After the absurd insanity of Die Another Day, Eon Productions found themselves at another crossroads. Die Another Day had been one of the most financially successful films in the franchise, but I suspect that Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson had a similar feeling that the late Bond patriarch Cubby Broccoli had following the insanity of Moonraker in 1979, which had also been a huge hit. There comes a point when you reach the limit and you can't get any bigger. Sometimes you have to come back down from space and return a little bit of gritty realism to the proceedings. The question is, what do you do with Pierce Brosnan? The actor's tenure as the character had been wildly successful, and he probably had one more film in him. And yet...after surfing on a tsunami and driving around in that invisible car, would audiences be able to take Brosnan seriously in a darker Bond film? Eon certainly didn't think so. Nope, it was time to start from scratch and recast the part.
There were also more thoughtful considerations at work - Bond's future. I keep harping on the fact that Bond's longevity is largely due to careful tweaking and revising of the Bond formula to suit the times. The 1990s were all about the over-the-top action film, and the Bond films jumped on the train, producing some massively huge explosions along the way. But the extravagant 1990s were being replaced by the more dour 2000s. It was a darker time, with fears of terrorism and economic disasters filling headlines. Actions films picked up on the mood, trending darker, and casting suspicious glances of our own governments. And while Die Another Day had been a bigger hit financially, critics and audiences much preferred the darker and more paranoid franchise that launched that same year - Matt Damon's Bourne Identity. As always, Eon Productions saw where the future was heading and embraced it.
The sad irony of the whole affair is that Brosnan had been asking for a darker, more serious Bond for quite some time. And now that the franchise was finally willing to go back in that direction, they decided to recast the part! As always - and as mentioned in the Trivia section of this review - recasting was huge news. Eventually Eon Productions settled on Daniel Craig, a British actor best known for Matthew Vaughn's excellent Layer Cake. Reaction was...not good. Craig just didn't seem right for the role. He wasn't good looking enough. He was blond. He looked a bit too much like a rough-and-tumble rugby player (which to be fair, he was). Before he had even been formally introduced, snarky fanboys were calling him James Bland instead of James Bond.
But Broccoli and Wilson knew their man. And they had a plan. And Craig was the perfect actor to take the character in the direction they wanted to go. But more on that later.
While the casting was hogging most of the publicity, the producers actually had an interesting idea up their sleeve. Only this time, they weren't following a trend, they were about to lead it. Recently, they had finally secured the rights to Casino Royale, the very first Bond book Ian Fleming had ever written. Someone at the studio thought it would be a good idea to not only recast, but to effectively reboot the series and show Bond on his very first mission. Audiences could learn how Bond became Bond! And all those origin/reboot movies that were to come down the pipeline over the next decade - from the good (Batman Begins) to the atrocious (Robin Hood) - had Casino Royale's success to thank for their existence.
I personally had my doubts. I was skeptical of Craig. I really liked him in Layer Cake, but he didn't seem suave enough for Bond. Plus, I had my heart set on Clive Owen (Children of Men) to take the role. And I didn't want a reboot. I had no interest in seeing how Bond become Bond. I didn't care what made him tick. I just wanted to see him kick butt, seduce women, and take on megalomaniacal villains. I was admittedly very worried about Casino Royale.
And how wrong I was...
Let's get some plot out of the way, shall we? Casino Royale takes us back to Bond's very first mission as a 00 agent. He is a bit rough around the edges still, a bit less suave than we are used to, and he is certainly more arrogant than confident at this point in his career. But he's learning. And while on a mission in Madagascar, he kills...well, maybe I'll stop there. Casino Royale's plot is complicated. It's not confusing, but it is complicated, dense and difficult to describe in a short paragraph. And that's a good thing. Because I think the less you know going into the film, the better. And enjoying the twisty turns without knowing where the road is going is half the fun. Let's just say Bond is hunting some serious terrorists, the bad guys lose a lot of money and the way they decide to recoup their loss is by staging a high stakes poker game in Montenegro. Bond is the best poker player MI6 has, so he is sent in to win the game. Along for the ride is Vesper Lynn (Eva Green, The Dreamers), the British Treasury agent who is in charge of watching the money Bond needs to buy into the game.
Okay, so let's review this movie. Damn, is it good. Like, seriously good. Casino Royale made a lot of top ten lists in 2006, and it is easy to see why. Director Martin Campbell returns to the director's chair and for the second time ushers in a new era for the character (he also helmed Brosnan's successful debut, Goldeneye). He keeps the plot moving along, respecting the material and never allowing the film to get hokey. He also stages some of the most exciting action sequences of the entire franchise. In fact, everyone is coming in at the top of their game. Cinematographer Philip Meheux's gives the film a gorgeous look, and composer David Arnold composes what is easily his best Bond score - and without a doubt the best Bond score not written by the master John Barry. The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis successfully translates Bond to the new, darker era - stripping away enough of the formula while still giving us hints of the man we all know Bond will eventually become. And the cast is terrific. Eva Green, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Jeffrey Wright - there is literally no weak link in this bunch. I would even rank Eva Green among the top of the Bond girls. She is a fully realized character, a beautiful and tragic figure who is absolutely integral to the plot and whose influence will clearly impact Bond for the rest of his life. She's easily one of the top Bond girls of the entire franchise.
