Casino Royale is the new James Bond film — a modern-day prequel that is the 21st official film in the series, but is based on the very first Bond novel Ian Fleming ever wrote.
What’s more easily understood about this Casino Royale, which marks the debut of Daniel Craig as the sixth film Bond, is that it’s as exciting action-wise but more rewarding than previous efforts — namely a Bond that’s more hard-charging and unhinged than we’re used to seeing.
The series and character didn’t need a dire do-over like Batman, but this is surprising and fresh while still bearing Bond stamps of globetrotting (eight locations around the globe), gee-whiz moments (a cop car sucked into a jumbo-jet’s backwash during a raging airport-tarmac chase) and Bond girls (although Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is smarter and more substantial than most).
But the film, like its $70-million budget, feels scaled-back all around. No double entendres, as Bond foregoes bedding one beauty to chase her henchman husband to Miami. Villain Le Chiffre is an asthmatic with a scarred, filmy left eye that weeps blood, and even that is medically explained. Odder still, Bond drives a Ford. But fear not. He finds his way into an Aston Martin soon enough.
That scene is part of the charm Craig carries as Bond — still suave, just more violent and vulnerable. He misinterprets signals, screws up, receives serious reprimands and bleeds — a lot. His face and hands, at one point, look as if they have been scratched with staples.
Craig can make Bond’s demeanor as craggy and weary as his new face. Once this Bond gets that hunt-down look in his eye, only a kill can wipe it out. Craig could have been as dour as Timothy Dalton was, but as a “blunt instrument,” he has an animalistic charisma. At one point, he’s even microchipped by his boss M (a returning Judi Dench), like a dog that runs away.
Throwing 9/11 in for realism, even as a passing reference, feels a little too intrusive, and the aforementioned conclusion is Royale with cheese — so much that there must be one last twist. But a great, gritty sense of gravity has been applied to a series that usually shreds laws of physics.
Even the typical action prologue is short, tough and in black-and-white. We see Bond before his 00 designation, assigned once an MI-6 agent scores two kills. One is all stealth; another is a brutal drowning — in a public-bathroom sink, no less — before a finishing shot from his Walther pistol.
Once he gets 00 status, Bond’s initial mission is bringing in a suicide bomber working for Ugandan terrorists — a task that goes wildly awry when he must use his brute force. Injecting the swift, dangerous French art of parkour — jumping, vaulting and climbing tall structures and squeezing through small spaces — into the sequence adds a delightfully old-school thrill.
Resident Bond scriptwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (along with Crash writer Paul Haggis) meet an invigorating challenge to match engaging action to the stripped-down mentality. It’s brilliantly filmed gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, car chases and perfectly measured explosions.
Bond follows the bomber’s money trail to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an odds-savvy poker genius as well as a terrorist middleman. Attempting to re-pay those who funded the bombing Bond prevented, Le Chiffre hosts a Texas Holdem tournament with a $150-million payout. (That the prize is $8 million less than Die Another Day‘s budget is a humorous coincidence.) Ever taunting, Le Chiffre allows Bond, no poker slouch himself, into the game, knowing he’s a secret agent.
The British government stakes Bond $10 million for the game, but forces a watchdog in treasury agent Vesper. Their flirtation isn’t just a bridge to a bedroom tussle, but has substance, sass, uncertainty and a genuine connection, albeit one not as strong for where the film’s third act goes.
Where the poker could have been boring flips of cards and chips, the casino scenes instead play as a charismatic, gutsy battle of wills, with a stairwell sword attack and a cardiac arrest for good measure. There’s also room for fine supporting work from Giancarlo Giannini (as an Italian pointman for Bond in Montenegro) and Jeffrey Wright (as Felix Leiter, Bond’s buddy in the CIA).
One thing we’re not used to seeing Bond do is recuperate, the only point at which the 150-minute movie begins to drag. There must be outtakes where Craig busted up in laughter at the blubbering-schoolboy soliloquies he’s asked to deliver to Green.
And while the climactic action sequence is its least interesting, its conclusion plants character seeds for everything we’ve come in knowing about Bond — emotional detachment, a trust-no-one attitude, even his ultimate reliance on gadgets given the beatings he receives without them.
Casino Royale might shake and stir the series’ continuity into a cloudy whirl, but it’s simply the best Bond movie in more than a decade.