Casino Royale (2006) (PG-13)

Breaking from the horrid stretch of Pierce Brosnan Bond movies, "Casino Royale" has a special place in the Bond franchise because it's where most modern fans heard of the series and it's been done before. I'm not talking about the formulaic feeling that permeates so many films of the series. No, "Casino Royale" is actually the second film based on the book by Ian Flemming. The first was "Casino Royale" (seems obvious) and it was made in 1967 with David Niven as the leading man. It's essentially a Monty Python version of the series—an unashamed parody; but I would argue necessary for completing the Bond canon. Despite its tendencies to make a mockery of the subject material, the 1967 film and the 2006 film are fairly similar.
Following a purposely ambiguous prologue that reminds us that the Bond franchise has no clear timeline, "Casino Royale" then brings forth the best main title sequence that has yet to come. It reinforces that everything in the film will be about cards and poker. Silhouetted men fight each other through the credits and when the kill each other, they bleed one of the suits—clubs, hearts, diamonds, or spades. It's actually quite clever.
Bond, meanwhile is gaining a reputation for himself as the up-and-coming thrasher spy. He gets to this place in the public eye by storming an embassy and killing an unarmed terrorist, stealing the dead man's bag (which has a bomb inside), and hastily retreating, letting someone else clean up the mess.
Articles run the next day about how MI6 let an agent kill an unarmed man inside an embassy—the backlash is worse than catastrophic which means that we get to see more of M (Judi Dench back and better than ever).
Bond is left with the dead terrorist's phone and only a one-worded, vague text message. Determined to discover the truth behind all the killings and bring the terrorist group to its knees, Bond starts his own investigation into the affairs and he turns up a mysterious man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). This guy likes to take other people's money and play the stocks with it. Then he'll give it back and no one will be the wiser to the vast sums that he pocketed for himself. In the tradition of being a physically scarred villains, Le Chiffre has a small wound above his left eyebrow that never quite healed. His left eye is clouded over and occasionally leaks blood.
This goes to show you how the Bond series has changed since its birth with "Dr. No". The first movie had telegrams and a villain who had comically huge and vastly cumbersome fake hands. Here, the scarring is in the eyes, the window to the soul. The bloody tears could be another reference to the famous beginning sequence in which Bond shoot a bullet at the screen and red blood drips down from the top.
You can make your own speculations on that.
Bond gets news of a poker game which requires a $10 million dollar deposit just to get into the game. Having already foiled Le Chiffre's plans once, Bond goes for it again and enters into the game. He meets Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) the woman who is part of the treasury. She's giving him the money on the condition that he wins for England. He's very confident that he will.
In this winner-takes-all $150 million dollar poker game, "Casino Royale" manages to balance the suspense of the card game itself with the terrific action that it evokes from its situations.
"Casino Royale" isn't cliche-free, but it's a huge step above the last entry in the Bond series. The film follows the path of people knowing people. Bond has to meet Man 1 which will lead him to Man 2 and then Man 3, etc. etc. It feels very much like walking along a set path and only a few unexpected moments pop up.
I'll give it this, "Casino Royale" does have one of the best car crashes in film.
Daniel Craig is ten times what Pierce Brosnan was to the Bond movies. He's cool, suave, seductive, and the only Bond thus far that you actually believe could pull off all the stunts that he does. The first few scenes involve some great parkour, or free-running stunts. Craig proves himself the a credible and bankable action star.
"Casino Royale" doesn't shy away from the characters, it gives them time to talk and love between the explosions and the car chases. This isn't a perfect movie, but it is one of the best in the franchise.

Score: ★★★½

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