And then there is Craig. He very quickly won audiences over with his grittier and darker take on the character. A few people still complained that he wasn't suave enough. And they are correct. But that's the point. This Bond is not Bond yet. He needs to learn to become that Bond. And I can very easily see Craig's Bond evolving into Connery's Bond that we were introduced to back in Dr. No. Connery was suave and witty, but I always got a sense that he taught himself to be a gentleman. Brosnan, Dalton and Moore seemed to be the opposite - gentlemen who taught themselves to fight. Craig is a Bond very much like Connery.
Critics of Craig's run with the character also complain about one other thing - the lack of humor in the Craig movies. And that is a valid criticism. There are some chuckles in Skyfall, but Quantum of Solace is almost completely devoid of humor, and Spectre's attempts at humor are forced and out of place. But Casino Royale is actually quite funny. It's not laugh out loud humor, of course, and it is all organic within the plot, but Craig's Bond is just as witty as the character has always been. I think that has been forgotten as time has passed.
Anyways, I'm not sure how much more I can say. I'll get into spoilers in the rankings below. But rest assured, this is a great movie. It's not just a great Bond movie. It's just a great movie plain and simple.
Okay, it's spoiler time! This is a weird place for me to be right now...look, Sean Connery was the best Bond. He has the true classics under his belt, the movies where the Bond formula was created and perfected. But...but...Casino Royale is really good. I mean, really, really good. But it can't be the best. It can't, can it? The best has to be one of the classics, right? It has to be Thunderball or Goldfinger or From Russia With Love. It HAS to be.
Well, it's not. I feel almost embarrassed to admit it, but Casino Royale is objectively the best Bond film. It really is. .
Look, people who say it doesn't really feel like a Bond film are wrong. Casino Royale may not have a lot in common with how we've come to know the character over the last few decades, but the movie feels an awful lot of like From Russia With Love and Dr. No. And even if it is more realistic than most of the films in the franchise doesn't mean that it isn't Bond. And it doesn't mean that the formula isn't teased - we have a gadget (why is there a random defibrillator in the car?), we have the Bond girls, the one liners, the fancy clothes, the big brassy music and extravagant locations. Make no mistake, this IS a Bond film.
And yes, the Bond character himself is a bit different, but that is part of the point. This movie is how he becomes Bond. He's not really Bond yet. That's why in the chase sequence in the beginning of the film, he's barreling through drywall and using his brawn instead of his brain. As M calls him, he's "a blunt instrument." Compare that to the Bond we see at the end who ambushes Mr. White with the precision of a surgical strike. This movie is about how the character gets to that point. And to emphasize that theme, the famous Bond music never plays once in this movie - not once - until the end. In that final sequence, we are actually introduced to the Bond we've known for the last five decades...he gracefully steps up in a perfect suit, machine gun in hand, utters those immortal words, "I'm Bond. James Bond." and the iconic theme music plays at last. It's a helluva entrance.
I honest can't think of any valid argument about why Casino Royale wouldn't be the best film in the franchise. Some people might complain that poker replaces baccarat in the big card game - though I would argue that nobody knows what the hell baccarat is any more, so this is probably a good switch. But other than that, there's really not much not to like. I understand nostalgia comes into play. Or love of the character that we grew up with. Emotionally, I have difficulty putting Casino Royale on the top. But objectively, I'm not even sure it's a close call.
This movie is just firing on all cylinders. When you compare it to the other films in the franchise, it measures up or exceeds them in almost every category. Among the other things I've already mentioned, it also has one of the best pre-credit sequences. It has several of the best fight scenes - that chase scene in the opening is one of the most exhilarating of the entire franchise and the Miami Airport sequence is an absolutely brilliant set piece that just stands above the rest of the franchise. And of course, we are given a classic "Bond Moment" at the end of the film.
I still feel weird saying this because I should be pointing to one of the classics. But Casino Royale is No. 1.
1. Casino Royale
3. From Russia With Love
5. The Spy Who Loved Me
7. The Living Daylights
8. Dr. No
10. For Your Eyes Only
11. Tomorrow Never Dies
12. Live and Let Die
13. License to Kill
14. Man with the Golden Gun
15. Diamonds are Forever
16. Die Another Day
17. The World is Not Enough
18. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
20. You Only Live Twice
21. A View to a Kill
For me, this is an easy one. For the second time in a row, the Bond franchise turned to Martin Campbell to introduce a new actor to the role. Campbell's Goldeneye is one of the best of the franchise, but he managed to top that. When you direct the best film in franchise history, it's pretty obvious who should get the MVP. Director Martin Campbell - this award is yours!
We get a classic one-liner during the intense poker scenes in the second half of the film. After discovering he's been poisoned, Bond leaves the card game, and manages to get himself an antidote and then fights off cardiac arrest with Vesper's help. Instead of going to the hospital, he straightens himself back up and returns the game, nonchalantly quipping as he takes his seat:
James Bond: I'm sorry. That last hand nearly killed me.
Whenever there is a new actor in the role, I like to focus on the casting in the Trivia. Casting the new Bond is always a difficult task. There is so much pressure to get the casting right. I have some friends who still dislike Craig in the role, but we'll just have to agree to disagree. He's won me over. And he is the first actor to be nominated for a BAFTA Award for playing the part, so that's pretty telling, I think.
But other actors were in the mix. Ewan MacGregor and Gerard Butler were both in the running at one point, and the producers loved Henry Cavill, who was considered too young for the part (he was only 22 at the time). Sam Worthington even auditioned at one point. But it seems the team were really onto Craig from the beginning. They mentioned the part to him early in the process and he turned it down. It was only several months later, when he read the script, that he agreed to jump onboard.