First there was Sean Connery. Then there was George Lazenby. Then it was Connery again, followed by Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and, most recently, Pierce Brosnan.
Now, after 44 years and 20 official films that have collectively grossed more than $3.7 billion worldwide, Daniel Craig inherits the James Bond franchise with a $150 million-budgeted big screen version of the Ian Fleming novel that started it all -- 1953’s “Casino Royale.” Not to be confused with the terrible 1967 spoof of the same name that starred Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, Agent 007 goes back to basics with a gritty makeover that, thankfully, dispenses with the outlandish spectacle of the more recent Bond adventures and reinvents the character to make him relevant again for a demanding 21st Century audience.
That’s good news for Craig, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 38-year-old Brit who—after impressive turns in 2002’s “Road to Perdition” and 2004’s “Layer Cake”—faced intense media scrutiny when he was first cast in the role. But regardless of his appearance, he’s actually the best actor to play Bond since Connery. Where Moore was too tongue-in-cheek and Brosnan got lost in a sea of special effects, Craig’s tough, chiseled, physically demanding performance harkens back to Connery’s best work in 1963’s “From Russia with Love” and 1964’s “Goldfinger.”
The problem is that it takes a while for the story to manifest itself, and with a running time of almost 2 and ½ hours, the film is far too long. Director Martin Campbell—who also directed Brosnan’s debut as Bond with 1995’s “GoldenEye”—brings his talents to bear with a few well-staged, edge-of-your-seat action scenes. But the screenplay—written by Neal Puris and Robert Wade with a polish by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (“Crash”) -- lacks a hook-grabbing premise or the type of deliciously evil bad guy that makes the Bond films so much fun.
That doesn’t stop it from being a damn good ride, particularly in its depiction of James Bond’s early career. His first mission with a license to kill takes him to Casino Royale in Montenegro, where he must engage in a high-stakes poker game with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a ruthless banker who is laundering his winnings to fund terrorism. With the help of beautiful Treasury officer Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Bond must beat Le Chiffre at his own game while surviving a series of lethal attacks that will threaten his life, not to mention his future as an agent on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
With “Casino Royale,” Bond guardians Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson—daughter and stepson, respectively, of late Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli—have effectively restarted the franchise while disposing of the more clichéd elements that have marred the films for decades. There’s no Q-like character, no fancy gadgets, no signature Walther PPK, no corny one-liners. Gone are the huge, state-of-the-art lairs that are blown to smithereens during the finale, and even the usually indestructible James Bond shows his vulnerable side by getting the crap kicked out of him on more than a few occasions.
But, this being a Bond movie, there are a few mainstays: the exotic locales (filming took place in the Bahamas, the Czech Republic and Italy), Bond’s cool car (an Aston Martin, of course), M, the Head of the British Secret Service (played for the fifth time by Judi Dench), the famous tuxedo and, of course, girls, girls, girls. It’s just that Bond’s burgeoning romance with Vesper Lynd becomes increasingly contrived by the last third of the film, and Le Chiffre’s threat, while more realistic and grounded than those of past villains, doesn’t feel “big” enough to warrant a full-blown Bond movie.
Despite its problems, “Casino Royale” is still a very entertaining film, and it certainly paves the way for bigger, better adventures down the line. And since Daniel Craig is committed to play Bond for at least two more movies, it’s safe to say that the franchise is in very good hands, and moviegoers won’t have to worry about who’s going to follow him for quite some time.
VERDICT: SEE IT!