You can tell right from the start that Casino Royale is cut from a different mold than the previous twenty James Bond films. For one, the pre-credits sequence features a brutal, drawn-out fight scene that is very atypical for the film series, which usually prefers its violence more stylized and sanitized. The credit sequence also breaks with Bond custom, which usually emphasized the female nude in discreet silhouette, this time depicting violence against male figures without a single naked girl in sight.
Daniel Craig’s first outing as Ian Fleming’s classic super-spy feels like they tore down a Trump casino and built an army barracks in its place. Compared to everything since Goldfinger, this Bond feels lean, stripped-down and no-nonsense. Gone is the dapper quip machine with an impossible arsenal of convenient gadgets that never let his hair get mussed. This “old-is-new-again” Bond is less polished and more brutal when it’s necessary, more in keeping when Fleming’s original vision of “double-oh” agents as Her Majesty’s hit men.
After all the Internet whining about Daniel Craig being all wrong to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, I’m happy to report that it was all a whole lot of noise. Craig slides into the role as effortlessly as anyone since Connery. He won’t make anyone forget the original but he is the perfect Bond for the new century.
Casino Royale takes the Batman Begins approach of executing a complete reset of the franchise, which is certainly a risky move for a forty-year-old film series. We find James Bond as a newly-minted “double-oh” agent pursuing a ring of arms dealers who are supplying the world’s terrorists. His less-than-subtle methods, which include a vertigo-inducing chase sequence through a construction site and ends with Bond shooting a man in full view of security cameras on the grounds of an African embassy, succeed mostly in publicly embarrassing his boss, M (once again played with frosty vinegar by Judi Dench).
He uses a forced vacation in the Bahamas to defy his orders and continue the search, which includes seducing the wife of the next guy up the ladder in the arms dealing organization and preventing the terrorist destruction of a prototype airliner.
After M bails him out of jail, she gives him one more shot at their real target, a man known as Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the “banker to the world’s terrorists” who likes to gamble with his customers’ money. Rather than kill the man, Bond is supposed to take his money in a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em, forcing him to seek the protection of MI6. Sent along to protect Her Majesty’s government’s money is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a shapely MI6 accountant.
Another element that what makes this movie surprisingly different from Bonds 1 through 20, is how it takes a relatively quiet second act, which centers mostly around a poker game, and makes it tense and exciting. Bond-purists made blanch at the though of 007 playing Texas Hold ‘Em instead of Chemin de Fer, but for once he is playing a game that most of the audience has A) heard of and B) understands.
Bond’s relationship with Vesper is also considerably more modern and equal than the usual clichéd Bond romance. Craig’s 007 may be emotionally distant and a bit self-involved but this film lets the female lead get under his skin, setting up the film’s very different third act.
Refreshingly, we are also spared the obligatory scene in which the villain, having captured our hero, regales him with unnecessarily detailed exposition about his plan for world domination, giving Bond the chance to escape and defeat these plans. When Le Chiffre has 007 in his grasp, his approach is more direct (and brutal in a way that pushes the limits of the film’s well-earned PG-13 rating).
Many other elements familiar to past Bond audiences are visibly absent, including characters like Moneypenny and Q, but they are not particularly missed. The quip-heavy dialog has also been pared down to something that actually resembles wit. This is easily the best-written installment of the Bond franchise in more than forty years.
By taking a film series that had grown into an unwieldy dinosaur weighed down with clichés, stripping it down to it basics and casting an actor with a refreshingly unaffected approach to the character, the producers have accomplished what some might have thought impossible. They have made James Bond relevant for today’s audiences and proven that the old man still has something for that punk-assed nancy-boy Jason Bourne.