From its first frames, Casino Royale, just released on video, promises to restore the trimmed-down urgency of the early Sean Connery outings as Bond, before the franchise grew so fat and tired and stupid: The MGM lion and the Columbia Pictures torch-lady are both presented in black and white; when onscreen type announces that the first scene is set in Prague, there's a knowing pause, as if to hint this could be some Cold War-era John le Carré adaptation (The Spy Who Loved to Come in from the Cold?), before it confesses its era with "Czech Republic." But Casino Royale exceeds this promise, presenting a Bond both leaner and meaner than any that has come before. That this is the best Bond flick in nearly four decades is beyond reasonable dispute; whether it's better even than the early Connerys is a subject worthy of debate.
Who could have imagined that the franchise could lift itself up so quickly from the laughable depths of Die Another Day, with its invisible cars and one-man war against the North Korean Army? Though Casino Royale was produced by the same folks responsible for that self-parodying rubbish, it feels as though the rights to the story somehow fell into the hands of an outsider, who fashioned the film as a "fuck you" to Bond's official custodians. Rebukes to the franchise's errors and excesses are everywhere: an opening action sequence that consists merely (but marvelously) of two men chasing one another on foot through a construction site; Bond's joke to his female partner that her cover-name is "Miss Stephanie Broadchest"; the villain's explanation, "I never understood all these elaborate tortures," before he pummels Bond's privates with a knotted rope; Bond's response, when asked whether he'd like his martini shaken or stirred: "Do I look like I give a damn?" It is an almost inexpressible relief that the niftiest spy gadget in the entire film is the medical kit hidden in Bond's car.
Unlike recent Bonds, whose kills had no more weight than the one-liners that generally accompanied them, Craig's tend to be intimate, bloody, and devoid of glamour: the restroom murder that opens the movie; a slow, painful strangulation in the bottom of a stairwell. In the latter half of the movie alone, Craig goes through more tuxedo shirts--gore-soaked, waterlogged, shredded--than Roger Moore seemed to dirty during his entire Bond tenure.
Craig is also the first Bond who is not openly pleasure-seeking, whose sexual escapades are clearly intended to further his mission, rather than the other way around. This correction is made most explicit when Bond engages in some light foreplay with a Bahamian lovely in order to find out what her villainous husband might be up to. "Apparently, he's on the last flight to Miami," she informs him between nibbles, "so you have all night to question me." In response, Bond phones room service to send up a little beluga and bubbly. But when he's asked "For two, sir?" his reply is terse: "No, one." Cut to him speeding to the airport. The last several Bonds would probably have let it wait 'til morning; even Connery would have allowed himself a wistful sigh at his coital self-sacrifice. It's as if the franchise at last felt forced to decide between carnal vocations for its hero and opted, wisely, for assassin over gigolo. Even the opening credits forsake the tease of quasi-naked jiggle bunnies in favor of a neatly stylized series of animated executions.
And Craig makes a superb assassin. It's not just that he seems more likely to have killed someone than any of his smirking predecessors; it's that he seems likely to have killed them with his forehead. Though a handsome actor (and, according to a disconcerting number of female friends, the sexiest man on the big screen in ages), Craig has not a whiff of prettiness to him. His face is angular but unlovely: the mouth a little wide, the brow a little heavy, the eyes tilting down morosely at the sides. He's the first Bond one doesn't envision spending a great deal of time in front of the mirror. (The gym is another matter: He's so lean you could use him to slice vegetables.)
The film does let down Craig's performance (and viewers) here and there. The plot meanders a bit before arriving at its titular destination: a high-stakes poker game pitting Bond against Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), a man who is described as the "private banker to the world's terrorists," and who, like the statue of a medieval saint, weeps tears of blood. The game itself is staged rather inertly (and, according to those who know something about cards, ridiculously). And the movie's denouement suffers a bit from Return of the Kingitis: You think it's over several times before it actually is. But given the revelatory improvement over the last dozen-plus Bond outings, these are quibbles.
Regarding Bond's love interest, a heretically fetching accountant named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the film reaches high but falls a little short. It's certainly nice to see Bond's custodians strive for a genuine romance, a sharp sparring between attracted minds (and, yes, not only minds). But the chemistry between Craig and Green is never much in evidence, their repartee isn't quite so clever as the filmmakers think, and her eventual surrender (whatever its explanation) is too abrupt and too complete to be satisfying.
This is the second film in which 007 has fallen truly in love, and the second time that love was doomed. The first was On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starring another freshman Bond--Aussie model George Lazenby, who took over from Connery in 1969 but never made it to a sophomore outing. Like Casino Royale, it too followed Ian Fleming's novel relatively closely, downplayed gadgetry in favor of dramatic depth, and served as a kind of explanation for Bond's darker treatment of the fairer sex. Despite a somewhat leaden performance by Lazenby, it's among the best of the Bond films (thanks, largely, to the magnificent Diana Rigg, the Bond Girl against whom all others must be measured), and it might have offered a model for reinvigorating the franchise. Instead, it was followed by Diamond's Are Forever, a lamely semi-comic, gizmo-stuffed entry that foreshadowed the disappointing decades to come.
There's no real reason to expect that Casino Royale will have a similar one-and-done quality. The fact that it has been widely described as a "reboot" suggests at least some awareness by the producers that the franchise had crashed; and Daniel Craig's decision to return for another tour is good news indeed. Still, in mass-market filmmaking it's often easier to throw in a space-based laser than a good line of dialogue, and it's an open question how long the franchise will be able to resist such temptations. But for now, Bond fans have--for the first time in a long, long time--something to savor.
The Home Movies List: Rebooting Bond
Casino Royale (1967). After acquiring the rights to Fleming's novel, producer Charles K. Feldman initially wanted it to be part of the usual Bond "canon." When gatekeepers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turned him away, he instead opted to make it a spoof. Sadly, star Peter Sellers wanted to play Bond "straight," feuded with Orson Welles (his Le Chiffre), and quit before completing his footage--a departure that forced the filmmakers to reframe the entire film as a kaleidoscope of competing "Bonds" (David Niven, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, et cetera). A disaster from beginning to end, too pitiful even to laugh at.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Great moments in career management: Lazenby turned down a seven-picture deal because he felt the tuxedoed Bond was too square to flourish in the counter-cultural 1970s. Instead, he went on to a career starring in martial arts pictures, spoofing Bond (The Nude Bomb, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and marrying former tennis pro Pam Shriver.
The Living Daylights (1987). Another attempt to return Bond to his darker, more serious roots that didn't really pan out. Dalton, who'd first been offered the role of Bond for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (when he was in his early 20s), never quite had the big-screen charisma for the role and lasted just two pictures.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). A spoof along the lines of the first Casino Royale that succeeded far better--Bond by way of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, "The Bionic Woman," A Hard Day's Night, and Alfie.
The Matador (2005). Pierce Brosnan's most winning portrayal of Bond wasn't Bond at all, but the wickedly decadent and self-loathing assassin Julian Noble in this underrated black comedy. It almost seems as though Brosnan needed to kill off the Bond mystique once and for all before Daniel Craig could give it new life.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic