My own view is somewhere in between, and I’ve been trying to puzzle out exactly why.
At this stage in the Bond-movie game, we’re looking at 14 books (incl vols of short stories) and 22 movies. The movies started after the novels, but they actually overlap for the last couple of Fleming’s works. The movies have variously been close to, or completely unreconcilable to the books. The novels and movies are different due to a different perception of the point of the excercise.
In general, the novels focus on Bond as the prime mover in the story and as the central element of importance. The movies have oscillated between that character bias and a “spectacle” bias. As it stands then, we have two different strong traditions with different emphases and any new movie must inevitably choose where in the spectrum it lies.
Casino Royale (2006) has strongly swung away from spectacle towards character. Given, therefore, your bias towards either end, you will like or dislike this movie? Almost.
Along side “character” and “spectacle” we naturally have “plot”. “Plot” is much more than simply “what happens”, as I have been exploring in my posts on deus ex machina. Like the other two qualities I’ve been referencing in this post, there are a lot of nuances. My favourite movies tend to be ones where there is not really much “plot” to work with, or where the plot is singularly “well” constructed. Some of the movies I have enjoyed very much recently are things like Sideways and Lost in Translation, where we have a fairly large subordination of story movement into character exploration. I have also enjoyed Layercake and the whole of Film Noir, where characters tend to be archetypal, but the plot is well arranged.
What Martin Campbell has managed to do in Casino Royale 2006 is subordinate spectacle to the other two elements. It is used to explore plot and character actions in a very nice and tight way. By making it a servant of the other two, it allows him to stage the kind of sequences that are absent from many of the close adaptations without disrupting the workings of the plot or characters too much. The opening sequence is perhaps the exception here.
Craig’s Bond is pretty much the character we are familiar with. The reset back to a Bond earlier in his career means that some of the cliches and refinements are gone, and he has a few rough edges, but the character is essentially recognisable.
In other words, my ambivalence stems from the plot. There can be little complaint about the character, who is cool, or the spectacle, which is spectacular.
I did a smidgeon of research, and found this review of the original novel:
Fleming, in a style suggesting a more literate version of Cheyney’s “Dark” series, manages to make baccarat clear even to one who’s never played it and produced as exciting a gambling sequence as I’ve ever read. But then he decides to pad out the book to novel length and leads the weary reader through a set of tough clichés to an ending which surprises nobody save Operative 007. You should certainly begin this book; but you might as well stop when the baccarat game is over.
Boucher, Anthony (1954), “Criminals at Large,” The New York Times, April 25, 1954, p. BR27
Which is a fairly apt summary of the problem. The movie has the classic phases of a drama, in which a situation is established, an action undertaken, and a climax. The trouble with this movie, and with the novel, is that it doesn’t stop after the climax, but carries on. The continuation eventually ties into what’s happenned before, but the last half hour of the movie felt very anticlimactic to me. Watching it, I was inclined to feel that we were looking at two distinct and unequal stories welded awkwardly together rather than truly integrated. Without wanting to sound too much like Aristotle, I think that the movie lacked an essential Unity of plot.
This is a common problem in “starting up” films. I think that Batman Begins suffered from much the same sensation in the way that we saw Bruce before assuming the mantel, and then subsequently taking on his “first supervillain”. Chris Nolan attempted to provide unity through the rather contrived Ras’al’Ghul, not perfectly successfully.
One thing which potentially saves a movie in that position is the use of an antithetical figure that can be cast as the other story pole. It seemed to me that the first Spiderman movie managed this very well. We had the creation of Spiderman simultaneous to an expository sub-plot about the financial collapse of Norman Osborne. We were drip-fed the elements of the film’s second stage at the same time as the whole first stage. One great strength of the first two X-Men movies was that same potential inversion: is it a movie about the X-Men, or Magneto? Superman Returns utilized the same technique in allowing you to look at it as a movie about Lex Luthor as much as about Superman.
The short version of that is that I could not re-cast the story in my mind into a tale that had a Unity of Action, about a not-obvious central character. Incidentally, this is the same device that Lucas was hoping to employ in the Star Wars prequels by including C3PO and R2D2, but it failed for various reasons I don’t want to go into here.
Several of my travelling companions are touting the new Bond as the best ever. On balance, I can’t quite go that far, but certainly think it’s in the top few. The other Bond movies which use the same careful balance between my three elements, but which have perhaps a greater degree of Unity are From Russia with Love and On Her Majesties Secret Service. I would rank this movie fourth after them, in that order.
My favourite Bond movie remains Goldeneye though. Perhaps Campbell’s first outing sacrificed a bit of Bond’s humanity to support his plot, but he redeemed all with Alec Trevelyan: the perfect adversary for Bond.
The conclusion then is that Casino Royale (2006) is a fine addition to the joint tradition of the movies and books, and a well crafted movie of its genre. Because reviews demand such things, I will give it a 7.5/10.