James Bond might be the longest-running film franchise character around these days, but there is a dirty little secret to him: he doesn’t age well. At all. Stripped of its nostalgia, a trip through the Bond back catalogue is an uncomfortable confrontation with misogyny, racial stereotyping and imperial nostalgia. Apart from all that, though, it also lives and dies on the kind of action-adventure that becomes so addicted to its own corniness that what begins as a tongue-in-cheek take on Cold War espionage turns eventually chokes on its own smug whimsy. But Hollywood’s desire to reboot things isn’t always an exercise in cynicism; sometimes it provides a franchise with the kind of phoenix-from-the-ashes moment it needs. And in 2006, James Bond got it with Casino Royale, the 21st film in the series, the first true reboot of the franchise, and a remake of a long-standing renegade addition to the quasi-canon. Even Bond himself never managed to bullseye three targets in a single shot before, but with Casino Royale, he re-earns his license to kill, and then some.
The story takes place as we see British MI6 agent James Bond on a mission that will eliminate a traitor within Her Majesty’s Secret Service and will also earn Bond his elite“00” rank, with its license to kill. His next mission pits him against a network of international terrorism financiers whose agents—chief among them the mysterious banker Le Chiffre—prove frustratingly difficult for Bond to get ahead of. Through a series of clandestine raids, Bond causes enough financial damage to Le Chiffre’s operation that Le Chiffre must hold a high-stakes card game to recoup his losses. Finally presented with an opportunity to take down Le Chiffre quietly and maybe even turn him to aid Britain’s cause, Bond infiltrates the game posing as a fellow supercriminal. What ensues is a drawn-out battle of wits, nerve and subterfuge that involves a whole lot more than skill at cards. The result is an outcome that is a whole lot messier and more costly than Bond had ever imagined. Welcome to the big leagues, Mister Bond. And good luck. You will need it.
It’s fitting that this bold re-imagining of one of cinema’s oldest heroes should adapt the very first Ian Fleming novel that launched the series, a returning to form in more ways than one. Casino Royale exhibits the rarest of movie-making courage: to completely ditch the conventions that have made a beloved character so, but no longer work as they once did.
This new Bond is long on bravado and short on discretion, and as he blasts through his first mission with reckless abandon, he learns the hard way that just because he has a license to kill doesn’t mean he should be so quick to use it. That in a world of betrayal one must choose friends carefully. And that sometimes, it’s far better to outmaneuver an adversary than to defeat one outright. But all of that is small potatoes as the novice superspy learns the harshest lesson that the world of cloak and dagger has to offer: that “love” really is a four-letter word.
As this he runs into the limits of his own skill and ingenuity, as well as navigates different kinds of treachery at every turn, we see a Bond who is younger and tougher than ever before, and yet, more vulnerable and relatable than ever. It is a hard jog for some fans to take, but this is a move to create something that fits in a new world, where the realities we seek to escape why going to the movies won’t easily accommodate yesterday’s jolly fantasies of espionage as part of a Great Game. Instead, it looks upon these dark arts in more direct terms: as the contest of dirty tricks that nations engage in so that its leaders can bear to smile at each other when they meet at the table of diplomacy. In statecraft, behind every friendly handshake is a cocked pistol kept just out of sight; Casino Royale would rather focus on the pistol than the smile, and what it takes to be the one who pulls the trigger. It’s a departure into grim territory that not everybody is ready for, but that’s alright. There are still 20 other movies filled with enough guilty pleasures, trashy delights and cringeworthy one-liners to go back to, if one feels the need.
What makes this movie work especially well, though, isn’t just its willingness to break its own conventions, but the skill with which it crafts new ones. It’s terribly compelling to see a Bond who must contend with his own failures, and whose endless machismo not only fails to shield him from consequence, but also does a poor job of helping him endure them, too. Seeing Bond endure a particularly wincy torture scene is tough enough. Seeing his heart break later when he realizes that he has been played for a sucker is even tougher. As he struggles to make things right, we can practically hear the hectoring of his chief officer M, who is both the only one who sees the true potential in Bond and knows precisely how and when the guy is likely to screw up. The final act has the feeling of an adolescent who critically overestimated his own abilities, failed to heed the advice (and orders) of those older and wiser than he, and is forced into a desperate effort to try to fix things as much as possible before he must admit he was wrong.
It is great stuff that reminds us that no success in espionage comes without the taint of failure. And it’s why we so savor this movie’s moment of truth: when Bond sheds whatever is left of his innocence to become the spy he has to be if he’s going to survive. He begins this story as just another black-bag operator. But he ends it as Bond, James Bond.