This is the Bond movie they should have made all along. Casino Royale brings the James Bond franchise to where it always needed to be; it's to Bond what Batman Begins (or perhaps Batman: Year One) was to that comic-book hero. If they never make another Batman movie I will not be unhappy, and if they never make another Bond film I will always have this one. Harlan Ellison once lavished praise on one of Philip Jose Farmer's stories in his Dangerous Visions collection by saying that it was "the best — no, make that the finest story in this book." That degree of praise was tailor-made for this film, as it's both the best and the finest of the Bonds thus far.
Nobody needs to be convinced of the diminishing returns of the last several Bond movies; they were typically big movers at the box office, but they were also tilting into self-parody. I didn't even bother with Die Another Day, and was on the verge of tuning the franchise out entirely when the Bond-merchants announced the next film would be Casino Royale. That and the new Bond was going to be Daniel Craig, who I had admired enormously in Layer Cake; he had the gritty, sober realism that the series badly needed a stiff shot of. I defended him as Bond sight unseen, and now that I have seen the film I don't regret it one bit. Royale was one of the first Bonds in many respects — the first one Ian Fleming wrote, and the first to be to be brought to the screen (in 1954, for TV's Climax Mystery Theater) — and so it makes conceptual sense to reboot the series by coming full circle in many ways.
Meet the new Bond, but he's not the same as the old Bond:
this one's a stone-cold torpedo for Her Majesty, and he knows it.
The reason Casino works as well as it does, I think, is because it takes all of the things we know and love from the Bond movies and then systematically re-grounds each of them in reality. Maybe a reality that's a little spicier than the one we live in, but a reality nonetheless. When the film opens, we see Bond not as a suave playboy, but as a sullen torpedo who also happens to be a British agent. He earns his 00 rating in those very first scenes, and the cold precision with which he goes about the job tells us everything we need to know. We may not like this guy, but at the same time we can't help but want to see what he does next, and there is no better definition I know of for a protagonist than someone who is compulsively watchable. And from there Bond plunges into a stupefyingly good action sequence that pits him against a parkour-running bomb maker in a construction site; those of you who saw Jackie Chan's Mr. Nice Guy might say this scene is homage, but I call it one-upsmanship.
The film also wisely leaves in all the things which already worked — like M (Judi Dench), all steely sinews in her face as she dresses down Bond for throwing away a perfectly good lead on a dangerous criminal enterprise. "Any thug can kill," she tells him. "I need you to take your ego out of the equation," and become, as Bond puts it, "half-monk, half-hitman." He must, in short, become more like the Bond we know, and so the story we see is essentially his Year One — how he survives a trial-by-fire to become not just a better Bond or a better 00 agent, but in some ways even a better person. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to see if he can tangle with the monsters of the modern world without becoming one of them, and the fact that he has the backing of a world power doesn't shield him from his own corruption, or his own weakness. Bond is also quite touchable and mortal in this movie, as we find out, and towards the end of the movie Bond is put through the kind of hell we've not seen in the series before.
The quarry: a financier of international terrorism.
The ploy: A high-stakes poker game where you might lose more than your money.
Another departure from tradition is obvious from the start: there is no mission briefing to set the stage for us. We are as much in the dark about what's really going on as Bond is, and like him, we have to follow along and pick up the pieces. The bomb maker at the beginning of the film leaves enough clues behind for Bond to connect him to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of "revolutionaries" (read: terrorism) with a missing eye, an asthmatic wheeze and a lisp that all come off as more tragic than sinister. Each step on the ladder that Bond takes towards Le Chiffre threatens to snap and plunge him into danger, and when one of those rungs does snap, the movie cheerfully pulls out the stops and supplies us with an action sequence. The action is as absurd as any Bond movie, but at the same time that much more credible, precisely because this Bond is in it. I mentioned the opening chase, but there's another one slightly less than midway through the film, a dazzling piece of work in an airport that is jaw-dropping; I know that some of it was faked, but it's impossible to tell which parts, and so I just caved in and let it happen.
Other things have been left in, but wisely tempered to fit the film as a whole. There is a Bond Girl — actually, there are two, and they're both handled with a degree of poignancy and taste that the Bond films haven't shown before. The main female lead is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the Crown's Treasury representative and Bond's money (wo)man for the deeper and darker parts of Bond's operation, who cheerfully tells him that if he screws this up, Her Majesty's government will have indirectly sponsored terrorism. For Bond, this is just a raising of the stakes, and when he flirts right back with Lynd it's a sexual tennis match that he doesn't think he deserves to lose (and hilarious to boot). "You're not my type," he tells her. "Smart?" she replies. "Single." What matters most to him is not winning, but defying the odds, and that defines a good deal of his behavior throughout the movie, both in and out of bed. It also colors his later behavior with Lynd: at one point she is forced to deal with the messier parts of his job and does not come through as untouched as he does, and there is a very touching scene with the two of them in a shower, doing their best to reconcile their humanity.
This time, the Bond Girl's not just a girl — she's a fully-developed character that
Bond shares a great deal more with than we ever expect him to.
The only way for Bond to get as close as he can to Le Chiffre is to play at his card table — Hold 'Em Poker — and when Bond does, he announces himself to his opponent quite brazenly. Why? Because he knows Le Chiffre is hurting (the incident at the airport put a giant hole in his funding), and this is the best way to snare him. Bond is not crazy, he just understands a little too much about the psychology of the man he's dealing with, and wants to challenge him on his own turf. The way this unfolds — and explodes — forms the entire second half of the film, and it's a measure of the movie's excellence that the card-table sequences are no less nervy than the gunplay. There is also one of the more delightfully creative uses of high-tech in the Bond series I've seen yet, where Bond is poisoned and has to give himself a detox and a defibrillation by remote control.
When I was younger and knew nothing of the details of Bond fandom, I had a few theories about Bond that seemed more right the more I saw of the films. One was that there was no "Bond" — the persona was simply a role, a certain set of traits that MI6 had created and then populated with one particularly well-suited "actor" after another. Ditto M and Q and Felix Leiter, and maybe even Blofeld as well: they were draftees, so to speak, who played specific parts in the drama of world espionage. Some of that was my own rationalization for why there was a different Bond every few movies — something like the explanation for why there were so many Doctors in Dr. Who — but it seemed an oddly fitting conceit. That in turn made me think: what a lonely thing it must be to be Bond. To have all of that and yet possess none of it; what a cheerless existence it must be. Small wonder he seems to almost relish the disasters that get thrown at him. We, like him, have to have our illusions: he has his role to define him, and we have him to root for.
Under it all, the movie just plain delivers on every level, especially in the face-rattling action department.
But under it all, Casino Royale is a textbook exercise in how to make a perfect franchise picture. Give us a strong story, a charismatic hero, a sexy woman, interesting things to look at, shoot it all well, make it move fast, and don't insult the audience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things well. In fact, there's everything right about doing them well, since they are so rarely done well to begin with.