There's one whopper of a reason why Casino Royale is the hippest, highest-octane Bond film in ages, and his name is Daniel Craig. This rugged, jug-eared Brit, whose irregular features improbably radiate a megawatt star charisma, gets the last laugh on the Internet buzz killers who've been ragging on him at craignotbond.com for being blond and blue-eyed and too short (five-eleven) for Bond duty. Not only is Craig, 38, the best Bond since Sean Connery, he's the first of the Bonds (great Scot Connery, one-shot George Lazenby, charmer Roger Moore, stuff-shirt Timothy Dalton and smoothie Pierce Brosnan) to lose the condescension and take the role seriously.
Craig reinvigorates a fagged-out franchise that's been laying on bigger stunts and sillier gadgets to disguise the fact that it's run out of ideas. And he does it with an actor's skill, an athlete's grace and a dangerous glint that puts you on notice that Bond, James Bond, is back in business.
Sad to say, Casino Royale is also weighed down by action-business-as-usual. Craig's a live wire, closer to the blunt instrument Ian Fleming imagined when he created the character in 1953, but he can't mess too much with the winning formula begun with 1962's Dr. No. Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who died in 1996, left the golden goose in the care of his daughter Barbara Broccoli and his stepson Michael Wilson, who fully grasp that the four stunt-loaded Bond flicks with Brosnan are the most lucrative in the twenty-film series and that they can't spend $150 million to produce a 007 art film.
Still, the producers deserve credit for busting Bond at least partly out of the box. The film opens promisingly with a scene - strikingly shot in black-and-white - that sets up Bond as an MI6 agent who may be too much of a hothead to earn double-0 status and a license to kill. Then come the familiar credits, and the typical song ("You Know My Name," by Chris Cornell), followed by a full-bore, full-color foot chase across rooftops in Africa. Though efficiently directed by GoldenEye's Martin Campbell, the chase stalls the movie and, worse, delays getting us up close and personal with Craig. Seeing him run and sweat isn't half as much fun as seeing him act.
After that, everything gets better. Casino Royale, heavier on character than action, was the first book in Fleming's Bond series, making it the ideal place to start the wheel spinning anew. That's right, Casino Royale acts like the other Bond movies never existed. We're back at square one, only the time is now, the fantasy is limited and the story is anchored in reality. Q, with his gadgets and invisible cars, is nowhere to be seen. The tone is set when Bond orders a martini. "Shaken or stirred?" asks the bartender. Craig delivers the answer straight-up and bone-dry: "Do I look like I give a damn?">And we're off, with even the stock elements getting a fresh twist. Take the villain: He's Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker who launders money for terrorists. It's a bit of a Dr. Evil parody that Le Chiffre cries tears of blood, but Mikkelsen, a star in his native Denmark, gives off a genuine eww vibe, especially when he tortures Bond with a testicle squeeze and pauses to leer at his naked body. Hero and villain go at it most excitingly over a poker table at Montenegro's Casino Royale, where a test of character, not strength, will determine the eventual winner.
What about the Bond girls? The gorgeous Caterina Murino sizzles as Solange, a babe he takes back to his hotel room for a roll on the floor that causes serious rug burns. But it's Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, a British treasury operative sent to stake Bond at the poker tables, who lifts her role to class-act status. Oscar winner Paul Haggis (Crash) contributes sly dialogue to a script that goes far beyond kiss-kiss/bang-bang. A scene in which Bond and Vesper attempt to guess each other's past histories trumps its comic zing with romantic gravity.
It also helps that Craig is mixing it up with a first-rate cast, including Jeffrey Wright as CIA agent Felix Leiter, Giancarlo Giannini as MI6 contact Mathis, and most especially Judi Dench, back in the game as M, Bond's boss. Dame Judi put her power on hold in the lightweight Brosnan films, but with Craig she comes out blazing, knowing she's found an actor who can give as good as he gets.
As the plot globe-trots from Prague, London, Miami and the Bahamas to an overblown climax in the canals of Venice, Casino Royale uncovers something unique in the 007 dossier: an unformed secret-agent man, lacking polish, vulnerable to violence and helplessly lost in love. Craig gives us James Bond in the fascinating act of inventing himself. This you do not want to miss.