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November 15, 2006

Casino Royale

The Best Superspy Yet

James Bond Begins Anew
By Cole Smithey

Casino-royale-posterAll fears surrounding the future of cinema’s longest running franchise are put to rest with Daniel Craig capably filling 007’s shoes in a Bond film that shatters formula constraints and delivers nail-biting action in a considerably darker mode. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis relay Ian Flemming’s inaugural 1953 James Bond novel with a more serious pitch that compliments their depiction of the author’s budding international spy as an arrogant-if-capable renegade with a sizable ego to match his muscled physique. A sumptuous animated red-and-black retro title sequence segues into a grainy black-and-white noir realization of Craig’s super-action Bond earning his Double-O status in Prague before the movie shifts into full color. With a $10 million dollar bankroll, Bond travels to Montenegro to play a high stakes game of poker opposite terrorism-financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) to deplete the over-leveraged villain whose impatient investors wait with loaded guns and baited breath.

This younger, meaner Bond exerts calm acrobatic athleticism while in Africa attempting to capture alive Mollaka (played by Parkour innovator Sebastien Foucan), a potential suicide bomber, with the unnecessary aid of another secret agent incapable of concealing his radio transmissions about Mollaka’s location at a cobra-and-mongoose competition. The perp flees. Bond gives hot chase through a high rise construction site that serves as a gauntlet of mind-bending obstacles for the two men to exhibit their Parkour skills while jumping long distances from rooftops, cranes, and skeletal elevators. In case you don't know, Parkour is the French extreme sport of jumping, vaulting, and climbing obstacles in the fastest, most direct manner possible.

Director Martin Campbell ("Goldeneye") pushes the high-energy segment to establish Bond’s unprecedented physical discipline that he uses to manipulate the site’s imposing machinery. To Bond's chagrin, the chase ends badly in a bloody standoff with Nambutu Embassy guards. Bond’s explosive miscalculation is soon posted on the internet to the embarrassment of M16 and Bond’s boss M (played by Judi Dench in her fifth Bond film).

We get a sense of 007’s slash-and-burn ambition when he breaks into M’s apartment to search her personal computer for information that will point him to Le Chiffre. Craig's loner incarnation doesn’t wait to be sent on a mission; he assigns his own objectives. But Craig’s laser-focused Bond is no mercenary. He has a much deeper itch to scratch--one that will only be enjoyed briefly and much later in the story when he believes he has achieved what’s revealed as a latent objective.

"Casino Royale" is about the flaws and strengths of an ideal secret agent. After foiling a terrorist bomber at a Miami airport in a lengthy pursuit that nearly kills him, Bond inadvertently effects the death of a woman (Caterina Murino) that he seduces in the Bahamas.

An obvious break from the franchise’s signature formula comes in the form of anti-Bond girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Vesper appears mid-flight as a Treasury agent sent to approve and supply the millions of dollars in cash that Bond will bet with against Le Chiffre, a man who weeps blood due to a rare medical condition.

"I’m the money," Vesper tells Bond. To which he replies, "Every penny of it." It’s a witty moment that rings like a platinum bell in announcing the yin and yang sensual tension between Bond and the ravishing woman who is his intellectual and sexual equal. Vesper goes on to read Bond's personality just as precisely as he scans hers. The oddly romantic tete-a-tete provides some well-deserved humor spiced with a heavy dose of insight into the similarly isolated backgrounds of both characters. These are not the cardboard cutouts of previous Bond films, but rather genuinely intriguing people who communicate in a shorthand code of mixed messages.

Everything about "Casino Royale" is big without overreaching. Daniel Craig epitomizes the James Bond ethic with a fluid performance that fills every scene like mercury seeping into a grooved floor. He has a feline quickness and an innate understanding of Flemming’s character that would make the author proud. Most importantly, Craig’s Bond is a modern self-made man with a strong sense of immediacy who understands sacrifice, pain, and pleasure. There is a new James Bond in town. For once the comparison to Sean Connery’s heretofore-unrivaled interpretation is valid. Daniel Craig is better.

Rated PG-13. 144 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)



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