Casino Royale

Casino Royale ★★★★★

"I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but I don't think that's your problem, is it, Bond?" (M)

With Daniel Craig's tenure as the world's most famous secret agent coming to an end in a couple of weeks, I wanted to take the opportunity and write about his first appearance, the one that set the tone for all his subsequent films.

My favorite thing about Craig's Bond always has been that he resembles an actual human being instead of a walking and talking cliché like most of his predecessors did. The crucial factor to Bond's humanization is his relationship with M. She's the only recurring character to whom he has a substantial connection and most of the pivotal moments of his arc (across all three films Judi Dench appears in) are tied to their encounters and conversations. Keeping Dench aboard as M, despite making no sense at all in terms of continuity, was not only a stroke of genius, but one of the very best decisions in the entire history of the franchise. She brought so much depth and nuance to a character, that I had never found particularly interesting before, to be honest. In a way she is just as ruthless as her protégé, yet not as reckless, always keeping the big picture in mind. Constantly weighing between getting the job done no matter what and the consequences of her decisions, we always feel the heavy burden of responsibility on her shoulders.

Depth and nuance are usually not the things that come to mind when you think of the typical Bond girl, though Vesper Lynd is anything but. Eva Green's portrayal of the woman who offers Bond a way to salvation, to a life beyond killing, is one of the few great female characters of the series. Green profits from the way Vesper is written, of course, but without a great performance the character would've been wasted and Casino Royale would've fallen apart. Their first encounter on the train (and later in the cab) is one of my favorite scenes of the series, and that's because Bond takes her seriously from the very beginning, something previously unheard of for smart women in Bond movies. While Bond is cocky as usual, there is not a hint of condescension in Craig's performance.

When Vesper starts to realize that she is falling for him, we see the tragedy of her story in Green's eyes, though it isn't until much later that we learn about the reason (part of which even is only revealed in Quantum of Solace) for her underlying sadness. But it's there and we notice it, thanks to Green. The film devotes quite some time to the development of their relationship, before the final act's revelation and that effort results in a devastating payoff. Bond's emotional turmoil continues throughout the next film until he gets some closure at the end. I've said it before that Quantum of Solace, unlike Casino Royale, is only half a story that cannot stand on its own. Casino Royale would still work if it had been followed up by a film that never mentioned their tragic love story, but I believe knowing that Bond struggles with the aftermath adds to the viewing experience of this film.

Also adding to the viewing experience is the visceral nature of the action scenes. Instead of gadgets and explosions it's a very physical approach. Finally Bond looks like he's been put through the wringer after he's been in a fight and not like he tripped over his own feet and messed up his hair. Though I'll always love the sheer smugness of Brosnan straightening his tie amidst an ongoing action scene.

Casino Royale was Martin Campbell's second time introducing a new 007, and he knocked it even further out of the park than the first time. After the creative dead end that was Die Another Day, the series desperately needed a new approach and the producers decided to return to its literary roots. With the rights to Ian Fleming's very first 007 novel finally at their disposal, they opted for a complete overhaul and to tell Bond's beginning. Equipped with probably the best script of the entire series, Campbell stripped the character off his Cold War trappings and successfully transformed Bond into the 21st century.

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