It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Daniel Craig was chosen to be the new James Bond for his nose: seemingly broken once and not quite fixed right, so that the face it defines will always catch, just a little, on the way down. This kind of coarse-grained superspy is exactly what’s called for here: for Craig’s first outing, Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, he’s going through the paces first outlined in the same-titled book, the first of Ian Fleming’s novels to feature the spy.
The first of many acknowledgment’s of Bond’s novice status comes in the customary pre-credits sequence: it’s black and white, and features Bond and an adversary cracking wise over the former’s recently acquired license to kill. Within the scene is an already much-discussed flashback of Bond and a goon slugging it out in a men’s bathroom, Bond racking up the first of the many bruises and lacerations he’ll earn over the course of the film.
Some of them are even emotional: the closest thing Casino Royale has to a Bond Girl is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, The Dreamers’s Spirit of ’68), a British treasury employee who bankrolls him in a high-stakes no-limit hold-em game against Le Chiffre, a terrorist-financier who occasionally drips tears of blood from a scarred eye. (Ah, the sentences one writes when reviewing a Bond movie.) Though the inevitability of their coupling is established in their first meeting — a nice little North By Northwest-quoting train car tete a tete where they spar by guessing at each other’s backgrounds; 007 is defensive because he hasn’t quite scrubbed himself into a state of streamlined anonymity yet — the equation isn’t consummated until Bond is ready to let out the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen.
It’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that Bond doesn’t stay off the market for long, that handler M (Judi Dench, for whom the honor of being chosen for the role still outweighs its one-note-ness) was right to warn him to be careful, that the movie ends by embracing the creed of everything that doesn’t kill you makes you suaver and more sadistic, and with Craig finally playing the part of a man who feels utterly comfortable in a tux.
Casino Royale, then, is the birth of Bond, or maybe Bond Begins. It’s just that one questions whether a franchise about a British man in a tuxedo who flies to various exotic locales to sip martinis, blow things up, and bed beautiful women with silly names is really something that’s in particular need of an origin myth.
One response, perhaps, is that the Bond brand has been subsisting on previously accrued cultural cachet long enough to necessitate some kind of phoenix-like renewal. In that case you can hardly fault the Bond producers for taking their product’s re-launch too seriously — it’s a family business, after all. But, now that we’re back at square one, here’s hoping future installments retain the sustained tone of reverence for the art of stuntcraft present in Casino Royale’s set pieces. The plot, such as it is, is set up like a food chain, with each ascending level boss assigned an extended action sequence. Honors go to the free-running chase across an African construction site that kicks things off, but a thwarted airport bombing, with Bond clinging to a fuel truck as it fishtails across the runway, isn’t far behind: in both, pyrotechnics are largely incidental (there’s even an explosion that’s heard but not seen), with the thrills generated from the narrow avoidance of destruction. So Craig and Casino Royale do satisfy — although no one will be blamed for preferring the earlier version of Fleming’s book, the 1967 spoof, 60s institutionalized day-glo anarchism at its finest and the product of a collaboration between five directors, more than a dozen screenwriters, and a half-dozen Bonds, including David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen. Now that would have been rebirth.