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November 23, 2006
Movie Review: Casino Royale

I've always been a mild fan of the James Bond films. I think this comes from the state of the series when I got old enough to see them in the cinema; Sean Connery had given way to Roger Moore by then, and the series had grown cartoonish and self-effacing. Only later did I watch Connery master the role, and then see Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan tackle it in a serious manner, and I discovered the fun of Bond. Nevertheless, the fatal flaw of all the films came from their formulaic focus on sexy women and technogadgets rather than a believable plot or characters made out of more than cardboard.

In Casino Royale, however, the producers have hit the Reset button, almost literally. Daniel Craig makes his first appearance as Bond, replacing the excellent Pierce Brosnan, and the producers said they wanted to rethink the Bond approach with this casting change. They have returned to Ian Fleming's Cold War stylings, but updated for the war on terror, and they have done a masterful job of it. What we see is much closer to a taut, engaging spy thriller that almost makes the viewer forget that they're watching a Bond movie.

Craig's Bond has just been granted 00 status in response to a crisis at MI-6 -- a double agent who runs one of their foreign bureaus. After carrying out his first two kills, the hired assassin (as he plainly views himself) spectacularly botches his next assignment, emperiling Britain's mission to smoke out a terrorist financing network. Bond will have to atone for his mistake by finding another lead, and in doing so, he will eventually rediscover his soul.

The movie features excellent performances by Craig, who may have produced the most original Bond performance since Connery, as well as Eva Green as the woman who helps him find himself. Green made a splash in Kingdom of Heaven as Sibylla, the key to the succession in Crusader Jerusalem. Danish film veteran Mads Mikkelson plays the main villain in a debut of sorts for American audiences, and he's probably the most familiar element of the Bond genre, outside of Judi Dench's M: a creepy and somewhat eccentric villain. Giancarlo Giannini plays a key role in the middle of the film at the semi-climactic high-stakes Texas Hold'Em tournament, but sounds a bit more like a Greek chorus in explaining the amount of money in the pot.

Overall, it's an excellent fresh start for the venerable Bond series. It moves away from a successful but limited formula, perhaps not completely but certainly significantly. At 38, Craig is young enough to make several Bond films and re-establish the series as more gritty and realistic spy thrillers that stand on their own. If you're looking for a cinematic escape from the effects of tryptophan today, this should be high on your list.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 23, 2006 8:21 AM

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