'Casino Royale'

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For a long time now, the James Bond franchise has been operating with alicense to overkill. That license has been revoked by "Casino Royale."It doesn't even feel like a Bond film as we have come to expect them, intheir numbing, increasingly gadget-dependent gigantism. No death raysfrom space this time. No invisible car. For once, most of the laws ofphysics are given due respect.

A renewed sense of engagement informs director Martin Campbell's tough,absorbing adaptation of the 1953 Ian Fleming novel, the one that startedthe whole 007 business. Daniel Craig is just right in the role, whichhas been rethought in ways that connect with the Bond Fleming actuallywrote -- not in terms of physical appearance, but in terms ofcharismatic heartlessness with a hint of a soul underneath.

Along with his bullet-shaped frame and unlikely azure eyes, Craig bringsan emotional volatility to the role that is both recognizably human andjust plain more interesting than his recent predecessors. He's easilythe best Bond since Sean Connery. Not since "The Spy Who Loved Me"nearly 30 years ago -- a wholly different, larky sort of entertainment,the highlight of the Roger Moore smirk era -- has a 007 movie been worthtalking about beyond matters of scenery, however you define it.

One hesitates to call "Casino Royale" a spy bash for grown-ups, becauseFleming's vicious imperialist-bastard worldview always had a bully-boyadolescent streak to it. But with "Casino Royale," you don't get thenagging feeling that screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and rewriteman Paul Haggis ("Crash") preoccupied themselves with demographics, orgetting the kids in to see it, or even the idea of topping themselveswith each new location. (The locations range from the Czech Republic tothe Bahamas to Venice.) The action can get pretty harsh, but there'shardly a scene that overstays its welcome.

This isn't one of those Bond entries in which hundreds of extras getmowed down every other set piece. The violence is rapid and personal,and a key torture sequence -- an assault on Bond's scrotum, straight outof Fleming -- relates more to Abu Ghraib than the comparatively ticklishscene in "Goldfinger" in which Gert Frobe threatens Bond's gents with alaser.

How much real-world anguish can this franchise handle? It's a questionhanging over every frame of "Casino Royale," and the answer is, "aboutthis much." The screenplay is set in the present day, trading thenovel's Russian Communist baddies for an Albanian funder ofinternational terrorism. Bond is a hot-tempered newbie in this outing,only lately having earned his hallowed double-0 status.

On the trail of terrorist loan shark Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Bondbotches an assignment in Uganda early on in the picture. It's worth itfor the audience: The first extended action sequence in "Casino Royale"has Bond racing, on foot, in pursuit of a bomb maker played by SebastienFoucan. Foucan's an ace practitioner of "parkour," also known as "freerunning." As he darts, leaps and bounds all around a construction sitewith Bond on his tail, the sequence builds beautifully. Its kineticexuberance announces that this will not be a Bond film dominated byfireballs (though there are a few) or double-entendres (one or two,unlike the several million littering the worst of the Moore and PierceBrosnan outings).

Under the watchful eye of M (Judi Dench) and aided by a fellow operative(Giancarlo Giannini), Bond arrives in Montenegro with British Treasuryfunctionary Vesper Lynd by his side. There, in the swank hotel andgaming establishment of the title, he squares off against Le Chiffre ina multimillion-dollar poker game. (It was baccarat in the book.)Daringly, director Campbell keeps this marathon casino sequence frontand center, although attempted assassinations and a poisoning make it apoker game with a difference.

Another difference: The romance between Bond and Lynd, played by Frenchactress Eva Green, is taken very seriously. Green's an intriguing choicefor the role, and she and Craig share some bracing, tersely flirtatiousexchanges before and after the big game. At times, though, Green seemsever-so-slightly out of it, in her wide-eyed way, as if trying toremember what her dialogue coach told her about sounding British.

"Casino Royale" is not perfect. It's longish. The opening-creditssequence is truly lame. Yet in the same way "Batman Begins" offered up acreation myth for a deathless folk hero, this film erases the excess andbombast of the last generation of Bond-going. Eleven years ago directorCampbell made "GoldenEye," the first of the Brosnan Bond pictures."Casino Royale" trumps it every which way.

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