I won’t lie to you – I usually don’t like Bond films. I can stomach the older ones because they tend to be campy, but in general I find Bond dull – a collection of clichés and conceits instead of characterization. It isn’t any secret that your hero will always triumph at the end of any given movie, so the only reason to sit through the thing is if you care about the character. And I could never care about Bond.
Until now. Daniel Craig is a James Bond I can back. A lot is made of the fact that Craig is playing Bond as a newbie – we see him earn his Double 0 license to kill in the pre-credits sequence – and while watching this guy learn the ropes is interesting, what really makes this Bond work is Craig. And what he brings to the character is something I think he would bring to Bond even after ten films – basic humanity.
When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created Indiana Jones, they were trying to make their own Bond. They ended up with a character much less superheroic than Bond while still retaining his charm and his guts and his inventiveness. I feel like Casino Royale – the very best Bond film since Sean Connery was just starting out – presents us with a Bond more in line with Indiana Jones than Roger Moore, and I’m not just saying that because the film has a rough and tumble fistfight in the cab of a moving truck. Daniel Craig’s Bond feels scaled to a realistic level – you believe that this guy could actually be running around and doing most of these things.
That scale is reflected in the film’s action set pieces. The pre-credits sequence, done in black and white, is a gritty, personal assassination. After the animated credits (scored to Chris Cornell’s terrible song – at least one Bond tradition is upheld in this reboot) the film heads to some gorgeous, exotic locale or another where director Martin Campbell gives us a scene that defines the new 007. Bond has to chase down a le parkour expert bomb maker, and the chase ends up at a construction site and a crane hundreds of feet above a stunning beach. It’s spectacular but it’s believable… enough. Bond doesn’t have jet loafers or a laser conch or anything – he has to beat this opponent, who outclasses him physically, with his wits.
Craig’s Bond has a roughness, a streetwise sense, yet it doesn’t keep him from being at home in a tux. This Bond is brash, making mistakes based on overconfidence and cockiness, but he’s not a fool – while Bond is overconfident, most of his cockiness comes from underestimating his opponents. Casino Royale is all about Bond learning hard lessons – physically and emotionally.
The film’s plot, which is apparently very faithful to the book, is quite simple – James Bond is the best card player in MI-6, so he is sent to the Casino Royale where banker to the terrorists Le Chiffre is having an exclusive card game with a 10 million dollar buy-in. Bond’s mission is to bankrupt Le Chiffre, who plays with his clients’ money, so that he has to turn to MI-6 for safety and spill everything he knows about global terrorist networks. Aiding Bond is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) a British Treasury agent who just happens to be devastatingly beautiful. She’s to keep an eye on Bond and the game, which allows him a second 5 million dollar buy-in if he busts.
Of course there are sparks. And of course there’s action at the card table. What’s impressive is how the film keeps the card playing exciting even for someone like me, who wouldn’t know a royal flush from a Flushed Away – and most of that comes down to Craig and Mads Mikkelson, the Danish actor who plays Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is a classic Bond baddie re-imagined for the modern day. Cool, calm, collected and blind in one eye – which occasionally weeps blood – Le Chiffre is a brutal and yet appealingly vulnerable villain.
It’s vulnerability that makes Casino Royale work. Bond is troubled, learning to accept the deadly consequences of his actions. Le Chiffre is terrified that he’s one step away from being chopped to pieces by an African warlord who wants his money back. Vesper is tough on the outside but bloodshed brings out her frightened interior. Granted that in a drama these aren’t the models of character complexity, but this is a Bond film, for the love of God! These people are almost Shakespearean in comparison to the cartoon characters in Die Another Day.
I see a lot of reviewers saying that Casino Royale is lean and mean. Mean I can understand, but they must be using lean in a context I don’t get – the film is too long by twenty minutes, and it foists a Return of the King-beating series of faux endings on us. Luckily they work (although I could have done without the final action scene, in a sinking building in Venice – it feels like the kind of glossy, over the top action that the rest of the film carefully eschews), and even though I wish the movie had been much shorter, the final moments left me excited to see the next Bond film. I would have sat right there in my seat if someone had told me that the sequel was about to unspool. It seems like it took the Bond creators four decades to figure out that the best way to end your franchise picture is to leave the audience clamoring for more.
Daniel Craig is signed for three films. Consider me in for all of them. At one point in the film a poisoned Bond has to give himself an electric shock to restart his heart – Craig is that shock, revitalizing a bloated and boring series of increasingly expensive jokes. For the first time ever, James Bond is tough, smart, sexy, smooth, witty… and sort of three-dimensional. Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Bond.