces. The movie even sits atop IMDB’s Favorite Bond Film Poll.
Here were the results:
IMDB Ranked Best to Worst James Bond Movies
Casino Royale (2006)On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)Skyfall (2012)Goldfinger (1964)GoldenEye (1995)From Russia with Love (1963)No Time to Die (2021)Licence to Kill (1989)The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)Octopussy (1983)The Living Daylights (1987)You Only Live Twice (1967)Live and Let Die (1973)The World Is Not Enough (1999)Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)For Your Eyes Only (1981)Quantum of Solace (2008)Thunderball (1965)Dr. No (1962)Moonraker (1979)Die Another Day (2002)Spectre (2015)A View to a Kill (1985)The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)Diamonds Are Forever (1971)Never Say Never Again (1983)
In poker terms, Casino Royale’s scenes at the poker felt have gone down in history, both as iconic and highly watchable movie clips, but also as examples of celluloid poker that bears no correlation with reality. They make little sense as examples of a poker game, and yet work fantastically as ways of moving the plot of the movie on in entertaining ways.
Perhaps the final scene of the movie is actually a nod to the conclusion of winning a poker tournament. If you’ve ever outlasted every other player in an event, no matter what the buy-in or top prize, you’ve probably felt as cool as Bond finally does, standing above his last-conquered-enemy on the steps of Mr. White’s Lake Como estate.
Casino Royale stands as a pivotal and iconic installment in the James Bond franchise, blending gripping action, compelling characters, and unforgettable poker scenes. Do you agree with our take on the movie’s impact, or do you have a different perspective? In the vast universe of Bond films, which one do you believe deserves the title of the best?