Film and television are living in an era of grit and so-called realism. Through the lenses of handheld cameras, we're told stories of anti-heroes and gray morality, each grimmer than the last. But, the white noise of the "edgy" crap cannot drown out the truly interesting art in this style. Things like The Sopranos. The new Battlestar Galactica. And Casino Royale.
First things first: Daniel Craig is an excellent James Bond. Especially when you consider that the premise of this movie is that the series is rebooting (or, if you wish, we're watching a new incarnation of the agent code-named James Bond). We get to see his first real assignment as 007, an elite British MI-6 superspy. Anyone who has seen Layer Cake could probably have foreseen that this Bond variant would fit well within Craig's particular brand of craggy charisma.
This is not the Bond of movies past, but of Ian Fleming's books. Well, minus the vicious misogynism. We open in black and white, before Bond has even become a 00, as he performs the two kills required to take on that title. The first assassination is brutal, a brawl-turned-murder that leaves Bond bloody and beaten; the second is done quietly, with panache and a quip. The rest of the movie flows naturally from these first minutes which put the audience on notice that we are going to see a Bond getting his spy-legs, but who is still completely recognizable as the well-worn icon.
Casino Royale hits a lot of the notes we've come to expect from a 007 film. Exotic locales, beautiful women, action sequences, evil villains, martinis, casinos and cars. But these elements are remixed into something different, and better, than we've seen before. The post-opening free-running sequence provoked actual gasps from the theater. And the women . . .
The women deserve their own paragraphs. Partly because much of Casino Royale is concerned with James Bond and Vesper Lynd. But also because this is the first (or maybe second, if you count the one with Michelle Yeoh) Bond movie that gives us believable women who are on par with our lead. Even On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which saw our protagonist get married, failed in this regard.
Most movies in the series have two women. The first throwaway woman usually dies in the indifferent arms of Bond, and the second, slightly less throwaway woman gets kissed between a punny double-entendre and the rolling credits. (The worst of which still sticks in my mind: "Who says Christmas only comes once a year?" Wait there for a moment. I have to stab myself in the ear for remembering that line. Stupid, stupid nuclear-physicist Denise Richards. OK, I'm back.)
Casino Royale, however, manages to give us sympathetic women throughout. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), though certainly able to use an evening dress and her freckles to great effect, verbally jousts with James in a way that is witty and charming all around. The leads' chemistry seems to be based on more than simple sexuality (which makes me very excited about both of their roles in the upcoming His Dark Materials movies). Judi Dench's M, as always, mixes sharp authority with near-gentle concern, reminding me how much she can do with just a few minutes of screen time.
Casino Royale is as good for what it lacks as what it has. Missing are the usual dancing women silhouettes during the credits sequence. The villain, the arms dealer Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarily violent without being cartoonish, and is not stupid enough to explain his whole plan to Bond when he's got him captive. None of the women are reductively named after their body parts. None of those awful double entendres I mentioned above. No cars that turn into boats; in fact, no real spy gadgetry of any kind, just the kind of stuff that you and I could buy for a lot of money at Best Buy, used in intelligent ways.
And, most importantly, despite being familiar, Casino Royale is not predictable. When I first saw the full trailer for the movie, I loved it, but I was worried that I had pretty much seen the entire thing. I was wrong. The only complaint I can level at the movie was that it was overlong, but just as I was writing that in my notes, it ended and ended in the only way it could have.
Craig's rough-at-the-edges, bloodied and bruised Bond is more than a worthy addition to the pantheon. Casino Royale is, quite simply, the best of the Bond movies. I know that that proclamation will raise howls from those of us who love Dr. No and Sean Connery's Bond (as I do; I've seen every one of the Bond movies and I like a lot of them). But, the well-formed character in this movie is playing a different game than we've seen in the past, and playing it artfully.