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Casino Royale (11/22/2006)
By David Robinson

Bond is back, and he's as good as ever. In fact, the current avatar purports to be a younger Commander James B., before he was issued the ‘license to kill,"¯ easily the biggest perk of getting "00"¯ status. The opening moments of Casino Royale take care of this oversight, showing our ageless hero getting his stripes in quick succession one busy night in Prague. The rest of the film takes two and one-half hours to explain how he got the way he is by the time we first encountered Bond on film in 1962 (!) in Dr. No.

The current entry won't be confused with the 1967 spoof of the same title. Director Martin Campbell is familiar with the formula for the series, having done GoldenEye in 1995. Daniel Craig dons the mantle previously worn by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pearce Brosnan, and he creates the raw, less nonchalant 007 as a humorless, stone-faced killer, still learning the ways of his world, but already master of the weapons it takes to succeed there. As an indication of the change in tone, the frazzled comic scientist character, "Q"¯ is MIA among the underlings of "M"¯ (the redoubtable Judi Dench, again).

Campbell and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis retain the bare outlines of Ian Fleming's novel"”one notable torture scene that will have male viewers squirming comes to mind"”but as with most of the film versions, it's a jumping off point. The scene shifts from the Czech Republic to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Miami, London, Italy, and even Montenegro. The usual lush venues"”casinos, luxury hotels, castles"”appear, contrasting the violent, sometimes gritty action. Campbell and film editor Stuart Baird have mastered the Art of the Chase, as the opening sequence demonstrates. There are also some great fights: in truck cabs, stairwells, collapsing Venetian pallazi, etc. Cinematographer Phil Meheux bests most of his predecessors in keeping visual interest, no mean trick in a film that last 2 and _ hours.

This being his first time out, Bond isn't after a villain bent on World Domination. Rather, he needs to bankrupt a banker who's bankrolling terrorists. (The action is set in 2006, making for some awkward anachronisms in the Bond chronology, but, hey, it's fantasy.) The heavy, LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is also a math genius who loves poker, making him a natural opponent for Bond, the "best in the service"¯ at the game. If making a not-so-friendly game of cards the film's climax strike you as tame, consider: in the course of the high-stakes duel, 007 has to deal with assassins, poison (of his vodka martini, egad!), and treachery of all sorts.

Bond's own bankroller, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) actually proves a match for him, at this early of his long womanizing career. He doesn't crack a smile until after she has bested him in a game of "sizing each other up."¯ She also provides Craig a chance to open out the character a bit, even displaying some tenderness, in one (fully-dressed) shower scene. Besides being gorgeous, Green also seems to have something going on behind her eyes, a trait not universal among "Bond Girls,"¯ so their romance, though predictable in its outline and outcome, is intriguing.

Casino Royale invigorates the Bond series, now approaching its 45th year. Fans of the series will spot a number of allusions, playful and otherwise, to earlier numbers. It's appropriately rated "PG-13,"¯ for violence and torture, as well as sexuality. At the credits' close, the filmmakers promise, "Bond will return."¯ I'm already looking forward to it. 


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