All fears surrounding the future of cinema's longest running franchise are put to rest with Daniel Craig (Layer Cake) more than capably filling 007's shoes in a Bond film that shatters formula constraints and delivers nail-biting action in a considerably darker mode.
Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis (Crash) relay Ian Fleming's inaugural 1953 James Bond novel with a more serious pitch that complements their depiction of the author's budding international spy as an arrogant if capable renegade with a sizable ego to match his muscled physique.
A sumptuous, animated red-and-black retro title sequence segues from a grainy black-and-white noir realization of Craig's super-action Bond earning his Double O status in Prague before the movie shifts into full color. With a $10 million bankroll, Bond travels to Montenegro to play a high stakes game of poker opposite terrorism financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) to deplete the over-leveraged villain whose impatient investors wait with loaded guns and bated breath.
This younger, meaner Bond exerts calm acrobatic athleticism while in Africa, attempting to capture Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan), a potential suicide bomber, with the unnecessary aid of another secret agent incapable of concealing his radio transmissions about Mollaka's location at a cobra-and-mongoose competition.
The perp flees and Bond gives hot chase through a high-rise construction site that serves as a gauntlet of mind-bending obstacles for the two men to exhibit their Parkour skills while jumping long distances from rooftops, cranes and skeletal elevators. (Parkour is the French extreme sport of jumping, vaulting and climbing obstacles in the fastest and most direct manner possible.)
Director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) pushes the high-energy segment to establish Bond's unprecedented physical discipline and encyclopedic knowledge that he uses to manipulate the site's imposing machinery. To his chagrin, the chase ends badly in a bloody standoff with Nambutu Embassy guards, and Bond's explosive miscalculation is soon posted on the Internet to the embarrassment of M16 and Bond's boss M (played by Dame Judi Dench in her fifth Bond film).
We get a sense of 007's slash-and-burn ambition when he breaks into M's apartment to search her personal computer for information that will point him to terrorist-backer Le Chiffre.
This loner incarnation doesn't wait to be sent on a mission; he assigns his own objectives. But Craig's laser-focused Bond is no mercenary. He has a much deeper itch to scratch — one that will only be enjoyed briefly and much later in the story when he believes he has achieved what's revealed as a latent objective.
Casino Royale is about the flaws and strengths of an ideal secret agent. After foiling a terrorist bomber at a Miami airport in a lengthy pursuit that nearly kills him, Bond inadvertently spurs the death of a woman (Caterina Murino) that he seduced in the Bahamas.
An obvious break from the franchise's signature formula comes in the form of anti-Bond girl Vesper Lynd (The Dreamers' Eva Green). Vesper appears mid-flight as a treasury agent sent to approve and supply the millions of dollars in cash that Bond will bet with against Le Chiffre, a man who weeps blood due to a rare medical condition.
"I'm the money," Vesper tells Bond. To which he replies, "Every penny of it," a moment that rings like a platinum bell in announcing the yin-and-yang tension between Bond and the ravishing woman who is his intellectual and sexual equal.
Vesper goes on to read his personality just as precisely as he scans hers. The oddly romantic tête-à-tête provides some well-deserved humor spiced with a heavy dose of insight into the similarly isolated backgrounds of both characters. These are not the cardboard cutouts of previous Bond films, but rather genuinely intriguing people who communicate in a shorthand code of mixed messages.
Everything about Casino Royale is big without overreaching. Daniel Craig epitomizes the ethic with a fluid performance that fills every scene like mercury seeping into a grooved floor. He has a feline quickness and an innate understanding of Fleming's character that would make the author proud. Most importantly, Craig's Bond is a modern self-made man with a strong sense of immediacy who understands sacrifice, pain and pleasure.
There is a new James Bond, and for once the comparison to Sean Connery's heretofore unrivaled interpretation is valid. Daniel Craig is better. Grade: B+