Plot Quality: Casino Royale has a unique plot. For one thing, this is really the story of the villain more than it is the story of Bond. For another, this is the “smallest” Bond film ever as most of it takes place in a casino. There are action scenes attached to it, but the driving force is the drama of the card game. There is nothing else like this in the series.
With Bond having foiled Carlos, Le Chiffre finds himself in a world of trouble. He has taken his terrorist clients’ money and used it to short-sell the company who makes the jetliner. When the jet does not explode, the stock price does not fall and Le Chiffre loses his investment. He must now raise one hundred million dollars before his clients kill him for losing their money. To do this, he arranges a high stakes poker game in the Casino Royale in Montenegro.
As the game unfolds, we see a rashness in Bond that proves to be his biggest weakness. Le Chiffre exploits this and soon Bond is wiped out. Vesper then refused to give him the rest of the money he needs to keep playing. At that point, we discover that another one of the players is Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). He still has money but isn’t a very good player, so he agrees to sponsor Bond to keep him playing in exchange for Bond letting the CIA have Le Chiffre. Bond agrees and eventually beats Le Chiffre.
Bond awakens in a hospital and has Mathis arrested for being a double agent. Then he admits to Vesper that he loves her and he plans to resign from MI-6 to be with her. They go to Venice, where Bond learns that Vesper never deposited the Treasury’s money. He chases her and is attacked by Mr. White and his henchmen. In the ensuing fight, the house they are in collapses into the water over which it is built and Vesper dies. The film ends with Bond shooting Mr. White in the leg and taking him in for interrogation.
This film does a lot really well. First, it’s beautifully shot and the sets and scenery are fantastic. One mistake they do make, however, is in going for extreme close-ups and shaky cam action pieces – they do some amazing stunts, but you never get to see them because the director shoots them as close-ups. The travelogue feel is definitely back. So is the sense of class or opulence we like in Bond as everyone is well-dressed and he only goes to luxurious places... no smelly tourists pushing $1 bets in these casinos.
That said, there are some flaws. For example, the device of M being upset that Bond was promoted too soon grates, seeing as how Craig is already rather old looking. The big problem, however, is the ending. For one thing, the timing simply doesn’t work. The CIA failing to pick up Le Chiffre immediately and no one bothering to notice that Vesper hasn’t deposited the money with the government for what should be days don’t work. Mr. White coming in to save Bond at the critical moment isn’t very credible either. Indeed, the most likely realistic result of that scene is that White would have shot Bond and then tortured Le Chiffre. It is also hard to believe that aged, experience, cold-blooded Mr. Bond would chuck his job for Vesper.
Despite these flaws, this is a stellar film, but it would have been better with the last 15 minutes lopped off. They don’t fit the rest of the very tight script – they feel like someone felt forced to impose a “big ending” on a strong, personal film.
What Craig brings to this role which the others didn’t is a sense of genuine menace and relentlessness. When Craig’s Bond targets you, there is no escape. He’s like the Terminator. Yet, at the same time, he’s so tightly wound that you think he’s always ready to explode even as he comes across as the most cold-blooded Bond ever. Connery had flashes of this cold-bloodedness, particularly in Dr. No, but Craig lives it in every scene. Apart from this, Craig does lack the charm Connery had, but the writers help hide that by matching him with equally cold women, which limits the sex in his films, and makes his male-female relationships almost combative.
The real relationship(s) Bond has in this film are with men: Mathis and Leiter. Both are much closer relationships than the one he has with Vesper. In fact, it is the relationship between Bond and Mathis which drives the film and the relationship between Bond and Leiter that gives the film its second act. I would measure the quality of these relationships as being on a par with those in the Ocean’s franchise starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Wright and Bond and Giannini and Bond are simply compelling together. And they also bring a welcome heist feel to the film.
Villain Quality: Casino Royale has a fascinating villain. He is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a man whose primary villainy is that he launders money for terrorists. In other words, he makes it possible for them to use their ill-gotten funds to fund their activities. But there is more to Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre has been using his clients’ funds to gamble. Well, gamble is an odd word. What he’s done is take his clients’ money and use it to short the stock of the company that makes the Skyfleet airliner, a prototype plane being flown out of Miami. His plan is to have a henchman (Carlos) blow up the prototype, which will tank their stock and make him super wealthy when the stock price falls.
This is all very cool and it’s different from any prior James Bond villain. What they’ve done here is take what would normally be the villain’s backstory, i.e. the background told to Bond by M as M briefs him about the mission, and they’ve made that the plot. This is an interesting choice which makes Le Chiffre perhaps the most interesting villain ever in a Bond film because you are actually watching his story rather than Bond’s story.
All of this adds up to an excellent Bond film. Indeed, this could well be the best in the series, though I think at this point, we are largely in the “matter of personal taste” realm. And if it weren’t for the tradition with which the other films have been steeped and a bit of a strange left turn in the final fifteen minutes, this could easily be at or near the top. So in the future, I could see this entering the discussion of “best Bond,” but right now it still sits at No. 004 of 0023.