Having completed his first two kills, James Bond (Craig) is promoted to 00 status. While M (Dench) isn’t sure that he’s ready, she sends him to stop terrorist financer Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen) from winning a high-stakes poker match in Montenegro. Accompanied by MI6 treasury official Vepser Lynd (Green), whom he falls for, Bond soon learns the hardships of the job…
While Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond got off to a flying start with Goldeneye, his tenure quickly snowballed into generic tedium with a run of increasingly-tiresome efforts which hugged the run-into-the-ground Bond formula like a fitted tuxedo. Hitting an all-time low with the universally-paned disaster that was Die Another Day, for the first time the series was on the verge of being considered unessential to cinema, and the production team decided something drastic had to be done. And how right they were. Far better than anyone was expecting, Casino Royale is a surprisingly satisfying triumph which not only makes 007 interesting again, but it’s arguably the best Bond movie to date.
Of course, the Bond series being purged and rebooted is nothing new (it happens every few years when things grow too excessive or stale), but here the result is a noticeable departure. Despite coming from a familiar creative team (helmer Martin Campbell previously rebooted the franchise with the aforementioned Goldeneye), the back-to-basics approach means no Miss Moneypenny, no Q, no ridiculously-specific gadgets and no pervasive use of Monty Norman’s theme tune. Sure, we get globe-trotting, big stunts and bedable babes, but the decision to strip the typical Bondian blueprint is hugely refreshing.
Plus, there’s a significantly harder edge. Yes, the three main set-pieces still have a tendency to go too big (the finale didn’t need all the collapsing buildings) while occasionally feeling like overlong hangovers from the Brosnan era (see the unnecessary airport sequence). But on the whole, the action boasts a sense of danger which the series has rarely achieved. The stunt work is often truly impressive, but it’s in the smaller-scale dust-ups that we really feel the brutality, with the mood being set by a gritty, monochromatic pre-credits opening (which finds a neat way to introduce the famous gun barrel shot). So this Bond can get hurt. This Bond bares facial cuts. And this Bond ends up in a nursing home. Gone are the days where Roger or Pierce would casually toss their slings aside.
But still, the movie’s biggest success is Daniel Craig. Though his casting was initially met with huge uproar and lots of premature panning (one extreme naysayer even formed a website), The Man With The Golden Hair delivers an unquestionably triumphant debut. He’s impressively physical, appropriately stylish and convincingly lethal, but also – most importantly – refreshingly human. The first Bond to attempt some real acting (besides Timothy Dalton’s underrated run which audiences weren’t ready for), we see 007 earning his status, forming a drink habit and adopting his penchant for fitted clobber. Far from the pun-spouting caricature we’re used to, this Bond feels the weight of his job and Craig excels in the smaller, post-death moments (his reaction after a drowning makes for what is arguably the series’ most affecting scene). Make us feel it does he? Yes, considerably.
Admittedly though, the first half (which was written specifically for the movie) is reasonably familiar stuff. But as soon as we head to Montenegro, the second half (which is essentially Fleming’s original novel) takes the story into interesting, unpredictable directions. With regular scripters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade given script-polishing assistance from Paul Haggis, the dialogue is frequently sharp and features some cracking lines (the “shaken or stirred?” reply is an instant classic). There are still niggles (see the blatant product placement), but the movie gets so much right you don’t care. Plus, Mads Mikkelsen is a cut above the normal moustache-twirling megalomaniacs.
Whilst replacing the usual villain face-off with a poker match is welcome change of pace (there’s more tension between Bond and Le Chiffre at the table than a dozen baddie monologues), the superior second half really sings due to the addition of Vesper Lynd. With Eva Green enjoying some spiky chemistry with Craig, our hero’s first meaningful relationship since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service adds an unexpectedly affecting element of tragedy, which is complemented by David Arnold’s quietly-haunting score. Additionally, Judi Dench might be a continuity nightmare returning as M, but she’s worth it (“Christ I miss the Cold War!”), while Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini add fine support.
Reinvigorating our interest in the Bond franchise, Casino Royale is a surprisingly satisfying triumph. We might not have the Bond, James Bond that we know and love until that music kicks in and those words are finally uttered, but we do, as Chris Cornell’s storming theme suggests, know his name. Welcome back 007, we’ve been expecting you.