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(2006) (Daniel Craig, Eva Green) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: A British secret agent tries to thwart a villain's efforts to finance terrorist operations.
With his two obligatory kills, British secret agent James Bond (DANIEL CRAIG) has just achieved the rare status of "007." Following the damage and strained international relations caused by his deadly efforts to nab a criminal, however, his MI6 superior, M (JUDI DENCH), is displeased with his rash and impulsive ways, leaving her uncertain if he's the right man for the job. Nevertheless, he continues on the trail that he hopes will lead to financier Le Chiffre (MADS MIKKELSEN) who's funding international terrorists with the likes of fellow criminal Alex Dimitrios (SIMON ABKARIAN), which, naturally, leads Bond into the arms of Dimitrios' wife, Solange (CATERINA MURINO).

But such extracurricular activities must wait as Bond follows Dimitrios and thwarts a terrorist plot designed to generate a stock windfall. Now in need of the funds to pay his terrorist contacts, Le Chiffre sets up a high-stakes, invitation-only poker match at a casino in Montenegro. Local field agent Rene Mathis (GIANCARLO GIANNINI) manages to get Bond into the game, with British government agent Vesper Lynd (EVA GREEN) supplying his betting money, and undercover CIA agent Felix Leiter (JEFFREY WRIGHT), who's also after Le Chiffre, posing as another player.

As they try to thwart the villain's effort to raise the money he needs to finance the terrorists, Bond must also deal with attempts on his life, double-agents, and the fact that he finds himself falling for Vesper.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There's an old adage that when trying to move forward, sometimes it's best to take a step or two backwards. That certainly seems to be the trend in movies of recent, especially regarding recurring film character series. That's particularly true when it seems they've run their course, whether from sheer repetitiveness or simply running out of anything new or interesting to do with the character and/or storylines.

Considering they've been entertaining moviegoers for what will soon be a half-century, the James Bond films certainly seem to have fallen into that trap. Although the Pierce Brosnan era has been the most lucrative for the series, the actor reportedly had grown tired of the role, and the pictures were starting to blur together in the sort of same-old, same-old way that robs much-needed vitality from the experience.

Accordingly, and following in the path blazed by both Batman and Superman (although the latter only went back halfway into the pre-existing line), James Bond returns to his roots in "Casino Royale." Based on the first Ian Fleming story about the British secret agent with a license to kill, the film is not a remake of the 1967 movie of the same name, which was a purposefully over-the-top spoof of the Bond films.

Instead, and conveniently ignoring that the other 007 films existed, the screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis essentially reboots the character in the present day, right after he's achieved his "double O" status. Yet, rather than being the suave, cool as a cucumber and ready with the double entendre spy, this Bond is rough around the edges. His dispatching of villains isn't quick and efficient, but instead is awkward and messily violent, especially when his ego gets in the way. And while he has a way with the ladies, he's not yet as slick as in earlier (but later) incarnations, and has yet to perfect the love 'em and leave 'em mindset.

In short, the writers and director Martin Campbell (who also introduced Brosnan in his first Bond film back in 1995) show us Bond in the formative period before he became the familiar character played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Brosnan. Thus, while M is present (played by the returning Judi Dench), Q and his wild gadgets have been jettisoned, as has Moneypenny, most of the experience-based innuendo, and the over-the-top opening action sequence.

Of course, the all-important element for this series, and the only thing most people will be focusing on, is the man playing 007, and the filmmakers and fans alike probably couldn't have asked for anyone better than Daniel Craig. A little known name or face to the average moviegoer (he's appeared in films such as "Munich" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" but most probably wouldn't be able to identify him), he initially didn't fill the bill in my mind upon hearing he had been signed on for the role.

Yet, after seeing him in it, he's probably the best since Connery. As his face has weathered, he's looking more and more like a young Steve McQueen (don't be surprised if he's asked to remake "Bullitt"), with piercing blue eyes (that signal the film's return to color after a black and white opening), an incredibly buff bod that will have the ladies swooning, and the sort of on-screen magnetism that studios probably wish they could bottle.

He's not bad in the acting department either, near perfectly playing the character as he comes into his own while making mistakes, falling in love, and taking quite a licking. While Brosnan's last Bond portrayal may have started the ball rolling in terms of showing more realistic repercussions of such work, Craig's takes that many steps further as his Bond gets battered, bruised and bloodied.

Yes, and is to be expected, there's plenty of action. Yet, rather than being slickly over-produced as oft occurred in past incarnations, it's gritty and more hard-hitting here, with things starting off with a bang as Bond pursues and fights with a villain up, down and through a construction site and beyond. With Sébastien Foucan playing the character as a cross between Spider-Man and Jackie Chan, the sequence is a blast to watch, particularly since Craig's Bond isn't as adroit in defying gravity and must make up for that in sheer determination and brute force.

There's also the duo of beautiful women, starting with Caterina Murino as a villain's wife who's drawn to Bond. The more interesting one, however, is the government agent played by Eva Green. Rather than being the usual seductress turned damsel in distress, Green is a good foil for Bond, especially as the two try to size up the other upon first meeting. And while their outcome together isn't entirely unpredictable, it may just surprise viewers who've grown accustomed to the rote 007 routine.

Mads Mikkelsen is decent as the main villain, and the filmmakers add a nice twist to the usual facial scarring that signifies he's the bad guy who's survived some sort of prior violence. With his crossing over his eye, he has a tendency under stress to shed a tear or two of blood.

However, his quest -- to raise money to pay off terrorists he's been funding -- is the film's weakest element. While it provides for various superbly executed action sequences, it isn't that interesting from a plot standpoint. Campbell also lets things run on too long (the film is more than 140 minutes), especially regarding a poker section that occurs at the titular locale.

With little beyond a lot of money at stake, the sequence feels like watching the same on TV (meaning it quickly becomes redundant if you're not a diehard fan of such card playing), complete with Giancarlo Giannini's character serving as Vesper's and thus our color commentator. And the opening title sequence, with a somewhat bland song by Chris Cornell , doesn't stack up that well with the same in past installments.

However, the most important element -- the main character and his portrayal -- clearly does. With an engaging examination of Bond's early years and what will presumably make him into the spy as we previously knew him, Campbell, his writers, and especially Craig take the creation in a new and exciting direction.

It's hard to say whether subsequent sequels will complete the transformation back (or forward) to the slick, error-free character we've known for so long (meaning he'd lose the edge that makes him so interesting here), but the portrayal and various action set pieces make this film worth checking out. "Casino Royale" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 13, 2006 / Posted November 17, 2006

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