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Everything Old is New Again:: CASINO ROYAL *** 1/2

For years, going to a James Bond film was a bi-annual ritual of disappointment.  From the cheese years of Roger Moore, to the muddled Timothy Dalton flicks, to the gadget and CGI-obsessed Pierce Brosnan offerings, attending the latest Bond picture was the equivalent of visiting one’s alcoholic spinster aunt, hoping somehow she might have gotten her life together, but knowing in your gut that it was, at best, a long shot.  Why did the Bond films teeter between the mediocre and downright awful for so many years?  As in most things, the answer lies in the simplest elements.

Whatever the genre, audiences ultimately respond to a well-articulated story in which the main character grows, changes, is challenged and emerges in a different place than where he began.  This ever-so-basic paradigm of storytelling is especially difficult in a Bond flick, as we want 007 to be invincible.  Bond will always find a way to prevail, so the trick is not just to challenge his derring-do and intestinal fortitude, but also to threaten to lay waste to his psyche as well.  Even Brosnan, a fine actor, could not raise the level of the last few films above their ultimate dependence on absurd gadgetry and slick visuals.  Clearly, the Bond folks finally realized it was time to re-think the whole deal, and the results are spectacular.  Casino Royale is a great film, quite possibly the best Bond flick ever (and this reviewer is nothing if not a Sean Connery purist.)

Casino Royale takes Bond back to his origins – in essence, the film is his first double-o mission.  The plot, though modernized, adheres fairly faithfully to Ian Fleming’s novel, the first in the Bond series.  007 must bring down an international terrorist financier, and it all comes down to a high stakes poker game between Bond and Le Chiffre, a splendid piece of Eurotrash played with understated and highly effective menace by Scandinavian actor Mads Mikkelsen.  Their showdown at the poker table is mesmerizing – it’s amazing what can be accomplished onscreen when you simply let two terrific actors do their thing.

Director Martin Campbell perfectly balances action and dialogue sequences, both of which deepen and develop Bond’s character.  Bond falls in love, learns lessons in style, patience and his own arrogance, come to terms with the vicious killer inside him and wrestles with the priorities of his life.  Luckily, they cast an actor eminently up to the challenges provided by the lean, smart script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis.

Daniel Craig, the new Bond, is nothing short of astonishing.  Handsome yet rugged, his cobalt-blue eyes literally pierce the screen.  In addition to the requisite cool required to play Bond, Craig brings previously unseen elements to the role.  His physical intensity lends a power to 007 severely lacking since Connery’s days, so much so that several of his attackers seem, well, too wimpy to stay in the ring as long as they did.  He moves like a trained fighter, killing his adversaries without remorse. 

Craig also brings genuine passion to the love story with Vesper Lind, played with no-nonsense pluck by the gifted Eva Green.  This “Bond girl” is not just eye candy – she’s 007’s match.  Their inevitable fall for each other is executed in a surprisingly compassionate way – Bond finds her nearly catatonic in the shower after she witnesses him brutally dispatch several bad guys.  In this powerful scene, the violence of Bond’s world is brought home not only to the audience, but to Bond himself as he comforts this previously strong-willed woman.

Casino Royale is a great rollercoaster fun ride, as any Bond film should be.  The many witty and exhilarating action sequences – the opening kills, the chase through an African shipyard, the gas tanker headed for an airplane – rely on cinematic execution and Bond’s resourcefulness, not dopey gimmicks like an invisible car (sorry Pierce, not your fault).

Daniel Craig is a keeper in the role – anyone still skeptical about his suitability to play 007 should kiss his muscley butt. The rest of the ensemble is first-rate as well, particularly Judy Dench as M, a woman who clearly understands Bond’s potential for greatness and recklessness and nurtures him along with an iron will and unyielding standards and expectations.

Should future scripts continue to maintain the level of Casino Royale, us faithful, Corgi car-owning Bond fanatics can look forward to a franchise that, after nearly 30 years, might finally live up to its potential.

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