Though the James Bond franchise thrives on the impression of continuity — one in which a single action hero has implausibly managed to thwart every major terrorist act of the past half century — the series has reset multiple times over its 50-year history. Clearly, each new star forced a kind of reinvention: from tough to gallant (when Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery), silly to serious (with Timothy Dalton), outmoded to modern (under Pierce Brosnan). In some instances, as with “For Your Eyes Only,” the creators interrupted a single star’s M.O. mid-stride, stripping the series back after things had gotten too far out of control.
But none of these changes was as radical a reinvention of the elements that define 007 as “Casino Royale.” Apart from allowing Judi Dench to retain her post as M, this was a complete back-to-the-book-that-started-them-all overhaul: Wipe the slate, erase the memory banks and try to rebuild Bond as something worth continuing into the 21st century. And who better to do it than Martin Campbell, who had ably launched Brosnan’s cycle with “GoldenEye”?
Of course, a full-scale reboot demands a new star, and it makes sense that Barbara Broccoli might choose someone who looked as different from the series’ debonair, dark-haired prototypes as Daniel Craig. The actor had delivered a Bond-worthy turn shortly before in the slick British crime drama “Layer Cake,” brought a rough intensity to the character that had been lacking since Connery and, in the most curious twist, seemed design to appeal to straight women and gay men in equal measure (this was the film where a manscaped Bond gave Ursula Andress a run for her money in the sexy-swimwear department).
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“Casino Royale” was rightly received with enthusiasm from critics and fans. Campbell and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis (the latter impressing me more than he had with “Crash”) figured out how to make a real movie out of a Bond mission: by cutting out all the crap. As a kid, I had genuinely taken pleasure in the one-liners, the stunts, the gadgets and all that, but watching Bond reinvented as a “real guy” (or at least semi-plausible one) was a thrill unmatched by any of the films since, well, “Dr. No.”
If Bond had become something of a cartoon over the years, Craig was designed to bring him back down to earth. He bled, the way Bruce Willis had in “Die Hard.” He acted on instinct, the way Matt Damon did in “The Bourne Identity.” And he looked death in the face the way Christian Bale had in “Batman Begins.” Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy was a perfect template for the new Bond, going back to the beginning in an attempt to reconcile how an iconic hero could exist in human skin.
Part of the answer came in his female co-star, Eva Green, who exuded a sophistication and intelligence unmatched by his earlier floozies as Vesper Lynd. I don’t think of her as a particularly great actress (she always seems to be wearing the same fake-smile scowl, as if it’s the only expressuion she has), but the scenes are constructed in such a way that her wits trump Bond’s, while brute strength — evident from the crazy parkour-style chase sequence that kicks things off — becomes his defining characteristic. Bond falls for Vesper here, which sets up a tragic ending that closely matches the dangerous finale of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” but this time they get it right. Vesper’s death is not only tragic, but has a real transformative effect of Bond — one that won’t be easily forgotten with the next film.