What becomes a legend most? How do you retool an icon without alienating a fan base that has been loyal for longer than the core movie audience has been alive? What, in other words, do you do with James Bond?
Starting 44 years ago with Sean Connery starring as Agent 007 of the British secret service in "Dr. No," the 20 James Bond features have been as predictable in their suave posturings as the shaken-not-stirred martini preference of their protagonist.
Now, with "Casino Royale," the hero with a thousand smirks has been given a shrewd and largely successful attitude adjustment that ups the series' reality quotient and provides an opportunity for star Daniel Craig to show a wide audience just how good an actor he is.
Of course, the Bondmeisters have been too canny to jettison everything about their hero. "Casino Royale" retains the series' trademarks of beautiful, complaisant women in revealing outfits, high-tech gadgets and some of the best stunts in the business, here orchestrated by director Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye," "The Mask of Zorro"), one of the industry's most reliable organizers of chaos.
And, frankly, not all aspects of the remake have been completely successful. Hoping to expand the series' largely male demographic reach, writers Paul Haggis and the team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have attempted, with only partial success, to make a Bond romance more real than usual.
Plus there is a disturbing torture sequence that makes a mockery out of the film's rating. If the words "intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity" don't exactly sound like the definition of PG-13 to you, you're probably not alone.
One aspect of the new Bond that works from first minute to last is the most important one, and that is Craig's performance. With Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan taking their places as Connery's key successors, the Bond franchise has always been fortunate in its choice of leading men, and Craig is one of their wisest picks yet.
Craig, who was Ted Hughes to Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath in "Sylvia" and murderer Perry Smith in "Infamous," has both the physicality and presence to make this film's more brutal, less suave Bond, a man who would do anything to get the job done, completely persuasive.
But while you buy Craig's cocky Bond as implacable and impervious to danger, someone who can convincingly say "Do I look like I give a damn?" when asked the famous "shaken or stirred" vodka martini question, you also believe him, and this is crucial, as a flesh-and-blood human being who can be physically hurt.
"Casino Royale" needs this rougher-edged 007 because this was the first Bond book (previously filmed in a quasi-comic mode with Peter Sellers and David Niven in 1967) that Ian Fleming wrote. Though the plot has been updated to focus (inevitably) on terrorism and a critical card game has been changed from chemin de fer to the less elegant-sounding Texas hold 'em — this is still basically the story of how the Bond of then became the Bond everyone knows.
After a prologue showing Agent 007's first two kills, "Casino Royale" moves briskly into the film's initial and most breathless (literally and figuratively) stunt. This is an elaborate chase through several crowded construction sites where the prey, terrorist Mollaka, is played by Sebastién Foucan, who is one of the inventors of a dazzling style of movement called parkour, or free running. The roughly five-minute sequence took a reported three months to prepare and shoot, typical of the kind of attention to production detail that is the hallmark of the series.
Not pleased by Bond's cocky, not to say reckless, demeanor is his boss M (played for the fifth time by the reliable Judi Dench). But her critical comments ("Quite the body count you're stacking up") can't completely hide a kind of admiration for the man's cheek.
Though he stops in the Bahamas for a seduction and in Miami for another breathless stunt (this one involving a giant airplane), Bond keeps on the trail of the deadly and emotionless Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen taking on the role Orson Welles had in 1967), a kind of E.F. Hutton for terrorists who invests the bad guys' money at a rate of return the God-fearing can only dream about.
The heart of "Casino Royale" is set in Montenegro (filming was done in the Czech Republic's Karlovy Vary), where Bond involves himself with a $150-million winner-take-all poker game and the beautiful and sassy Vesper Lynd (Eva Green of Bertolucci's "The Dreamers") finds the heart under Bond's brusque exterior.
Though the film's final break-the-bank action sequence in Venice is worth waiting for, "Casino Royale's" 2-hour, 24-minute running time is long enough to exhaust all but the series' biggest fans.
Still, the last words on the screen are ones you can take to the bank. "James Bond," it says, "will return." You can bet on it.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity. Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes. In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times