In many ways Casino Royale represents a rebirth of the Bond franchise. Not only do we have a new Bond in Daniel Craig, but Casino Royale is an origin story. There is no longer any ambiguity about why Bond seems to get younger as time marches on. There is no more continuation of Bond moving from Cold War to Post-Cold War. This is a new character who has just been promoted to 00-status in MI6, and his inexperience shows throughout the film and is a major factor in how the story develops.
This is also the strongest debut by any Bond in the series. Daniel Craig took to the role immediately and he owns the role from the prologue through the end credits. He has a presence not seen since Sean Connery and is the most complete Bond since Connery as well, while also utilizing the strongest elements of Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan without any of the silliness of Roger Moore. What I liked about Timothy Dalton was that he was a more serious and brooding Bond, which was more similar to the character from the books. The problem with Dalton was that he never felt fully engaged as the character. Craig has that same brooding, but feels much more invested in becoming Bond. Pierce Brosnan carried himself with a calm sophistication, and Craig certainly has those attributes as well but he plays them more subtly. There are scenes in Tomorrow Never Dies and GoldenEye where Brosnan goes out of his way to show Bond as unflappable, whereas Craig shows that same unflappability in a more effortless way. Connery has always been the most well-rounded Bond, showing equal parts sophistication and brutality and equal parts humor and emotion. Craig, while having some understated moments of humor, is much more tapped into his emotions than any of his predecessors. One way we see that with Daniel Craig is Bond’s reliance on alcohol. Every Bond has had his martinis and champagne socially, but for the first time we see in Casino Royale Bond using alcohol as a crutch and to take the edge off. This is a guy who potentially has a drinking problem, and that helps humanize him with a tangible weakness that is more obvious than any of his predecessors.
Another sign of the series’ rebirth is the lack of familiar Bond motifs. He has a cool car in this film, but it doesn’t have any weapons attached to it. There is also no Q in this film, and other than his high tech first aid kit, there are no high tech gadgets to help Bond along his way. He has to rely totally on his wits and guile if he wants to seize the sword. We are also reintroduced to Felix Leiter, who is now an African American CIA agent, and becomes an indispensable ally to Bond once again.
One thing that Casino Royale does that had eluded most of the Brosnan films is that it finds a balance between action and story. As the series moved through its fifth decade, the action sequences had to be taken to another level to compare with other espionage series like Mission: Impossible and the Bourne films. This film does that, but not at the expense of the story. Yes, there are some long and intense action sequences like the foot chase through the construction site that ends up in a foreign embassy and the chase on the runway of the Miami airport. However, the story is deep and intriguing. International terrorism financier Le Chiffre has lost a fortune due to Bond’s interference and has to set up a high stakes poker game in order to win back the money that he owes the terrorists he recently financed. Bond, being an expert poker player, is entered into the contest so that he can win the tournament and thus offer immunity to Le Chiffre so that they can find out who he’s financing and who the bigger players are behind him.
The pacing of the film is also interesting in that most of the first half is non stop action, and then the poker tournament slows the pacing way down, but it’s no less intense. That’s because the story is intriguing and the characters are engaging. Le Chiffre is under the threat of the terrorists so his motivation is clear, and unlike other Bond villains, he has something to fear himself. Bond also shows his human side by allowing his hubris to lead him to making a bad bet that temporarily takes him out of the game until Leiter comes to his rescue. There are some action sequences sprinkled in, like Bond chasing the terrorists in the stairwell, and after he’s poisoned and has to use the defibrillator on himself, but for the most part, the second act is all about the story.
Speaking of Le Chiffre, he’s the best, most memorable Bond villain since Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me. He has many of the best elements of Bond villains in that he has the ability to outsmart Bond and he has sophistication to match his ruthlessness. However, Le Chiffre has the added element of fearing for his own skin like no other Bond villain before him. This unique attribute helps to make Le Chiffre one of the great villains of the series, as his desperation makes him willing to resort to anything, including masochistic cruelty, to get what he needs.
Vesper Lynd is the Bond girl in Casino Royale, and she’s one of the top Bond girls in the series. Like Le Chiffre, what makes her such a great Bond girl is her depth. She’s much more than just a pretty face, and her issues help to propel the story into places that it wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t for her particular character issues. She isn’t as independent as Domino or Melina Havelock or Anya Amasova, but her role in the story is compelling and has a nice twist at the end. She turns out to be braver than almost any Bond girl in the series, and she’s certainly the deepest character of any Bond girl.
What Casino Royale offers that most Bond films don’t is depth. There’s depth of character and depth of story that only the very top Bond films like Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and The Spy Who Loved Me have had. This is not only a great Bond film. This is a great film that even someone who is not a fan of the Bond series could enjoy.