It’s Bond, Jim, but not as we know him.
In just about every previous Bond film, Agent 007 is much the same person. A cunning, suave and deadly man, aged in his thirties or forties, with years of work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service behind him. Times change, but Bond does not.
Nor, as a rule, do his movies’ plots. Here’s the formula: megalomaniac hatches scheme for world domination, aided by an army of henchmen and a quirky bodyguard who is nearly as dangerous as Bond. There are two main women, one evil and doomed, the other good and destined to end the film in the all-conquering Bond’s arms.
This is not the plot of Casino Royale.
Like Batman Begins, Casino Royale hits the reset button on a franchise that had gotten increasingly over-the-top. We are back at the beginning of the legend, with Bond (Daniel Craig) killing his way to “00” status, then taking on his first big mission.
That mission involves Bond, on the orders of spy chief M (the magnificent Judi Dench), trying to smash an organization supporting terrorist groups. The trail leads him to sinister banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), and a poker game with very high stakes. Keeping an eye on the government’s money is Treasury official Vesper Lynn (Eva Green), a beautiful woman who can hold her own with Bond when it comes to cutting observations.
This is a darker and more realistic movie than any other Bond film I have seen. The gadgets are gone, as is the man who handed them out, Q, and the action stays just on the right side of believable. No invisible cars here.
In short, silly is out and serious is in.
As this grimmer hero, Craig is perfect. He has arrogance, roguish good looks, a tigerish physical presence. And his glacial blue eyes are those of a man who could kill you and not care one whit.
But he is more than just a beautiful killer. Craig has showed in arthouse films such as The Mother than he can really act, and the script lets him show his skills. We see Bond bruised. Bond failing. Bond tender. Bond introspective. Bond in love. Bond a much more interesting character.
And this is appropriate, because Casino Royale is at heart a tragedy. This is how Bond became 007 and, when you strip away the veneers of charm and selective morality, 007 is a failure as a human being.
He kills without remorse, and sometimes with pleasure. He is incapable of maintaining a loving relationship. He drinks too much. He trusts no one. Frankly, Bond is a borderline psychopath.
Many of the characters in the film realise this, including himself. This is his chance, as he says to Vesper, for him to get out with what little soul he has left.
It’s not all brooding, of course. There’s some very funny lines in Casino Royale – Lyn and Bond’s first conversation is straight out of the Bogart and Bacall school of wit – and the tension rarely lets up. The poker game is gripping and the bare-knuckle action is perhaps the best of any Bond film – the tank chase in GoldenEye excepted. And the exotic locations are as gorgeous as ever.
What stops it from being a great film is the final quarter, where the film takes too long to get to its climax and makes the mistake of introducing a new main villain. And, much as I like seeing Bond in love, it’s a bit too soppy.
The other thing that gives me doubts is where the series can go from here. Yes, in the wake of grittier, more plausible rivals such as the Jason Bourne films, the series needed a reboot. But take away the silly superhero stuff that made the likes of Die Another Day such enjoyable trash, and can we stand to watch a professional murderer shooting and shagging his way through another film? Craig’s magnetic, but not that magnetic. I suspect that even the way he fills out his blue togs (which I have on good authority is impressive) will not be enough.
Despite these reservations, and some pretty ridiculous opening credits, Casino Royale is one of the best Bond films. Kiwi director Martin Campbell, who also helmed GoldenEye, has now directed the two finest Bond films of recent decades. It’s a must-see for fans, and a good entry into the series.