By Marc S. Sanders

Casino Royale from 2006 is the one film in the entire James Bond series that gives the MI6 agent a complete character arc, and for that reason alone, it is also the best film to date in the franchise, and another of my most favorite movies.

Bond becomes a different person, and a different agent by the end of this film. It’s a pleasing and unexpected surprise.

Following the misfire of Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day, the franchise was wisely reinvented, going back to the origins of 007 and how he earned his well-known license to kill. Fans immediately protested the casting of a blonde-haired Bond with relatively unknown Daniel Craig. Yet, as soon as the film was released, tensions were overall subdued.

Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) returns to direct the EON Production’s adaptation of Ian Fleming’s very first Bond novel. The super spy quickly completes the necessary requirement of two kills to earn his 007 status and is assigned by M (Judi Dench, still so good in her role) to pursue LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a mathematic genius and money launderer for high priced terrorists. Bond engages in a high stakes’ poker game at the renowned Casino Royale where he must beat LeChiffre’s bluff or monies from his Majesty’s government will have directly funded terrorism. Along the way, Bond falls in love with the treasury agent, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who is assigned to fund his poker buy in.

This film offers a James Bond with faults and mistakes to learn from. He’s never completely perfect and he is subject to losing a bluff in more ways than one, albeit at the poker table or in the face of love. As well, Bond doesn’t necessarily think far enough ahead, as his kill ratio continues to rack up. To M’s displeasure, she wishes he’d have some reservations so that they can question who he comes in contact with. Bond doesn’t seem to consider that.

Daniel Craig gives a brilliant performance of a man who believes he is even wiser than the reputation moviegoers have been accustomed to for over 40 years prior. By the time the film reaches its climax in an action paced shootout within a floating building along an Italian strait, Bond’s steely armor is donned against affection or distraction. James Bond becomes humbled by personal betrayal. I never would have imagined. Death will never affect him again. Love won’t either. This James Bond makes mistakes, but never will he make the same mistake twice.

Mikkelsen is a great villain as the bad guy who gets in over his head. He is not trying to dominate the world. He’s only interested in a profitable return from his dealings with terrorists. James Bond can’t interfere. LeChiffre is a new brand of villain, but still written with a trademark deformity of weeping blood uncontrollably, plus a case of asthma. A far cry from metal teeth and hooks for hands. Mikkelsen plays LeChiffre as cold and terrifying, almost like a vampire with a winning hand.

Eva Green is the best Bond girl of the series. There’s a mystery and a dimension to her performance. Something is driving her and it may play against Bond ever succeeding. Green portrays Vesper as lovely, graceful and suave like her partner, but she is incredibly smart too. She is evenly matched with Craig’s Bond. A great moment occurs when James & Vesper first meet for dinner on a train and size each other up. Eva Green is precise in monologue delivery. She is assured and confident. This woman is able to read Bond before Bond is given the opportunity to seduce her.

Campbell puts together real looking and tangible action sequences where 007 pursues a bomber specializing in parkour, a sport of climbing and leaping on and off of objects within a construction area. There’s also a well choreographed fight scene in a hotel staircase.

The best moments are reserved for the poker match however. Campbell amps up the tension with these ridiculous hands the players have in a fierce match of Texas hold ‘em. Bond gets sidetracked with sword wielding killers and poisonous drinks, but still manages to return to the table time and again with his tuxedo neatly pressed. The interplay at the table with or without dialogue is mesmerizing.

Daniel Craig went entirely different with his James Bond. The wit is there, but the tongue in cheek is not missed. This James Bond doesn’t give a damn if his vodka martini is shaken or stirred. Most of the prior Bond films had the super-agent without any scruples or demons in his closet. World domination, death and casual sex were just all in a day’s work. This 007, however, comes with a heavy background. Craig is great with his silent, seemingly guilty regard for killing someone whether it be by drowning a thug in a flooded bathroom sink or stabbing another one to death amid a museum crowd.

Screenwriters Paul Haggis with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade write a dramatically induced James Bond story. A tale not easily forgotten. It was time to reinvigorate the franchise that was going off into the absurdity of invisible cars and over the top gadgets. The puns are still here, but they serve more as a cover of a necessary internal pain for Bond, rather than disregard for his actions.

Casino Royale is one of the best films ever made. No qualms about me saying that. It’s hard to find great relationships among characters with huge risks at play, and magnificent chemistry for one another, as well as the story that serves them.

Casino Royale is an absolute winning hand at any table.

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