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Review: ‘Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale’

Above: Daniel Craig as the new and revitalized James Bond in "Casino Royale."

The name's Bond. James Bond. This month Daniel Craig becomes the sixth actor to take on the role of the famous MI6 British agent. The latest Bond adventure is "Casino Royale" (opening November 17 throughout San Diego) based on the 1953 novel in which Ian Fleming introduced 007 to readers.

Technically, this is the third adaptation of "Casino Royale." There was an Americanized TV version with Barry Nelson as Jimmy Bond in the 50s, and a spoof starring Woody Allen in the 60s. But this is the first time the official Bond franchise (the one overseen by the late Albert Broccoli's Eon Productions) has actually filmed the novel. So for their 22nd Bond film, the producers have decided to go back to the beginning to in essence re-launch what has become one of the longest running and most successful film franchises of all time. One of the reasons for this success has been the franchise's ability to reinvent itself during its 40-year plus history. It began by sticking close to Ian Fleming's books with its films "Dr. No" and "From Russia With Love" in the early 60s. By the mid 60s it began a move toward gadgetry, special effects and spectacle ("Thunderball," "You Only Live Twice").

That trend peaked in the 70s and 80s when Roger Moore took over the Bond role and the series became more and more over the top (the best of these being "For Your Eyes Only" and "The Spy Who Loved Me"). In the late '80s there was a swing back toward grit and realism with Timothy Dalton's brief outing as Bond. And most recently, Pierce Brosnan's Bond announced the franchise's move toward slick productions loaded with clever quips and prone to poke fun at Bond for being a misogynistic dinosaur.

Now, Eon Productions is ready to put all those Bonds behind them to begin again, and let us see how Fleming's character came to be such a lethal and efficient secret agent. The "Casino Royale" novel marked the first appearance of James Bond, a Cold War era spy with a newly acquired 00 license to kill. The new film version takes us back to the beginning of Bond's career but updates the setting from the Cold War to the War on Terror. The film opens with its traditional pre-title sequence, this time a grainy black and white vignette showing a young Bond (Daniel Craig as the youngest actor to take on the role since George Lazenby) making his first two professional kills -- thus earning him his 00 status. Then we have the first title sequence in which Bond -- rather than luscious young females -- dominates the animated opening credits.

Daniel Craig as agent 007 in Casino Royale (MGM/Columbia)

Next, Bond's off to Africa for a wild chase involving a bomb maker/bank robber (played by Sebastien Foucan, the founder of the urban fress running known as Parkour). The wild foot chase takes them through a construction site (which some breathtaking fighting on a crane) and ends in an embassy where Bond's undiplomatic behavior gets caught on sureveillance cameras and provides grief to M (Judi Dench returning), who immediately regrets promoting Bond to 00 status.

The incident at the embassy in turn leads Bond to a man named La Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a slick moneyman who invests capital from other nefarious types in schemes that bring down legitimate companies while multiplying his own investments. But when Bond foils a plan involving an attempt to blow up a new commercial plane, La Chiffre is forced to enter into a high stakes game of Texas Hold Em (this is a needless change, in the book it's a game of baccarat). Le Chiffre is forced into this game in order to recoup the huge loss he suffered in the stock deal that depended on the failure of the new commercial jet that was suppose to blow up. Bond convinces M to stake him in the game where he guarantees to bankrupt the criminal. This will, they hope, force Le Chiffre to turn himself in order to avoid the wrath of his illicit investors who'll be wanting their money back.

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd; Judi Dench as M; and Jeffrey Wright as the CIA's Felix Leiter in "Casino Royale." (MGM/Columbia)

But Bond's money comes with some strings, namely Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a lovely treasury agent sent to keep her eyes on Bond and the $10 million. Lynd proves to be a somewhat prickly partner for Bond as they take an immediate dislike to each other. Needless to say, they eventually warm up to each other's charms but not before some verbal sparring as well as a few intense rounds of poker and some nasty encounters with the bad guys (including La Chiffre's sadistic torture of Bond that's taken right out of Fleming's book).

