(Originally published 2006)
The new James Bond movie, "Casino Royale," is one of the best, most satisfying movies of 2006 — and who saw that coming? Since it was first announced last year that Daniel Craig would replace Pierce Brosnan as Bond, purists began their rumblings and rantings, hammering nails in the film's coffin and condemning the shift in command while the filmmakers went about their work.
For awhile, it seemed as if Britain's most notorious, dashing sociopath couldn't get a break, poor chap. But what director Martin Campbell and his producers likely knew is what we now see onscreen, Craig isn't just the best Bond since Sean Connery, he in fact creates a richer, more complex Bond, bringing to the character the sort of depth and nuance that Connery never mined.
That isn't a criticism of Connery, whose genius as Bond is one of pop culture's great pleasures. Instead, it's an observation of the way Bond is handled here. "Casino Royale" is based on Ian Fleming's 1953 novel, the first in the Bond franchise, which Connery wasn't allowed to play since the Bond films began in 1962 with the sixth book in the series, "Dr. No." At that point, at least in print, the Bond character had been established — Connery was playing an agent who had matured.
But what of the younger Bond, the brash, impulsive agent who grew into the icon we know? What was he like? It's this part of the equation with which "Casino Royale" is concerned, and it's precisely this attention to detail that makes the movie so gratifying. The superlative action scenes don't hurt it, either (the opening chase scene is a vertigo-inducing blast), nor do the performances or the writing, all of which are smart and compelling.
Mirroring the excellent "Batman Begins," "Royale" is designed to take a popular fictional figure and infuse him with a back story meant to explain how, in this case, Bond became Bond. Predictably, the storyline is dense, with Bond botching his first mission before a furious M (Judi Dench) dispatches him to the Bahamas and then to Montenegro. There, he is given a last chance to prove his double-0 worthiness by bringing down Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a villainous financier of terrorists whose left eye is given to weeping blood.
Le Chiffre is a master at poker, which is how Bond must bring him down. Helping him to that end is the fetching Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an MI6 accountant whose job it is to give Bond the money he needs to take on Le Chiffre at the tense, high-stakes poker game that consumes the second half of the film. Vesper is Bond's intellectual and sexual equal, so much so that she beats into his armored heart in ways that fully round out his character. It's how their relationship evolves that gives the final third of the film its fierce (and surprising) dramatic pull.
In the end, some might miss those old Bond staples — Q and this kitschy gadgets, the passing presence of Moneypenny, the lighter tone. But at my screening, which ended with a rare, spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, it appeared as if the film's intense, inward shift to a darker, more interesting core was just right for the times. It proved more than enough, as did this new Bond himself.