November 23, 2006

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Casino Royale (PG-13)
James Bond is more rugged, less suave, less practiced and more likely to get beat up in Casino Royale, the first movie with Daniel Craig as Bond, which reinvents the series by beginning at the beginning — Casino Royale is Fleming’s first Bond novel.

Bond (Daniel Craig) is just getting his 00 status (00 being the license to kill) in the beginning of this movie. On his first mission, an investigation of a sort of investment banker to the terrorists, he kills a man at an embassy, earning a smackdown from M (Judi Dench), who sends him off to vacation. Bond, naturally, doesn’t go on real vacation but does head to the Bahamas so he can continue to chase these money men. We get to watch a shirtless Bond swim in the sparkly blue-green ocean as he keeps an eye on one of the suspects and that suspect’s almost cartoonishly attractive wife. Bond follows them and is able to stop an attack at the Miami airport.

Sufficiently convinced that what he lacks in discipline he makes up for in ability, M sends Bond on a trip to Montenegro and the Casino Royale, where he plays poker with government money in an extremely high stakes game the terrorist banker needs to win to make back money he lost when the airport attack failed. Acting as chaperone for the government funds is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who, of course, hates Bond at first, so much so that she can’t help but banter with him until they’re all but making out on the train.

Once at the Casino, Bond — a skilled poker player — finds that the villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is not as easy to beat as he’d hoped. Vesper thinks Bond is being far too arrogant in his betting and unwilling to risk more government money that, if Bond loses, will be spent on terrorism. Le Chiffre, meanwhile, isn’t too concerned with playing fair and sets up plenty of obstacles in the form of interchangeable henchmen and poison.

This being a Bond movie, there are cool cars, explosions, gadgets (though, this time, most of them are of the medical variety), girls in slinky dresses, girls in slinky dresses who fight with and then smooch on Bond, double entendrés and the appearance of a CIA guy at just the right moment (extra points for identifying him the second he appears on screen). But even these traditional Bond accoutrements can’t hide the grittiness of the updated character. Most recent Bond Pierce Brosnan wore Bond like a perfectly tailored suit and smirked throughout the movie about just how dashing he was. Those Bond movies focused on slickness first and worried about making Bond seem like a realistic character later.

Craig, on the other hand, gives us a Bond who is fallible. He is overly confident, he is emotional and he gets beat up. A lot. No more unnecessarily slow lasers moving toward a tuxedo-wearing agent. Craig’s Bond is stripped naked and subjected to some remarkably harsh torture and actually screams in pain while still trying to keep his British dignity. Craig gets battered and bruised and actually gives grunts when heavy objects slam into his gut. In a demonstration of why Craig is perfect for the role despite being blond and not nearly as pretty as some of the other potential candidates, he looks good injured, every scrape upping the ruggedly handsome factor.

For all that villains and Bond girls tend to be rather forgetable, both Le Chiffre and Vesper are solid characters who get serious performances from their actors. The accompanying action is tight, the special effects are well-used and impressively designed and the quips (which don’t clutter the room as they did in the past) actually have a bit of zing to them.

The only problem with Casino Royale is its run time — at nearly two and a half hours it is unnecessarily long and would have benefited from a 30 (or more) –minute trim. I sense that in the film’s final half hour or so it takes an extravagant amount of time setting up a situation so that we will have more of a gut reaction when we learn the truth. I did have a physical reaction to the big revelation but I doubt that yawning was what the movie was looking for. Likewise, Bahamas scenes, though lovely, are probably far longer than they need to be.

Even with this padding, Casino Royale is fresh and energetic. James Bond is transformed here from a figure of retro wink-nod fun to a real-life, world-saving action hero. B+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of some rather extraordinary torture for a movie with only a PG-13 rating, sexual content and nudity (some of it Bond!). Directed by Martin Campbell and written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis (from a novel of the same name by Ian Fleming), Casino Royale is a little under two and a half hours long and is distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.

— Amy Diaz