Review: Casino Royale

Newly christened with 00 status by his commanders at MI6, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is sent out to thwart terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, "King Arthur") from making a killing at poker during a private, high-stakes game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Tagging along with Bond is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, "Kingdom of Heaven"), an accountant who takes a shine to Bond, but is unable to digest his bullet-dodging lifestyle. As the two sink deeper into Le Chiffre's wicked schemes, their love grows, putting Bond's cold heart to the ultimate test just as he's getting used to his world-class spy status.

The last time we saw James Bond in action, the superspy was parasailing on a chunk of ice in a sea of glaciers. That's not to disparage the giddy good times of 2002's "Die Another Day," but clearly something that was once resourceful and dapper had given away to a cancerous bloat, and with Pierce Brosnan still in the role, the future was financially bright ("Die" is the top grossing film of the franchise), but artistically wounded.

The producers decided to shake things up, so out went Brosnan, gadgets, Q, and high-tech violence. In came Daniel Craig, a smorgasbord of knuckle sandwiches, and genuine love. The result is "Casino Royale" (IMDb listing), a James Bond film preoccupied with not having any fun. Well, the mission was successfully achieved; the fun has been vacuumed right out of this sucker, leaving a rock solid, impeccably made spy adventure that relaunches the S.S. Bond into uncharted, Conneryesque waters unseen since the Cold War.

Cutting to the chase: Craig is James Bond. Already an established, highly respected actor (if you haven't seen "Enduring Love" or "The Mother," get thee to Netflix post-haste), Craig brings his blue steel to Bond, reinterpreting the character as a unrepentant angel of death. This Bond saves the quips for boys with toys; he's a killer, relentlessly chasing justice, and incapable of letting the guilty go off into the night with a mere slap on the wrist.

Using his stocky build, Shar-Pei good looks, and his two lethal hands, Craig owns the frame as the legendary spy, throwing around bad guys and bewitching women as though he had their manual in his back pocket. Brosnan and Roger Moore perfected the cocktail-hour Bond, and those movies were a profusion of entertainment that served a mass-appeal purpose. Craig's Bond is fresh on the scene; his inexperience as a top agent leads to bloody mistakes, and his emotional vulnerabilities welcome heartbreak. This is "Bond Begins," and under Craig's reign, the audience is in for quite a treat if he's allowed to continue.

Sure, one does miss the gadgets, Maurice Binder-inspired opening titles, and Q to lighten the mood; but "Royale" is very careful not to embrace old habits, save for a quip here and there, and the occasional 13-camera-covered fireball. Stripped of his vices, Bond is reduced to his primal need to hunt, and returning director Martin Campbell takes great amusement in putting Craig through the punishing paces, running him silly around exotic locales and putting the actor through hell.

Campbell directed the best of the Brosnans, 1995's "Goldeneye," making him a smart choice for "Royale." Campbell knows how to mount these Bond pictures (the rest of his filmography is not nearly as interesting), and the filmmaker gives great depth to the globe-trotting scale of the picture. Campbell can do action, suspense, genital torture (Connery would be proud), and melodious romance while maintaining the cool edges of the desired reboot.

Campbell can also make poker captivating. "Royale," for all its fireworks and parade of obscenely gorgeous women (including Caterina Murino and Ivana Milicevic), is at heart a film about the high stakes of life, either on the green felt, in the crossfire, or in the bedroom. The picture's lengthy midsection details Le Chiffre's poker game, and while the scene doesn't quite carry the mystery and regality of baccarat, it clicks because it plays to the knowing audience. The second act also gives Craig the opportunity to find the spiky corners of Bond as he battles with the cards, his full-bodied attraction to Lynd, and bouts of poisoning -- the one sequence that Campbell truly botches through absurd camerawork.

Where "Royale" really scores is in the relationship department. Bond and Lynd are an attractive couple; their banter not one of comedy, but verbal swordplay to find a chink in each other's armor. The screenplay gives these characters the right amount of space to develop an attraction, wonderfully portrayed with heaps of chemistry by Craig and Green. You can see why Bond would open his heart to Lynd, and Campbell exploits this vulnerability to punch home the start of 007's future womanizing.

Not since the phenomenal 1969 Bond adventure, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," has there been such an emotionally rich 007 story arc and payoff. "Casino Royale" kicks off a brand new Bond ready to get his hands dirty, and it's going to be a terrific ride watching Daniel Craig reimagine the steps that eventually lead to the creation of the world's most famous secret agent.

Filmfodder Grade: A-