Casino Royale isn't simply the best Bond film in years. It is one of the best Bond films ever.
But before I dive in, allow me to come to the defense of the oft-maligned Timothy Dalton for a moment. They tried this once before, you know. To make the Bond of the movies more like the Bond of Ian Fleming's books--darker, more brooding, more violent, more vulnerable. I think we all remember how well that went over. Despite the fact that The Living Daylights was a fine film, and one of my favorites, it was obliterated by critics and audiences alike for not having the lighter, more parodic aspects that viewers had been trained to expect during Roger Moore's tenure. Fans didn't want their Bond anything other than unflappably superhuman.
And now, the franchise is betting that audience's opinions have changed in their favor. Is it because we live in a post-9/11 world in which darkness now seems to be all around us? You can't blame the need for a more realistic Bond simply on Jason Bourne. There has to be something more. Whatever that something is, people are eating it up. Rotten Tomatoes lists Casino Royale at 96%, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year. At my showing in New York, the audience broke out in enthusiastic applause when the end credits began rolling. Something happened in the near 20 years since Timothy Dalton unsuccessfully tried to conjure an edgier Bond. We weren't ready then. We sure as hell are now, it seems.
It was time. The last Bond film, Die Another Day, was an abomination and a low watermark for how far the films had fallen. Many questioned whether or not Bond should even still be around. The Cold War was over. Did Bond even have a place in this world anymore? This film puts that rumor to bed once and for all.
Casino Royale is like no Bond film you've ever seen. This is a film about evolution. Like the sumptuous 1964 Austin Martin DB5 early on in the film and the 2006 Aston Martin DB5 in the latter half, we are allowed an intimate and often agonizing look into exactly how Bond became Bond. Timeless since his 1962 screen birth, this is James Bond's first mission and is based on Fleming's first Bond novel of the same name, never before made into a film except as a parody with David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen in 1967. When we first meet Bond in the opening moments, he is not yet a Double-O agent. That will come. But first there will have to be the growing pains.
Director Martin Campbell, who so successfully jump-started the series with Goldeneye and newcomer Pierce Brosnan, was given the same, nearly impossible task here: reinvent James Bond for the 21st Century. Take an ailing franchise on the verge of self-annihilation and retool it to fit the sensibilities of a world enshrouded beneath the specter of terrorism. Take one of the largest icons in cinema history, a movie titan with a proven 40-year-plus track record and make him bleed, make him cry, make him human.
The plot is simple. Bond must stop a banker, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who funds terrorists, from winning a casino tournament. The plot is simple. The character arc is not.
This is a Bond who does not know how to dispatch his enemies with finesse. His first kill is clumsy, messy, and in no way assured. He will, of course, get better at it. But first he must ride the learning curve. Initially he treats M (Judi Dench) with nothing but contempt; by the end, she is more loving mother than boss. When he first meets Versper Lynd (Eva Green), she subjects him to a psychological interrogation that peels back his armor and makes us realize that beneath the debonair demeanor, the heart of an all-too human man still beats. When he first puts on a tuxedo and admires himself in the mirror, he appears to realize for the first time what we already know--he was born to wear it. When he gets in a fight, he has to wash his own blood from his body and the cuts don't heal by the next scene. When he tells Vesper that he loves her, we know we've heard him say those words (or, more accurately, will hear him say those words) only once before--to the woman who, short-lived though it was, was to become his wife. When he acknowledges that his line of work swallows men's souls, it is the sort of thing to which Bond has never before admitted. When he first utters the famous line, "Bond, James Bond" they are the last lines of dialogue in the film and occur simultaneously with the first time we hear the James Bond theme. He was not worthy of it when the film began. When it ends, we know the character has found his skin.
There is no scope-shot opening, at least not in the traditional sense (what there is made me cry outloud in delight). The traditional psychedelic opening title sequence is magnificent--and there is not one woman in it, half-naked or otherwise. Almost invisible are the quips and one-liners. When Bond orders a vodka Martini, he has to be asked if he wants it shaken or stirred. "Do I look like I give a damn," he replies.
Don't think this film is only about what is left out. It injects plenty too. Casino Royale easily has some of the most audacious and jaw-dropping stunt work and action set-peices the series has ever seen. Remember Ursula Andress' iconic walk up the beach? It's repeated here, only this time the focalization is far less chauvinistic--this time it's all about the female gaze. There is a torture scene that, in the words of one critic, makes a mockery of the film's PG-13 rating. Intense? Yes. But the scene in and of itself is indicative of the entire film's restructuring. This is not a torture scene about lasers and Bond's famous, sophisticated resolve under pressure. This is pure, blunt trauma. It is, in a word, harrowing.
Composer David Arnold scores the film as if he is channeling John Barry, who provided most of the music for the pre-Brosnan films. However, while the Brosnan films relied heavily on electronic scores, Casino Royale's score is lush and orchestral and unmistakably a throwback to the earlier films.
I was wrong about Daniel Craig. Dead wrong. Initially skeptical and even a bit hostile to the choice, he is the absolute perfect person to bring Bond, kicking and screaming, into modernity. Handsome, but with a rugged menace, Craig is nearly everything the implacable Pierce Brosnan was not. And that's exactly the point.
I wonder, having opened Pandora's Box, can they ever close it again? Will we never again see Bond smooth and slightly tongue in cheek, or is the darker, grittier, more vulnerable Bond here to stay? Perfect for this film, will it prove as successful for the franchise overall? That remains to be seen. But God knows I'll be watching from my front-row seat, both shaken and stirred.