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Casino Royale

(2006) *** 1/2 Pg-13
144 min. MGM/Columbia. Director: Martin Campbell. Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Wright.

Despite all the hype about the "rebooting" of the James Bond franchise, the changes aren't so radical in Casino Royale. Rather, they are subtle and smart tweaks meant to prolong American moviedom's most popular series of films. Everyone's favorite British agent is still good for a punch, a shag, and a quip.

He still rides in on an action stinger (this time, Bond's first kill—in grainy black and white) followed by a splashy animated title sequence scored to an orchestral pop hit-in-the-making (Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name"). The villain still grabs our attention through freakish gimmickry (asthma, milky eye, and bloody weeping), the products are still conspicuously placed, and the style can still be plenty corny when the filmmakers put their minds to it. Just ask the buxom, bikini-clad babe, astride a white horse, galloping (and bouncing) down a beach.

But this Bond—who has only just won his license to kill—betrays frayed edges and self-doubt. As agent 007, Daniel Craig (Infamous) is an alert and confident presence, crisp in his movement and wearing a smug smile as his mask. He wages an ego war with his superior M (Judi Dench), though he acknowledges—shall we say playfully?—that "double-ohs have a very short life expectancy."

With that knowledge, Bond is prepared to live fast, die young, and, if need be, leave a good-looking corpse. Working from Ian Fleming's initial Bond novel, screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough) and Paul Haggis (Crash) best earn their keep in the anti-romantic flirtation between Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Lynd, a casually sultry accountant, has Bond's number as much as he has hers, sizing up the hurt that left him "maladjusted" and brought on his "reckless" fatalism.

Lynd's fiscal and psychological accountancy is needed to keep an eye on Bond as he plays a high-stakes game of poker against power-player and international criminal Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen); should Bond lose, the government's dollars will go straight into terrorism.

The story revolves around this poker match, held at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, but makes room for action sequences of various shapes and sizes. Director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) peaks early with a rough-and-tumble, parkour-styled chase/fight (waged against parkour co-creator Sebastien Foucan) that includes grappling seven stories above a construction site; subsequent sequences include a race against time on a Miami-Dade runway, and the trailing of a suspect through a BODY WORLDS exhibit. The mortally exposed sinews of these specimens make an appropriate counterpoint to Craig's body-conscious but still-raw spy.

The hundreds of millions of dollars at stake ironically reflect what's riding on Craig, and requisite allusions to the franchise's storied history (a 1964 Aston-Martin is on hand) help to hedge the bet of a more restrained Bond. Wisely, the producers stage a kind of global disarmament, backing down a bit from the outsized stunt extravaganzas that have led the series to compete with itself; Casino Royale gives the reborn franchise a second chance to grow up.

The strong cast—also including Giancarlo Giannini, Simon Abkarian, and Jeffrey Wright as a key character in the Bond canon—establish that, like the world, a pretty face is not enough. The 21st-century Bond films won't just "play"—they'll play for keeps, meaning a torture scene won't have quite the safety of distance that Bond has often had, as his smirk became his soul. When this Bond gets battered, he feels it.

Surprisingly, Purvis, Wade, and Haggis stick quite close to the original plans in reconstructing the skeleton of Fleming's architecture, and indeed the erection and crumbling of facades provide a visual equivalent of Bond's own self-creation and psychic devastation. The latter ruins him as a man, but actualizes the spy. A hungry audience cheers on this tragedy; when the emotionally deadened spy takes ownership of his new self, introducing himself as "Bond, James Bond," we know before the final credits roll that "James Bond will return," and not fast enough.

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