At the outset of "Casino Royale," James Bond is just a fledgling agent who doesn't even have a "double-oh" classification. To attain "00" status, one must have registered at least two kills, and Bond hasn't eliminated so much as a single adversa-
Uh, never mind.
Bond gets physical and nasty in a gritty, black-and-white prologue that announces in no sly fashion this isn't going to be a dated, tongue-in-cheek romp featuring a world-weary, fiftysomething 007 chomping on a cigar and exchanging single-entendres with some bikini-clad bimbo with a porn star name. This is Ian Fleming's Bond, a no-nonsense sort who responds to a "shaken or stirred?" query from a bartender with a dismissive sneer and a sharp retort: "Do I look like I give a damn?"
Meet the new Bond, not the same as the old Bond - and thank God for that. The James Bond franchise is born again in "Casino Royale, " or should I say Bourne again, for Daniel Craig's compactly built, coldly efficient, stylish killing machine is more reminiscent of Matt Damon's Jason Bourne than the middle-aged bounder of a Bond played by Pierce Brosnan, and before that Roger Moore. With his boxer's nose, his chiselled physique and his piercing blue eyes, Craig is the most intense and the most athletic of all the Bonds - and perhaps the truest to Fleming's original vision. (I'm not saying Craig is better than Sean Connery, the Babe Ruth of James Bonds. I'm just saying he's more real - and more grounded in a somewhat plausible world.)
Gone are the silly, high-tech gadgets, the buxom femme fatales with the flat-line readings and the comic-book villains who often just about talked Bond to death before leaving him alone to expire, which of course meant he'd just escape and prevent the end of the world. As re-imagined by director Martin Campbell (who helmed "GoldenEye") and veteran Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with help from Canadian Paul Haggis of "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby"), the 21st-century James Bond is an arrogant and sometimes reckless agent at the outset of his career who kills without remorse and confines his trysting activities to married women, because that makes it easier to stay emotionally uninvolved.
After the prologue and a mediocre opening-credits theme song from rocker Chris Cornell, we pick up the action in Africa, with Bond giving chase to a terrorist bomber in an extended sequence on a construction site that features more death-defying leaps and bounds than a Jet Li film. It's an impressively shot crowd-pleaser - but it's also far too long and complicated, which could be said of the film as a whole. (This is only the first of TWO elaborate action sequences involving construction sites.)
At 144 minutes, "Casino Royale" would have benefited from a 25- minute trim - and maybe a handy "Know Your Villains" brochure to keep us up to speed on all the plot machinations and the various ultra-evil bad guys who pop in and out. (It's never a good sign when you're more than two hours into a movie, and you're still not entirely certain which guy is supposed to be the main villain.)
The filmmakers also make a key mistake in that first action sequence that's repeated later in the film: They give us the chase scene first and then explain who Bond is chasing and why. This diffuses our interest and investment in Bond actually, you know, catching the guy.
In any case, Bond's first major assignment results in an international embarrassment for the MI6 and earns Bond a major dressing-down from Judi Dench's M, who has such little faith in this "blunt instrument," as she calls him, that she has a chip implanted in his forearm so the agency can track his every movement.
In rapid-fire fashion, Bond zips from the Bahamas to Miami to Venice, among other locales, pausing just long enough to dispatch a henchman here and there in hand-to-hand combat or with a quick burst of gunfire. (He also hooks up with the luscious wife of one adversary, but before the act can be consummated, he has to resume the chase, so he orders champagne from room service and slips away without looking back. At that moment, we wonder if this guy is going to be the stupidest James Bond ever.)
Bond's main prey seems to be a Eurotrashy snake named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen in a bland performance), who occasionally sheds a tear of real blood due to some unexplained injury to one eye. Le Chiffre is a financially strapped terrorist who aims to win more than $100 million in a high-stakes poker showdown at the Casino Royale in Montenegro that would have even Phil Ivey saying, "That's too rich for my blood."
As luck (so to speak) would have it, Bond is the best poker player in the MI6, so the British government funds his $10 million buy-in to the tournament and assigns an accountant named Vesper Lynd (the gorgeous French actress Eva Green) to oversee his table skills and determine whether Bond should be given a $5 million re-buy, should the occasion arise.
The poker game scenes are expertly shot and filled with humorous asides and some violent escapades during breaks in the table action. (Unfortunately, the final showdown, like the Steve McQueen- Edward G. Robinson confrontation in "The Cincinnati Kid," features card combinations you wouldn't see in a real poker game if you played every day for a thousand years.) Along the way, Bond forges alliances with a Montenegro connection (Giancarlo Giannini) who seems to know everybody and an American poker player (Jeffrey Wright) - and of course, he begins the dance of courtship with Vesper Lynd, who is immune to his charms.
For a while.
"Casino Royale" is not without a sense of humour. There are several winks to the franchise, from the martini orders to the appearance of a 1964 Aston Martin to Bond's joke that Lynd's alias is going to be "Stephanie Broadchest." And when Bond identifies himself - well, it's one of the most satisfying utterances of "Bond, James Bond," in the storied history of the franchise.
The problems arise because this edition is too lengthy and too complicated, but it still isn't really about anything other than introducing Craig as the next Bond - a stripped-down, gimmick-free government assassin who makes a lot of mistakes this time around, but won't be so careless with his gun or with his heart the next time we see him.