Bond's nemesis La Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in "Casino Royale." (MGM/Columbia)

"Casino Royale" serves up a welcome return to the grittier, more realistic, and yet still stylish tone of Fleming's novels. Gone are the cartoonish antics and comic book villains of the Roger Moore films (remember "Moonraker" and the metal-toothed Jaws?), and the outlandish gadgetry of the recent Brosnan films (remember the silly invisible car from"Die Another Day"?).

"Casino Royale" gives us a harder edged action film with a more serious and ruthless Bond, and it's a refreshing change of pace. Craig's Bond still has an arrogant swagger but he's not Brosnan's polished mannequin whose hair never got mussed and who just glided through missions. This new Bond gets bloodied, occasionally stumbles, as he executes his missions with efficiency but also a knowledge of the emotional toll it may be taking. There's also a sense that maybe Bond won't succeed, or won't survive. That's a tension that refreshing to find in this forty year plus franchise. And despite Bond's infamous reputation as a chauvinist and misogynist, he builds a genuine respect and affection for Vesper Lynd, one of the more memorable Bond girls.

Vesper and Bond enjoy a swim. (MGM/Columbia)

All in all, Craig is hands down the best Bond since Sean Connery originated the role back in 1962's "Dr. No." There was initial controversy over the casting of Craig. Many people were hoping for Clive Owen, whose work in the BMW "The Hire"

shorts coupled with his Bond spoof in the new "Pink Panther" film made him a popular choice for Bond fans. Other names bandied about were Gerald Butler and Hugh Jackman. Craig was criticized for being too short (at 5' 11" he is the shortest Bond), and for being blond and blue-eyed (it should be noted though that Fleming describes Bond as having grey-blue eyes in the books). But Craig should take comfort in the fact that when Connery was originally cast, he was criticized by Fleming and fans of the books for being too working class and for being Scottish. But after one outing as 007, Connery won over Fleming (who actually gave his literary character Scottish heritage after seeing Connerys performance) and fans. Craig too is likely to win over fans after they see the film. The actor delivers a hard-edged Bond who can be a cold-blooded killer; a cool, calculating gambler; and a matter-of-fact seducer of women. But he also knows that killing can sometimes be messy, and emotions can sometimes cloud judgment.

Daniel Craig as the sixth actor to take on the role of James Bond.

As for being too short, well he's only two inches shorter than Brosnan, and after Craig strips down for a few scenes in "Casino Royale," I doubt that female fans will be complaining about his stature. This guy is hot! (Just an observation: now that Barbara Broccoli has fully taken over the producing reins from her late father Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the new Bond seems to reveal a woman's touch: Bond displays his pects as often as the women show off their cleavage, and Bond, not babes dominate the opening credit sequence. It's a shift that I certainly appreciate.) As someone who's been a die-hard fan since I saw my first Bond film at the age of four, Craig towers over Brosnan, Moore and Lazenby in terms of capturing the literary Bond. (Dalton was actually a good Bond but he was just put in the worst movies of the franchise.) Craig doesn't top Connery but he turns in a different enough performance that he at least doesn't suffer in comparison. I for one am certainly looking forward to the next Bond film with higher expectations than I've had in decades and that's a wonderful feeling, one I haven't experienced in almost four decades.

