'Casino Royale'

New, flesh-and-blood Bond draws winning hand

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Daniel Craig, left, helps take the Bond series back to its relatively low-tech origins in "Casino Royale."
By Barry Paris
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Casino openings in Pennsylvania this week include "Royale," the brand new James Bond thriller, featuring a brand new James Bond -- fairest of them all.

Casino Royale

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini.

Director: Martin Campbell.

Rating: PG-13 for intense action violence, a torture scene, sexual content and nudity.

Web site: Casino Royale

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The blond Bond-shell is Daniel Craig, and we'll discuss him first, before the plot, because he's such a departure from previous 007s. Forget Sean Connery. (Well, no, never do that.) I mean, forget that dark, debonair prototype immortalized by Connery and his stem-cell descendants from Roger Moore on down. I've seen U.S. Savings Bonds that were more charismatic than Pierce Brosnan in "Die Another Day."

Craig is infinitely preferable to the latter. This sixth 007 is a blue-eyed cross between Steve McQueen and the young Kirk Douglas, with a brutish touch of Bruce Willis for good measure -- a tough, cold-hearted loner with slightly cauliflowered features that give him the profile of a boxer rather than a ladies' man.

A measure of the 007 franchise's power is that the only box-office names it really needs are James Bond and Ian Fleming -- fictional agent and dead author -- rather than a roster of superstars: Craig ("Munich") in the lead, French actress Eva Green as the love interest, and Danish villain Mads Mikkelsen are not faces that would attract long lines at the Giant Eagle, let alone the Oscar ceremonies. But all three of them do creditable jobs carrying on the tradition.

In keeping with that tradition, "Casino Royale" gives us eye-dazzling credits, thematically swirling around hearts, clubs, spades, diamonds and roulette wheels. This is Fleming's first book and James Bond's first mission: to stop an evil financier from winning a casino tournament and using his prize money to fund global terrorism. It introduces us to Bond before he gets his license to kill -- but he's a guy who drives without a license and is elevated to double-O status, against the better judgment of his M16 boss, "M," wonderfully played by Judi Dench in her fifth stint.

"I miss the Cold War," says Dame Judi.

At the outset, Bond goes to Madagascar to spy on an arms deal that turns into a spectacular high-speed chase, on foot, lasting nearly 20 minutes. From there, he's on to the Bahamas and Miami, to thwart the suicide-bombing of a state-of-the-art jet on the tarmac, thence to track down the rest of the terrorist cell.

Its kingpin is Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), banker to an al Qaida-Kinda organization that plans to raise cash at a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro. This excellent villain (played by Orson Welles in the spoofy "Casino Royale" of 1967) has "a derangement of the tear duct" that causes him to weep blood! Bond is charged with playing against him at the Casino Royale and financially destroying his organization.

Ah, if only it were that easy. ... But this is 1953 Fleming, and maybe it was back then.

Anyway, "M" assigns foxy, prickly Vesper (Green) to control Bond's purse strings. It's hate at first sight, but in the course of the dangerous marathon match they learn to cooperate and fornicate together in the line of duty.

The million-dollar card game in the original novel was chemin de fer, but that has been updated for the new millennium to Texas hold 'em poker, a complex and not intrinsically or visually suspenseful game. Compared to baccarat, it's a bit declasse. The serious poker players I know are apt to scoff at it.

But it'll do.

The film's most shocking, violent scene is one in which Craig is strapped nude to a bottomless chair and tortured by Le Chiffre's repeated lashing of his most sensitive area. Oy. Later, Bond's relationship with Vesper (the first woman with whom he's "really" in love) turns tragic.

The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis takes care of business, but director Martin Campbell (who did the first Brosnan entry, "GoldenEye") takes care of Bond's character development. The trouble with previous 007 "action" directors like Lee Tamahori was that they knew their way around chase scenes and explosives but did not know how to elicit credible dramatic performances.

"Casino Royale" is relatively low-tech, with far fewer special F/X pyrotechnics, gadgets and sensational stunts than previous outings. The combat is mostly up-close and hand-to-hand in nature. Even Bond's signature Aston Martins are reduced to cameo roles. It's no "Dr. No." Compared with its predecessors, this film is relatively unsmiling, presenting us with a more soul-searching and insecure rather than cocky, cheeky 007.

Tongue has been removed from this cheek, but at least we get a real character instead of cardboard cutout in place of all those Sean-begotten Bonds.

Film critic Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com .


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