The reassertion of the Bond’s masculinity, a more focused script, a more-nuanced-than-most Bond girl and more than a touch of sadism are just a few of the elements that unexpectedly coalesce to help make Casino Royale a glorious return to form for cinema’s most celebrated spy. A year or so ago amidst all the bellyaching about the merits of the little-known, unconventionally handsome Daniel Craig replacing the foppish Pierce Brosnan in the coveted role, I had the opposite concern—I was afraid that the world’s most famous film franchise would destroy the skills of a supremely talented actor. 2004’s Layer Cake was more than enough evidence that Craig could take on a role of this type, but gone would be the idiosyncratic thespian of such flawed but interesting projects like Enduring Love, Sylvia and The Mother. No need to worry—if Craig can be this in-control of such an unwieldy action vehicle, I’m sure he can manage a career as well.
What interested me most was the inherent tension in the film via a role reversal: the sex god (as Bond usually is) for once has has become the sex object (is there another Bond whose body can compare? And director Martin Campbell gamely gives us more than a few eyefulls). Of course this comes to its climax with Craig replacing the precedent set decades ago by Ursula Andress as the beauty emerging from the clear ocean water, and Craig is able to pull it off because he seems so unconscious of his sex appeal (another Bond first?) which is further undercut but the occasional glimmers of vulnerability. The pairing with rising international star Eva Green is also an inspired touch: she’s certainly a stunner, but not perfect either (too many freckles, too much forehead)—but what counts is that the chemistry between her and Bond crackles with intensity, both sexually and emotionally. That the film drags on a little too long is easily forgiven, as is the unfortunately heavy-handed Death in Venice homage that threatens to overwhelm the fun. At first I was concerned that my initial favorable reaction was more lustful than thoughtful, but the passing weeks have left me convinced: Casino Royale features one of the year’s best performances in one of the best films of the year.