By all rights, 2002's Die Another Day, packaged like a cynical, weary best-of concert coughed up by an aging dinosaur, should have been and could have been the final James Bond film. Yet here we are, not only prolonging the 007 franchise, but at its very beginning: the third attempt to get right Casino Royale, the first book in Ian Fleming's series, which began in 1953.
Set in the present day, this kinetic, character-driven take is nonetheless intended to serve as the origin story of 007. And, of course, Royale is intended to kick-start a moribund big-screen series that's had more low points than high. Absolutely it goes on too long, and absolutely half of the damned thing makes no sense at all, yet to say Royale ranks among the best Bond offerings is not intended as backhanded praise.
Those who sweated and fretted Daniel Craig's casting in the role clearly never saw Layer Cake, a sort of gangster-fried warmup to Bond. Craig has both a nasty streak and a soft side never before seen in the series; Fleming would recognize him as most like his literary creation: damaged goods in a tailored tux. This Bond, unlike his smug, self-conscious predecessors, is a deadpan executioner with a penchant for letting his guard down too quickly. "I have no armor left," he tells this installment's love interest (Eva Green). This Bond's a rookie who makes mistakes that nearly lead to his death on several occasions. And this Bond has little interest in living up to the legend: When a bartender asks him if he'd like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond shoots back, "Do I look like I care?" In that instant, it's as if the part had never been anyone else's.
Adhering faithfully to the novel, Royale offer the quintessential Bond plot. There's the oily, disfigured Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a plot involving the funding of terrorists trying to take over the world, Judi Dench's scolding boss M, and even CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, wasted in a bit part intended to warm the heart). And there's the bullet-gray Aston Martin, the high-stakes card game (in this case, Texas Hold 'Em, to appeal to the dorm-room audience), the champagne-and-caviar romp with a villain's wife, the travel-mag settings (the Bahamas, Miami, Prague), and all the other accoutrements that decorate the doings. We are starting over, but not from scratch. Bond fans don't want reinvention; they'll settle for rejuvenation.
Director Martin Campbell, who resurrected the franchise with GoldenEye 11 years ago, accomplishes the same thing again—tenfold. No Bond film has ever offered a chase sequence on par with the opening one here, during which Bond and a bomb maker scurry on foot all over—and on top of—Madagascar. It blends the raw materials of such free-running films as Ong-bak and District B13 with the archaic conventions of the franchise, and refines the whole lot into something crisp, thrilling, and brand-new. ROBERT WILONSKY