James Bond isn’t just a spy; he’s a killer. Before I saw Casino Royale, I had never really thought about that. Previous Bond movies and actors make the character so smooth and debonair that one never really considers the blood (however guilty and megalomanic) on his hands. Not a drop of red stains the crisp white shirt of his tux.
Casino Royale and actor Daniel Craig reimagine Bond by making the British superspy not so much cool as cold, delivering barbed double entendres rather than playful ones and taking as much pleasure in a succesful hit as a sexual conquest. The contrast between old Bond and new is striking—and perhaps not to everyone’s taste—but it brilliantly reinvigorates the stale franchise.
The silly quips aren’t the only element excised. Gone, too, are the outrageous gadgets and the cartoonish villains. Casino Royale isn’t just a harder-edged Bond movie; it’s a more realistic one, set in a post–9/11 world in which Parliament questions the wisdom of a British agent gunning down a suspect in a foreign embassy and Bond’s target, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), builds his fortune by short selling with inside information regarding future terrorist attacks.
When Bond thwarts one of those attacks, Le Chiffre loses tens of millions of dollars belonging to a paramilitary group that he, a black-market banker, had promised to provide no-risk investments. Desperate to recoup the money before his violent clients learn of his deceit, Le Chiffre bets on winning a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro. Bond enters the game, too, under orders to bankrupt the man and thus force him to trade information about terrorist activity to the British government in exchange for protection.
As a premise, that’s a bit thin. The real point of Casino Royale is to portray Bond as a relatively green agent, newly promoted to double-0 status. Certainly he has the necessary skills: The masterful opening sequence, in which Bond chases a bomb maker through a construction site on foot, demonstrates that although Bond isn’t quite as acrobatic as his quarry (whose gymnastic feats rival those of Spider-Man), he makes up for it with quick thinking and lightning reflexes. But his recklessness galls his boss M (played again by the always wonderful Dame Judi Dench), who claims to regret promoting him after Parliament grills her about the bloody embassy incident.
Vesper Lynd, a representative of the British Treasury, which is backing Bond at the poker table, seems equally skeptical of his judgment. As played by the striking, enigmatic Eva Green, Vesper is no giggly Bond girl. She parries Bond’s quips with wit but keeps him at arm’s length, curling her lip at his suggestion that she serve as an eye candy distraction to the opposing players at the poker match.
The first two-thirds of the movie, through the night of that fateful card game, is taut and suspenseful (even for people like me who can never quite remember which poker hand is highest). After that, however, the movie spools out into a meandering coda and never quite regains its momentum or its zest.
Yet even then, Craig manages to hold interest with a magnetic, nuanced performance. Those who complained before the film’s release that Craig is too blonde or too short or too craggy to play Bond spoke far too soon: His performance is a gem. He faithfully recreates the character’s trademark charm and wisecracks but layers them over a richer, deeper portrait of a lone man who makes his living wielding a gun. Without Craig, the Bond filmmakers might have merely been trading one set of clichés for another; with him, Casino Royale is not just a great Bond movie but also an excellent thriller.