Four decades and twenty-one films in, the Bond series really only had two options: continue along the path of ever-more-desperate celebrity cameos, CGI effects and over the top villainy, or, you know, make something interesting. Wisely, the franchise opted for the latter.
With Casino Royale, screenwriter Paul Haggis kept what was working (Judi Dench’s wonderfully world-weary M) and ditched what wasn’t (pretty much everything else) to create something between a re-launch and a prequel, a tale of James Bond before that name meant anything. Daniel Craig’s 007 is a charming thug, a hitman who is only gradually learning that steamrolling his way through foreign embassies may not be the best way to earn a reputation.
Craig’s take on the character is really the key to Casino Royale‘s success. Bond is, after all, a professional killer. That type of job doesn’t usually come naturally to a debonair gentleman; it’s the kind of thing that involves getting your hands dirty, and occasionally drowning a man in the sink of a public washroom. With Craig’s 007, it doesn’t matter how the drink is prepared so long as it numbs him to the job he has to do.
Daniels isn’t the only one with a more grounded character. Mads Mikkelsen’s stockbroker-of-evil may have the requisite disfigurement–in this case a scarred eye that occasionally cries blood–but is thankfully lacking the megalomania. Instead, he’s just a simple, greedy man, desperate to repay some exceptionally large debts. Haggis’ script refuses to turn characters into cartoons, and Mikkelsen’s determined sense of self-preservation makes him far more threatening than some power-hungry scientist with a really big laser.
Even the action setpieces seem more realistic than usual. An earlier sequence with Bond chasing an amazingly nimble free-runner through a construction site has some of the best stunts ever seen in an action movie, let alone a Bond franchise flick, and are easily on par with anything in The Protector. And a mid-movie torture session finds that elaborate torture devices aren’t needed to make audiences squirm–a blunt object and a set of testicles are just as unnerving as the most complex death-trap, and far easier to identify with.
Unfortunately, Casino Royale still hasn’t mastered the use of female characters. The script tries to present a well-rounded love interest for Bond in Vesper Lynd, a government treasurer who is, at least initially, far too clever to fall for 007’s advances. Eva Green is utterly lovable in the role: bitter and acerbic where she can be, vulnerable where it makes sense to be. She is actually a person who can be loved, not just another plaything for Bond. Unfortunately the romance still comes off bland, as if director Martin Campbell needed something to fill space before getting along with the plot. When the film starts focusing on romance, it completely loses its momentum and never quite gets it back.
Campbell’s inability to pace things properly is the only thing that’s really holding Casino Royale back. Like Goldeneye, Campbell’s first attempt at relaunching the franchise, the film would have benefited from leaving at least half an hour on the cutting room floor. Unlike Goldeneye, Royale manages to put some energy back into an action dinosaur. It’s great that Bond is learning to abandon some of the 40-year-old tropes that have been bogging it down, and if the franchise keeps running with the same approach, the next one will be a classic.