I've said before that Casino Royale is topped only by Batman Begins as the most important franchise reboot so far, mainly because whilst 007's previous rejuvenation in 1995's GoldenEye had experienced diminishing returns with every new Brosnan outing, Joel Schumacher had directed the Batman franchise into a place so undesirable as to seem almost untouchable. Brosnan's last outing before handing the Walther PPK over to Daniel Craig had been the so-so Die Another Day, memorable for being both ridiculously over-the-top and incredibly tired at the same time. Die Another Day is nowhere near Batman & Robin levels of awfulness, but it was enough for the Bond franchise to be put on ice as Eon decided how to rejuvenate 007 for the 21st Century. Four years later, they gave their answer in the form of Casino Royale. And what an answer it was.
The film reintroduces James Bond (Craig) at the start of his career as a double-0 agent. After embroiling himself in the dealings of terrorism financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Bond finds himself playing in a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, set up by Le Chiffre and in which Bond must bankrupt the criminal.
Casino Royale cannot be seen as anything other than a comprehensive success. Tonally it is a significant shift from the campy cartoonish antics seen towards the end of Brosnan's tenure as 007. Gone are the fantastical sci-fi and flamboyant unreality, replaced with a gritty post-9/11 world in which Bond can operate as a secret agent rather than a wannabe superhero. Director Martin Campbell shows us that Fleming's secret agent may have germinated from the Cold War, but he can be remoulded superbly to fit into the modern day.
The casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond is an undeniable master stroke. It's hard to imagine now that, prior to Casino Royale's release, fans protested against Craig being given the part for a number of reasons, including the fact that Craig is fair-haired. Craig's performance shuts them up for good. He inhabits the role, showing reverence to the cinematic legacy that comes with the part whilst simultaneously doing things his own way. The opening scene depicting Bond earning his double-0 status (shot in black-and-white to show director Campbell really means business) reintoduces the character perfectly and allows Craig to demonstrate both the cool arrogance and intense physicality he will display throughout the rest of the film.
The cast elsewhere are equally spot on in their roles and the performances they give. Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre is in many ways nothing like a "Bond villain", but is unquestionably the ideal choice for rebooting the franchise. His performance is cold and unnerving with just enough strangeness lurking here and there to let you know you're in Bond's world. Mikkelsen's performance is a perfect marriage between old-style theatricality and modern realism making Le Chiffre one of the most effective adversaries of 007 seen in decades.
Eva Green too is superb as Vesper Lynd, the Treasury representative who accompanies Bond to Montenegro and becomes his love interest. Again, the opportunity to blow off the cobwebs and bring Bond into the 21st Century is taken expertly; the secret agent's relationship with Vesper shows a vulnerability and emotional side rarely explored previously, but entirely in keeping with his relative inexperience having just become a double-0 in the rebooted timeline. This Bond is not yet the jaded womaniser of Connery and Moore, and yet we are given more insight into just how he will become this than ever before.
The film feels crafted to an incredible level of quality throughout, something which has not always been the case with Bond films in the past. The cinematography is beautiful, allowing the plot to unfold effortlessly and the action, humour and drama to segue sublimely all the way through. Fleming's story is adhered to faithfully but not to the point of jarring with the modern day reboot. The film keeps the pace going but never feels rushed, expertly balanced and focused throughout.
As I said earlier, Casino Royale succeeds in all it attempts to do. The division from the previous films is firmly established, but this is still clearly a Bond film through and through. The rebooted timeline is potentially the film's biggest risk, but it works to perfection allowing Craig to take the role and make it his own without four decades of baggage to carry with him. As a closing thought, consider this: Brosnan's final Bond film was released in 2002, the same year as Matt Damon's first outing as Jason Bourne. Bourne wouldn't have given that Bond a second thought. Four years later, Casino Royale's Bond would not only match up to Bourne, but would teach him a few new tricks whilst he's at it.