I am overcome with glee after watching Casino Royale. I love this movie. First, a little personal history. I've been a James Bond fan ever since I was three. For me, nothing topped the Sean Connery films From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, but it was all downhill from there.
The last couple of Connery 007 movies were poor, and George Lazenby's entry was ok. Roger Moore's stint was a dark period, yielding only two movies I thought were any good: For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. At least with Timothy Dalton's short-lived run, the series had a spike of seriousness and quality -- they were the last two genuinely good Bond movies.
Right now, if you're also a James Bond fan, you've probably disagreed somewhat with my assessment of the series so far -- perhaps even most of it. And I'm doing this to prove a point -- that Bond has become so big in the 40-plus years of his cinematic existence that he's now too many things to too many people. Every fan has his or her own idea of what a James Bond movie should be. There may not be a "correct" version anymore; at worst, the character and his movies' attributes have become generic.
So one of the worst things to happen, in my opinion, was for the producers of these movies to cave into the idea that a Bond movie is about selling its generic traits: the women, the gadgets, the exotic locales, the megalomaniac -- everything but the character. This is what happened with the recent Pierce Brosnan run, which began with the inappropriately postmodern Goldeneye and devolved into a circus with his last movie, Die Another Day. That one was a desperate attempt to play up the spectacles the franchise was famous for, but though it had plenty of action, little of the film had any basis in reality and the whole thing just looked rather ridiculous.
Now, at last, someone got the right idea, as the filmmakers behind Bond have decided to take back the series. Casino Royale is the right way to approach this -- don't make the movie a patchwork of its broadly appealing elements, but instead begin with an idea and develop it. For this film, that idea was to start over -- show Bond on his first mission as a double-0. Boldly, they also decided to reset the timeline, starting from today's world instead of the '60s. And what better story to kick things off with than creator Ian Fleming's first Bond novel.
What a reset this is! Casino Royale is a 180-degree flip from Die Another Day. Here, James Bond (Daniel Craig) actually has a personality. His character is explored as a professional man of both deadly strengths and dangerous weaknesses. The invincible, infallible superspy has been happily put aside; here, this Bond gets through as much by his luck as by his wits and skill. He is also given time to develop an actual relationship with his leading lady, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). In fact, the movie becomes more about him and her than it does about its plot and action. If memory serves me correctly, that may have happened in a Bond movie only one other time.
All eyes are on Daniel Craig, of course, and I'm now convinced he's a perfect choice for the part. Frankly, who cares what color his hair and eyes are? Bond had already lost all sense of definition in the last two decades. Craig brings definition back with a force, and he plays the character with a burning understatement. Within his relatively raw secret agent, one can see that he has learned to maintain a coldness, but he also possesses humor and charm. There's a brute and a sophisticate in one persona, and Craig pulls this off with aplomb. One can sense he both loathes and loves his job. In one scene, he turns the tables on a terrorist agent, and when he sees the terrorist realize this too late, Bond lets out a slow smile. The gesture is wicked, the moment savory.
The movie leaves room for some action of the kind we've come to expect from a Bond film, but thankfully it tries to remain as grounded as possible. A couple of great chase scenes leads the pic, but the central piece is a high-stakes game of poker. The movie displays a willingness to go where the story might take it without feeling the need to shoehorn in some kind of grand confrontation or overblown climax. Although there might be one explosion too many here, viewers at least get the sense that when Bond is fighting, he's fighting for his life, bleeding knuckles and all. The movie creates a balance of spectacular and believable elements, and it definitely doesn't feel the need to confine itself to formula.
What a welcome relief Casino Royale is -- actually, it's more than a relief. It's the best Bond movie in decades, enough for me to push back the last four Bond movies in my mind and to truly enjoy being a 007 fan again. Imagine that -- a franchise that finally takes itself seriously again. After Die Another Day, I thought Bond was out of gas for good and that it would be best to put the whole thing out of its misery. But as a result of Casino Royale, I've made quite a turnaround. For the first time in a long time, I'm really looking forward to watching a James Bond film over again -- and even anticipating the one to follow.
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated "PG-13" for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothmovies.com.