Much of James Bond’s half-century appeal is the fact that he is good at everything. Fighting, killing, running, jumping, driving, fucking—everything. Not only that, but we expect him to be good at everything. When he enters an extremely high-stakes ($10 million buy-in) winner-take-all Texas Hold ‘Em tournament in Montenegro, we fully expect him to win.
007 does win, of course, but the tension throughout makes for the greatest poker scene in film history, bar none.
First of all, Daniel Craig is by far the most badass Bond in the franchise’s history. He may not be the consummate professional that Sean Connery was or half the pussy-hound Roger Moore was, but Craig brings a ruthless, modern sensibility, along with a surplus of steel-eyed charisma.
Sean Connery may have bested Goldfinger on the golf course, but Daniel Craig’s James Bond was born to play cards.
Secondly, the scene-setting is perfect, the geography of the game room clearly laid out. We know the entrances and exits, the elevation, where the bar is located—we even begin to know who is sitting next to whom.
Likewise, the dealer is basically the James Bond of dealers. Thanks for running a smooth game, buddy!
The game is basically Bond versus main villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), who makes an excellent foil throughout the film. But it’s not like the other eight players aren’t there, either. Their presence is still felt, making this tourney highly realistic.
Director Martin Campbell—who also directed Pierce Brosnan in 1995’s GoldenEye—takes his time with the poker scenes, letting the tension build through sustained silence and the occasional commentary from the dealer.
The close-up glares of Bond and Le Chiffre from across the table bring us right into the game. We are in Bond’s shoes. Is Le Chiffre holding? Is he bluffing? Is he cheating? What does it mean when he keeps putting his finger to his forehead?
Likewise, the big hands—and the hefty bets that go with them—keep things very interesting. Bond goes all-in with a kings-over-aces full house, but loses to Le Chiffre’s four-of-a-kind jacks. The final hand, after Bond has bought back in for 5 mill (no big deal, right?), features the greatest showdown of all. James Bond being James Bond, he catches the straight flush for the dramatic victory.
Often, the spirit of competitive games does not translate well to film. Casino Royale, at least in my opinion, contains some of the finest portrayal of sport—if you consider poker to be a sport—that I’ve ever seen.
Yet the violent intermissions are what empower the tension at the table. Bond goes to hell and back during the game’s scheduled breaks. When I play poker, I usually have a smoke or take a piss. 007, on the other hand, finds the time to kill Madagascar thugs between hands.
During one intermission, Bond’s heart literally stops—his martini having been poisoned by Le Chiffre—and he is revived at the last second by Vesper. Dude literally comes back from the dead and owns everyone with the most amazing straight flush in cinematic history.
Game. Set. Match.