Casino Royale is the best bond film ever made. Period. End of discussion. No, I don’t want to hear that you think Goldfinger is better or Dr. No, or that Sean Connery or Roger Moore are better Bonds than Daniel Craig ever will be, because you’re wrong. Those films are fun and stylish in their own right, and some even cross the threshold into great film territory. But they never touch the gritty realism and fully developed characters of Casino Royale, a film martini neither shaken or stirred, but thrown in your face with its olive stabbed dead through your eye.
What’s particularly interesting is that many moviegoers will cite Skyfall as their favorite of the Craig Bond movies, with Spectre being a complete misfire and Quantum of Solace only making sense if immediately consumed after Casino Royale. Skyfall, while brilliant in its own right, is viewed as better because its more recent, it came out just a few years ago compared to Casino Royale which is now over 10 years ago. But Casino Royale is masterfully directed and photographed, a taut, tightrope act of a movie, deftly balancing action and emotional trauma, never falling over the edge into hokey melodrama or robotic action maneuvers. It’s the best of what a Bond movie has been and gives us the best of what a Bond movie can be.
Pretty much, the entire plot leads up to the events of a poker game hosted by Mads Mikkelsen’s arms dealer who’s also quite a math whiz, birthing a lucrative poker hobby. Mikkelsen needs to take home a whopping $150 million pot to pay off a debt to warlords and there’s nothing standing in his way, except for, you guessed it, James Bond!
Bond here is equal parts high society entrée and ruthless killer, a brute who isn’t afraid fight dirty just as long as none of that dirt smears his Omega watch. He’s clever but reckless, a brilliant mind with infinite capabilities, when it isn’t being drenched in booze. But what Bond isn’t counting on is Vesper Lynd, the first Bond girl that actually feels like James’ match, not afraid to mince words or face off in a proverbial battle of wits and charm with the 00 agent. Bond becomes emotionally attached, a big no no for 00’s. But the heart wants what it wants, with Lynd stopping (and starting) Bond’s over and over again.
But this Bond being a bit grittier and the Bond girl is more than just a Bond girl don’t necessarily make Casino Royale better than Goldfinger. And you’re right, they’re just different ways of portraying Bond movie archetypes. But there are two unique things that make Casino Royale a better Bond tale than any other:
1. The villain faces real, potential consequences and isn’t just orchestrating some “take over/destroy the world scheme” and
2. The movie actually focuses on the lives of the characters after the film’s primary events have ended.
It doesn’t just wrap when Mikkelsen is defeated or Bond wins the game. We get a 360 degree view of their lives pre, during and post Casino Royale, a full sense of who these people are and their motivations beyond just being MI6 agents and nefarious bad guys. Mikkelsen isn’t interesting because he’s a rich villain, but more because he’s a rich villain in debt. The fact that he owes money to warlords is what makes him endearing, not the fact that he cries blood (although that is cool!) Bond historically has seen women as dispensary, interchangeable one night rentals, just as replaceable as the hotel linens he romances them on. Lynd shows Bond just how fulfilling and forthright an honest connection with a woman can be.
But Lynd is more than just beautiful and smart Bond girl, she herself is as damaged as the 00 agent, hiding her insecurities and beleaguered childhood underneath $10,000 designer dress, not afraid to take on a man, but broken when she has to witness a man being murdered. And when we finally understand at the end just what has been driving her this entire time, it makes her death and her romance with James that much more tragic.
The only flaw of this movie is that the plot becomes a bit convoluted after the poker game, which ended up creating the messy events of Quantum of Solace. Seeing how just so many people were interwoven and doublecrossing each other doesn’t make us want to go back and watch it all over again to see what we missed, but is just a bit more tiring than anything. The thing is, the plot doesn’t really matter that much here, there’s a poker game, some guns, a few fast cars and that’s about it. And that’s perfectly fine, because this Bond movie is great because it focuses not on the action hands being dealt, but on the cunning players holding the cards.