Sebastien Foucan demonstrating the art of Parkour. (MGM/Columbia)

Directed by Martin Campbell, who helmed "Goldeneye," "Casino Royale"

also delivers on action. The early chase scene is breathlessly choreographed by Parkour founder Sebastien Foucan. Parkour -- the urban extreme running that was on display in this summer's "District B13" -- is moved to the third world for an exhilarating chase through ramshackle villages, jungle brush and a busy construction site. Although the Parkour action is not shot as well as it was in "District B13" it still dazzles. In the Bond film there are too many edits; this style of action plays out better in longer, wider takes that allow you to appreciate the physical grace and skill of the people involved. But even with the over cutting, the chase scene is exhilarating. Other action scenes also reveal a cleverness in design that you usually only find in Asian action films. Bond is often caught in physically tight spaces that force him to use anything and everything at his disposal, and to engage in hand-to-hand combat rather than to rely on guns and gadgetry. At one point he even makes improvised use of the mobile stairs for passengers embarking or disembarking on airplanes. And when Bond does have to rely on something other than his fists, he gets realistic tech support rather than gadgets. Although I do miss the late Desmond Llewelyn's Q and all his fun devices, it is refreshing to see Bond use contemporary technology and weaponry rather than goofy futuristic gimmicks.

The new Bond car. What other film would provide a publicity shot of a car! (MGM/Columbia)

My friend, though, had a moment of panic when he saw Bond driving a Ford. I assured him it was just a rental car and sure enough Bond soon found himself in a lovely Aston-Martin, his favorite screen vehicle. In the books, though, he professed a love for his super-charged Bentley that surpassed any affection he had for women.

What's also fun in "Casino Royale" is to see the characters develop. In the recent films, the characters were just a given. Bond, M, Moneypenny, Q and even the villains and women were just character types that we had come to rely on for certain traits and to fulfill certain duties in the formula. But "Casino Royale"

invigorates the formula by fleshing out the characters beyond their conventions. Now, Judi Dench's M gets out of the office and out of her role as a bean-counting bureaucrat to develop Bond's superior with a little more depth and interest. We see a relationship developing between her and Bond rather than just having them trade quips. Bond also gets to exchange more than double entendres with the main Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. He even gets to reveal a little more of himself. The direction the film takes bodes well for more revelations in the future.

Eva Green and Daniel Craig in "Casino Royale."

As for the Bond girl, Eva Green delivers a smart, sexy performance that doesn't top the best Bond girls (Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg) but she holds her own. I've always felt that Bond girls got a bad rap being labeled as bimbos and sex objects. If you look to the books or the early Connery films (not "Diamonds are Forever"), the main female characters were always intelligent, independent and sometimes even good in a fight. They may have had porn star names like Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead but they were also often doctors, scientists, pilots and secret agents. In elementary school, I remember loving Sean Connerys Bond and imagining I could be like "The Avengers'" spy Emma Peel to his 007. And I wasn't fantasizing about being some meek, submissive bimbo -- I was practicing karate chops and posing with a gun like Bond in the famous gun barrel opening shot so I could be part of the action. I've always felt that if I had a daughter, I wouldn't mind her looking to some of these Bond women as role models -- what's wrong with being smart, independent, sexy and at the same time able to kick men's butts. In the pantheon of the Bond women, Eva Green's Vesper Lynd is a solid addition.

"Casino Royale" isn't flawless, however. The final section involving the romance between Bond and Lynd, drags on even though we know how it's going to end. There are also some bad decisions made in the script (written by the trio of Neal Purvis, Paul Haggis and Robert Wade) like changing the card game to Texas Hold 'Em and then having a character narrate what's going on in the game when we already have a clear idea of what's happening. The script also shortchanges the character of Bond's CIA counterpart Felix Leiter, here played by the wonderful Jeffrey Wright. We can only hope that Wright will play a bigger role in the upcoming films.

"Casino Royale" (rated PG-13 for violence, language and sexual content) is the best Bond film in decades (and the best in all honesty since "Thunderball"). It moves the franchise in an exciting new direction. And for a Bond fanatic like myself, it's a welcome return to Fleming's actual novels. So go out and support this film on opening weekend so the studio will allow the franchise to continue in this direction and allow Bond to evolve in the new millennium.

Companion viewing: "Dr. No, From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (worst Bond actor in George Lazenby but best Bond girl in Diana Rigg), "Casino Royale" (1967), "Tomorrow Never Dies" (for Michelle Yeoh's action scenes), "Our Man Flint"

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