The announcement of the fair-haired, blue-eyed Daniel Craig as the new James Bond resulted in a wave of criticism worldwide. Websites deluged Sony Pictures with online petitions. UK tabloids screamed heresy for changing the Bond archetype. The doubters and naysayers will be eating a mouthful of crow this weekend, because "Casino Royale" is unmistakably the best Bond film in thirty years. Not since the seventies "The Spy Who Loved Me" have we seen a Bond film that is truly excellent from start to finish. Daniel Craig brings a toughness and edge long absent from the role. He plays Bond as Ian Flemming truly imagined him, a deadly assassin beholden only to Queen and country.
"Casino Royale" was the first James Bond novel and is the re-launch of the franchise here. The film begins brilliantly with Bond achieving his '00', Double O status, by killing two traitors for the British Secret Intelligence Service, a.k.a. MI6. He then follows the trail of dirty money to Africa and has a not-so-secret scuffle with a terrorist bombmaker. The repercussions of which causes a public relations nightmare for MI6. 'M', once again played superbly by Judi Dench, is furious and puts the newly assigned '007' on notice. But Bond doesn't give up, he finds out that the money belongs to a terrorist banker knows as 'Le Chiffre' (Mads Mikkelsen). And that Le Chiffre is holding an invite-only poker tournament for $100 million dollars at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. The British government decides to stake Bond in this tournament and assigns him an accountant, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), to oversee the money. Bond enters the game only to find out there is a deeper conspiracy and greater threat than he ever imagined.
James Bond in "Casino Royale" is the character at his fecund point. It is an origin story, so he isn't the suave super spy we've come to expect. Bond is an unbridled ruffian, tough as nails and equally as hard on the ladies. He believes he can overcome any obstacle with guts and good looks. Daniel Craig plays this perfectly. He pummels bad guys bloody one second; then uses his muscular physique to bait a beautiful mark the next. It's only when the story gets more complex, and his attraction to Vesper Lynd begins to take hold, do we see Bond grow in a different direction. He realizes that brute force will only take you so far towards a goal. It is the definition of character development. Daniel Craig's understanding and interpretation of this is riveting. He commands the screen with an indomitable physicality and highly nuanced performance.
Beyond Daniel Craig's excellent character work, "Casino Royale" succeeds because the plot is firmly grounded. It's full of spectacular action scenes and has the prerequisite panache villain, but never goes over the top in its presentation. The recent batch of Bond films were loaded with clumsy CGI and completely unrealistic action. Bond was essentially turned into a superhero. I shuddered in "Die Another Day" when Bond parasails through a tidal wave that looked like a video game. "Casino Royale" is nothing like this. It is more brutal and convincing than its predecessors. Some may complain that the violence, particularly the torture scene, is overly graphic. It has to be to take "Casino Royale" seriously. This is the new James Bond, and the film needs to set a tone of realism for the future ones.
Bond films are invariably difficult to make because of the expectations. The criticism that barraged Daniel Craig is a perfect example. Bond had become passé, there was nothing new to make it interesting. Every film was more or less the same character in similar situations. Bravo to Director Martin Campbell and Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. They had the nerve to shatter the mold and take Bond in a new direction. It is even more ingenious to accomplish this by going back to the beginning. Ian Flemming would be beaming if he saw "Casino Royale". This is the James Bond he imagined. And he isn't the burly brunette of Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan, but the blonde and chiseled Daniel Craig.