There are no watch lasers or exploding cigarettes. There are no villains with schemes to blow up cities using satellites or start a race of superhumans on the moon. There are no one-dimensional love interests named Jinx, Christmas or Pussy. “Casino Royale” has returned James Bond to modern reality. Here, there’s only a man with a gun, a villain who wants money and a girl, for once, with a brain.

Morgan Morel
Blonde, badass and … bowtied? (Courtesy of Columbia)

In his debut as Bond, Daniel Craig (“Layer Cake”) recalls modern fictional spies like Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer more than the suave double O’s of previous decades. Craig noticeably lacks both the smooth velvety charm of Sean Connery and the ideal tall-dark-and-handsome looks of Pierce Brosnan. Instead, his face is worn and full of nicks, and his blond hair and icy blue eyes might have cast him as a Bond villain in earlier films.

But Craig’s new Bond boasts a kind of rugged mortality – a welcome change from the seemingly invincible 007s of the past who could kill an entire army of Russians with a wink and smile. Craig’s Bond can bleed in a fight, feel remorse after a kill and even fall in love.

His defining moment could seem quite ordinary, and may even go unnoticed by the casual viewer, but midway through the film, when Craig finally dons the classic Bond tuxedo and stares into the mirror with piercing eyes, he visibly clicks into the role. It’s enough to give you chills.

“Casino Royale” is a modern-day prequel based on Ian Fleming’s first novel, and reintroduces the spy Fleming originally described as “half-monk, half-hitman.” A newly minted double-O agent, Bond learns that his first target is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, “King Arthur”), a financier of international terrorism who manages the high-rolling assets of terrorists and then secretly uses them to bet on the stock market. When Bond foils his latest market plan, Le Chiffre is suddenly $100 million in the hole, and arranges an obscenely highstakes poker game to win it back before his clients kill him.

Bond wrangles an invitation to the game, his $10 million buy-in brought to him by the breathtaking yet intelligent treasury worker Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “Kingdom of Heaven”). Green actually ends up the sleeper star of the film, a true departure from the traditional “Bond girl” who brings a flirty coyness that catches Bond’s interest. We soon discover that Vesper is key not only to this plot but the whole Bond legend, as her influence inadvertently changes how he leads his romantic life well into the future.

The main misstep of “Casino Royale” is its lack of truly epic action sequences. Who can forget the tank rampage in “Goldeneye” or the battle inside Fort Knox in “Goldfinger”? For a Bond film to be a true classic it needs to have memorable action scenes, arguably the franchise’s major allure, rather than purely relying on an actor’s ability to fill the role. But after a brilliantly choreographed opening chase scene, the pace of the film slows until it ultimately grinds to a halt during the poker game. The card game may be well shot, but it’s the low point of the film, and far too drawn out.

With a plot and characters anchored in a plausible reality, “Casino Royale” avoids much of the camp and absurdity that has plagued past films. Without the limitations of overtly ridiculous gadgets, cackling villains and shallow women, Craig is able to breathe new life into the franchise with a decidedly grittier take on the legendary spy. So how does he rank among the classic Bonds? Probably no one will ever catch Connery, but if anyone has a prayer it’ll be Craig. Only time will tell.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Casino Royale
At the Showcase and Quality 16

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