It’s tough to say that a movie franchise generating revenue in the hundreds of millions per picture is in need of an overhaul. But the Bond pictures have been stale and predictable for years. In certain ways this is unavoidable. Bond is a super-hero, and the action genre, of which these movies are a sub-set, has a tendency to deteriorate into a string of stunts and action set pieces.
The obvious difference that accounts for the revitalization of the Bond franchise is getting a new actor to play the part. But the crucial changes in the new Bond have nothing to do with acting or directing and everything to do with story structure. Put simply, the writers have moved the character away from god and myth and toward the real and the dramatic.
This shift is apparent right from the start when the film establishes the new Bond’s physical bona fides. Which is a fancy way of saying this guy can believably kill someone with his bare hands. This is not the suave but slight Bond who dispenses with his enemies using a few karate chops. This Bond has a long, brutish fight to the death in a grimy bathroom. No fancy technology. Just messy, ugly hand-to-hand combat.
Casino Royale also uses the Batman Begins technique of giving the hero a recognizable weakness and need. This is still James Bond, superhero. But he is clearly troubled by his coldness and his inability to love. And he is not proud of the fact that he treats women as conquests and only sleeps with women who are married (and even gets them killed as a result).
A third structural area where this Bond moves toward the real and the dramatic is the opponent. The villain here is not the evil World Dominator, a mythical figure with no effect on the audience. The opponent here is someone who funds terrorism. His attacks are against real people and their deaths make an emotional difference to the audience.
Perhaps the biggest change here is the most difficult one to see, which is the shift from action to plot. Most Bond films are a sequence of stunts with no plot. There are certainly some big action set pieces in Casino Royale. But they are grounded in a developing plot. Plot is the most complex of the major writing skills and involves, among many other things, using the full 22 steps of every great story (see the Great Screenwriting Class). But one of the keys to plot is creating opposition not primarily from strangers but from those closest to the hero. Casino Royaledoes this much better than most Bond films and it makes a huge difference.
Films like Casino Royale, Superman Returns, Spider-Man, The Incredibles and Batman Begins show that sound story structure techniques don’t just work in serious dramas. They work just as well in super-hero myth stories. And if you don’t know what these techniques are, you’re not in the game.