This latest attempt to rejuvenate a long-running film series returns to Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel to show the origins of the secret agent. In doing so, the filmmakers not only introduce Daniel Craig as the newest Bond, but also drop the overblown irony that marred the last few episodes. The result is one of the best, and most lavish, action films in years. Despite its flaws, Casino Royale sets a new standard for espionage adventures that will be hard to top.
From the black-and-white prologue, in which Bond brutally kills one enemy and then casually offs another, this is no-nonsense filmmaking--polished, efficient, and dedicated to telling a story whose problems and complications resist easy answers. Although set in the present, the script presents a Bond before his reputation was established--indeed, a Bond on the verge of being fired after a botched stakeout. This is an agent skeptical of his superiors and his assignments, but one who pursues his job with a dogged determination.
While trying to salvage the earlier mix-up, Bond stumbles across the work of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier responsible for investing hundreds of millions from "freedom fighters." The secret agent foils a bombing plot in Miami, forcing Le Chiffre to stage a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro to pay off his debts to terrorists. Backed to the tune of ten million by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a self-described "accountant," Bond tries to defeat Le Chiffre at the gaming tables in an attempt to expose the other members of his terrorist ring.
The seemingly endless casino summit, with Texas Hold'em substituting for the Chemin de Fer found in the novel, is one of the film's few missteps. Another is the long running time, resulting in part from one too many trick endings. And fans may be disappointed by the short shrift given to Bond staples, notably his high-tech gadgetry.
On the other hand, Casino Royale boasts one of the finest action sequences in all of the series, a pounding, thrilling chase through a construction site that quotes everyone from Harold Lloyd to the parkour martial arts found in films like District B13. With vertiginous stunts and insane pacing, it is reason alone to see the film.
Other actors associated with the part sometimes treated it as a joke, reducing Bond to a careless lech. Craig brings a single-minded drive and an arsenal of dirty tricks to the role, enlivening Bond's character without cheapening it. He acquits himself admirably in the action scenes, and is suitably intense even during the quieter moments.
Vesper Lynd was one of Ian Fleming's more complex female characters, the one responsible for Bond's often callous treatment of women later on. Eva Green is alluring enough in the role, although she is difficult to understand at times. As Le Chiffre, Danish actor Mikkelsen lacks the full-bore mania of classic Bond villains. But Judi Dench, reprising her role as M, adds real steel to her portrayal of Bond's boss.
Sumptuously photographed on locations ranging from Venice and Lake Como to the Bahamas, this Casino Royale easily stands up to any film in the series. (The novel was also the basis for a 1954 television show and a ham-fisted spoof filmed in 1967.)