By Owen Gleiberman
Updated December 27, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Casino Royale: Jay Maidment
  • Movie

In the startling sequence that kicks off Casino Royale, we see James Bond (Daniel Craig, pictured), early in his career as a British secret service agent, dispatching two enemies in a pair of initiation kills that will elevate him to double-0 status. One of the kills is classic Bond, elegant and almost witty in its efficiency. Intercut with this icy execution is a far more lurid episode in which Bond beats the crap out of someone in a men’s room, bashing him bloody until he expires. It’s a side of Bond we haven’t seen before — but, of course, it’s a side that was always there. (You don’t get a license to kill for being a nice guy.) In Casino Royale, Bond is still learning to tame his impulses into a style, and he’s all the more dangerous because of it.

It’s almost impossible to think of James Bond without fastening on the trappings: the gadgets, tuxedos, and martinis, the cocoa-butter babes, the slightly ironic thrust of macho perfection incarnated by the words ”Bond, James Bond.” In many ways, though, the attitude of Bond, the internal quality that makes him tick, has long been reduced to just another trapping. The moment, really, that Sean Connery left the series, Bond became a jokey superhero in a dinner jacket, a guy who never flinches because he knows that he’s sure to come out in his favorite position: on top.

Casino Royale, which is based on the first of Ian Fleming’s British spy novels (it was published in 1953), relaunches the series by doing something I wouldn’t have thought possible: It turns Bond into a human being again — a gruffly charming yet volatile chap who may be the swank king stud of the Western world, but who still has room for rage, fear, vulnerability, love. Daniel Craig, the superb British actor who has taken over the role, has small, wounded-looking eyes of coldest android blue, ears that stick out, and a mouth that puckers into a scowl. With his blondish hair trimmed to a thatchy bristle, Craig is handsome, and buff as hell, but not necessarily the most handsome guy around — he looks like a dyspeptic Steve McQueen. The fact that he isn’t tall adds to the sense that he’s always working a bit harder, that he’s a badass with too much eating away at him to bother playing pretty-boy games. Craig’s 007 has an itchy trigger finger, he treats M (Judi Dench) like a meddlesome aunt, and he growls at a bartender who asks if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, ”Do I look like I give a damn?”

That’s the beauty of the movie. A Bond who doesn’t give a damn, who’s made affectless, even haunted, by what his job brings out in him, is a Bond we can all give more of a damn about. He speaks to an age of desperation, when the cosmetic barely holds sway over the cutthroat. In Casino Royale, Bond does many things he’s done before — turns criminal pursuits into high-flying death stunts, plays world-class poker, faces worldclass torture. At one point, he engages in such a fierce battle inside a Venice palazzo that the building comes crumbling down (that’s beyond spectacle — it’s blasphemy). Yet Craig, speckled with facial cuts, plays Bond with an almost bruised virility, making each of these actions an expression of unruly will. Casino Royale, the most exciting Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, has everything you want in a pop entertainment: physical audacity, intrigue, romance, but also a charge of personality that stayed with me for days.

Directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye), the movie has a plot full of the usual vaguely topical hugger-mugger, with Bond trying to trap a banker to world terrorists — a numbers genius named Le Chiffre, who weeps tears of blood. Played with velvet Eurotrash sadism by Mads Mikkelsen, this mad capitalist isn’t flamboyant enough to be a mythical supervillain, but when he and 007 face off in a poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, the eye contact is electric, and it’s one of the great sequences in any Bond film. Craig convinces you that Bond, shoving million-dollar chips to the center of the table, is literally ignoring the cards —that the bluffing, the psychology is all. After an attempt is made to poison him, he tells his nemesis that the recent intermission ”nearly killed me,” and Craig infuses that joke with a roughneck venom worthy of Connery.

There is also, of course, a girl, but this time she’s a true romantic adversary. Vesper Lynd, played by the dancing-eyed French actress Eva Green, is a British Treasury official assigned to stake Bond in the poker game and, generally, keep tabs on him, and as these two fling insults back and forth, they melt each other’s armor. Bond hasn’t just met a babe; he has met his match. And we have met him, as if for the first time.

Casino Royale

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 144 minutes
  • Martin Campbell