With a new James Bond movie opening in the US this week, could there really be a better time to take a look back at what made its spiritual predecessor so great? It’s been two years now since Casino Royale injected new life into the Bond franchise – both in terms of casting, with Daniel Craig stepping into the role, and in terms of overall cinematic quality. It’s almost hard now to remember all of the anxiety that surrounded the film before its release. Many fans were convinced that Craig would be the worst Bond ever and, consequently, that Casino Royale would mark a new low for the series. Today, it’s quite obvious how that dilemma played out: the pessimists were wrong.
My own interest in the James Bond character dates back to elementary school. By the sixth grade I had seen every Bond film made up to that point (there were nearly twenty), and I could have easily recited the entire list in chronological order. My personal favorites have changed a number of times over the years, but as I became able to recognize the objective quality (or lack thereof) of each film, my top picks have become basically stabilized. I was more hopeful than most in the days and weeks before Casino Royale came out, but I did not expect it to crack the top five, much less the top two. As of today, I consider the title of “Best Bond Film” a toss-up between Casino Royale and From Russia with Love (the second movie, which came out in 1963).
In the summer before Casino Royale’s release, I decided to read the 1953 novel by Ian Fleming – the first one in the series, and James Bond’s first appearance to the world. I was happy to find that the Bond in Casino Royale was the version I enjoyed most in the films. Bond was distant, cruel, uncompromising, and violent, just as a secret agent with a “license to kill” should be. His sense of humor was pitch-black, but at the same time he was sympathetic and human.
Not having seen Daniel Craig’s performance as Bond at that point, I tried to hit upon which Bond actor I would use to visualize the character in the novel. After a few pages, though, I could tell that something wasn’t working – Fleming’s Bond was not quite like any of the Bond actors. He wasn’t bumbling, flippant or snarky like Roger Moore, nor was he the emotional wreck George Lazenby had made Bond out to be. In the end, I settled on alternating my visualization of Bond between Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye. But even then, the match wasn’t quite perfect.
Anyhow, I loved the novel. When I finally saw Casino Royale at the movie theater, it not only met the high expectations I had formed after reading the book – it exceeded them. It kept everything that was great about the novel intact (particularly its portrayal of the character) and expanded the story’s scope, modernizing it. Daniel Craig brought an intensity to the role that elevated him above every actor who had come before him. Yes, even Sean Connery. Craig wasn’t an actor playing James Bond. He was James Bond.
Casino Royale also succeeds in that it tells a story that, unlike many other Bond movies, actually makes sense. And I don’t mean that simply on the level of “the story is understandable,” although there are certainly several Bond movies where that isn’t entirely the case. What I mean is that it makes sense emotionally, which is a first for the franchise. The James Bond of Casino Royale is not just a tough-guy ladies’ man who puts a few bullets in the bad guy and calls it a day. If anything, Bond is too emotionally invested, and it comes back to hurt him in the end.
I could belabor the issue further, but I think I’ve made my point. Casino Royale stands as one of the best James Bond movies because it is essentially different from the twenty that preceded it. That isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with the old movies, of course, because they can be a lot of fun. But in the end, Casino Royale is the only one that can resonate with us emotionally because it is the only one in which Bond is truly human. His struggles, for once, are not self-obsessed, chauvinistic, or incomprehensible – instead, they are ours.