There was a time when my love for James Bond was unconditional. Like many fans of the Bond films, I grew up watching the exploits of 007. One of my oldest cinematic memories was a dusk-to-dawn Bond marathon at the local drive-in, where bits and pieces of Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever managed to forever work their way into my mind. Live and Let Die is one of the first movies I fully remember seeing in its entirety at the theatre, and when ever Bond films turned up on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, I watched religiously. During my junior high and high school years there was a local second-run theatre that had an annual Bond film festival where you could see two movies for about $4. I attended those festivals every year for six years, seeing every Bond movie on the big screen (complete with trailers). Looking back, my love for film began with the 007 films (along with the Planet of the Apes series), and it was that passion that eventually grew to encompass film as a whole, which eventually led me to a career as a professional film critic. So, when I say I love the Bond films, and I owe the franchise a lot, I'm not exaggerating.
All of that said, I don't love all the Bond films. By the time Octopussy rolled around, I was starting to wise up. There's no denying that Octopussy was the first out-right terrible Bond film (although Moonraker came close), and with that film, I realized that I could not just blindly pledge my love to a single film, just because I enjoyed the other installments in the series (Star Wars fans, please take note). As bad as Octopussy was, and it was bad, it was only a test-run for A View to a Kill, which was more disappointing than my first ill-fated sexual encounter. There was a brief moment of hope when Timothy Dalton took over the role in Living Daylights, but with License to Kill, not only was the franchise completely in the toilet, it needed to be flushed.
During the Pierce Brosnan era I was briefly reinvigorated by Goldeneye, which definitely gave the franchise a new lease on life. I even enjoyed most of the Brosnan films that followed, although I'd be hard put to tell you what any of them were about. Entertainingly forgettable is probably the best way to describe the Brosnan era of Bond. The films were on par with the better Roger Moore entries, and Brosnan himself was better than Moore. But there is only so much you can do with a film series that has been around for over 40 years. Which is why the latest Bond film, Casino Royale, which introduces a new Bond in the form of blonde-hair, blue-eyed actor Daniel Craig, is such an exciting kick in the ass. Just as Goldeneye managed to energize the tired series, Casino Royale once again gives the aging series a refreshing, reinvigorated fašade.
In what amounts to a re-launch of the film series that adapts Ian Fleming's beloved Cold War era spy thrillers, Casino Royale sets itself up as the first adventure of Britain's top super spy. As the pre-title sequence explains, a MI6 agent must have two confirmed kills in order to get their double-o status -- Bond isn't even 007 when the film starts. After a disappointing title sequence (what happened to the naked chicks dancing around?), and a song that doesn't quite stack up with say the theme from Thunderball (who would've though the guy from Soundgarden would some day be singing a Bond theme?), the film kicks into high gear. The simplified version of the plot has Bond out to stop an international operation that funds terrorism. The nuts and bolts of the story are not as important as with a film that was, you know, not a James Bond flick. All you really need to know is that Bond discovers that one of the key people involved in this operation is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a high-stakes gambler who is hosting a poker tournament set up to help him repay some terrorists whose money he foolishly squandered. Of course, Bond is not about to let Le Chiffre win the poker tournament, so along with Vesper Lynde (Eva Green), a treasury agent for Her Majesty's government, he sets out to throw a monkey wrench in everything.
With the role of James Bond up for grabs, there was a ton of speculation as to who the new 007 was going to be. The casting of Daniel Craig came as a suckerpuch from behind, knocking most people for a loop. Many die-hard fans were put off by the thought of blonde Bond with blue eyes. Having seen Craig in action in Layer Cake, I was not nearly as concerned about his ability to play the role as I was at the prospect of the producers being able to make a decent film. Given the inevitable truth that there was no way the producers were not going to cast black actor Colin Salmon -- the man who should have been the new Bond -- the fact they were willing to go with someone who at least looked a little different was the best thing Casino Royale had going for it.
Craig steps into the Bond character with supreme confidence, pulling off the asskicker in the tuxedo role with ease. The fact that the movie itself is pretty good is a bonus. Casino Royale is the grittier, tougher Bond that Living Daylights promised, but never delivered. Along those same lines, Craig is the more dangerous Bond that Timothy Dalton was set up to be, but never became thanks to a not-too-bad film, and one that was just plain awful. Pierce Brosnan did a solid job with the role, especially when contrasted to the pathetic jokes that were the final Moore films and the brief Dalton era. But Brosnan never inhabited the role the way Sean Connery did, and with a little luck and a few good films under his belt, Daniel Craig will become the second-best Bond. No one will ever be able to pull off 007 better than Connery, and no Bond film will ever be better than the early ones -- specifically Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. Even On Her Majesty's Secret Service ranks as one of, if not the best Bond film (only to be hampered by Goerge Lazenby's one-time-only performance). But as it stands, Casino Royale ranks among the better Bond films, and even if Craig were to pull a Lazenby and only play Bond one time, he's proven that he is second only to Connery.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]