By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Daniel Craig is the best James Bond since Sean Connery in a movie that's sure to bring this franchise back to life.
Casino Royale is a very different James Bond film from probably any made in the last 30 years, and that's a good thing. You can consider this the Batman Begins of the Bond franchise: It's faithful to the source material but pretty much discards anything that's come before it as far as other movies, it gives us some insight into the character, and is much more "raw" than the films that preceded it.
The film opens in black and white and has Bond waiting for a high ranking MI6 official in the official's office. From the conversation we learn that Bond is not yet a 007, having fulfilled only half the requirement of killing two people before being qualified for promotion. The film cuts to a grainy and still, black and white sequence showing Bond in a brutal hand to hand fight, where he (of course) comes out the winner, but it certainly isn't clean or pretty. The man he killed was an operative of the official he sits before now, who is a traitor and within seconds will qualify Bond for 007 status.
Not much about this film is very typical as far as what's become established as "canon" for how a Bond movie should unfold. They usually start with a breathtaking action sequence, always more elaborate than the one shown in the previous film, but here we start as described above, which is much more intimate. From there we go to the opening credits which for the first time ever do not include silhouettes of naked women. Despite this the graphics were very 60's, which I found interesting since the movie takes place present day. After the credits, THEN comes the action sequence, but again it's not typical as there is an obvious lack of gadgetry, replaced by an extended on-foot chase scene and culminating in a brazen move by Bond. At this point we can discern that Bond has just gained his 007 status very recently.
"M" is extremely annoyed and angry at how he handled the situation in the opening sequence, giving MI6 a very public black eye and causing her (yes, Judi Densch as "M", even though this is supposed to be very early in Bond's career) to come close to booting him out of the service. He's very arrogant with plenty of ego and despite how tough he is, he's still quite "green" when it comes to being a "double-oh".
The basic plot has him tracking down a man who acts as a banker to terrorists, investing their money for them and giving them immediate access to it whenever required. It's pretty clear early on that he's going to lose a boatload of money ($150 million) and will be scrambling to replace it, which happens at an ultra-high stakes poker game.
The poker game as a big part of the reason why I only gave this 4 stars instead of 4 1/2 or even 5. It's just plain boring and goes on too long, despite the fact that it's broken up into three or four scenes. The director could have taken some cues on how to execute the scene from the folks over at the World Poker Tour, who manage to make watching a bunch of guys sitting around playing poker pretty exciting. Not much of that here, though. There's also the fact that I would have preferred to see Bond playing Baccarat, which is his traditional game, but that involved more luck than any sort of skill so maybe that's why they decided against it.
Another thing that went against the movie was it's length, at almost two and a half hours, and the fact that it reminded my of the last Lord of the Rings movie with making me think it was over, but going on to another apparent ending, and then another. That's it for the negatives as far as I'm concerned.
Ah, but the big question: How was Daniel Craig as James Bond?
Freaking cool as hell, that's how he was.
Any hardcore Bond fans who were up in arms about the selection of blonde haired (gasp!) Craig as Bond can rest easy. Craig was in my opinion the best Bond since Sean Connery. I might even say equal to Connery... especially Connery in the first James Bond film Dr. No, which was as close as any prior movies came to the gritty realism of Casino Royale.
I've never read the Ian Fleming novels but from what I've heard, the version of Bond portrayed in this movie was much closer to the Bond of the printed page: tougher, nastier and less polished. After the first couple of Bond movies came out, and especially once Connery left the franchise, the series almost became campy, just shy of the over the top style of the old Batman TV series starring Adam West. They tried to bring it back somewhat with Pierce Brosnan, but by then they were still doing these monstrous productions with incredible gadgets and were deep into the formulaic Bond movie school. Although I like Brosnan as an actor, he just didn't have the physical presence to carry of a good James Bond.
This was a great Bond origin... before he said "Shaken, not stirred" or "Bond, James Bond", or even had his signature theme music. Oh, don't worry, all those things finally show up, but only very close to the end and it's done masterfully, giving a sense of having Bond grow into the role of a seasoned 007.
Side note: There was one scene in the movie that was REALLY pretty rough violence-wise, almost enough to push it into R-rated territory, so think about that before bringing a child under 11 or 12.
Overall, this was a fantastic James Bond flick, and a great movie even outside the narrow scope of that genre. I highly recommend it and I'll be watching it again on DVD for sure.