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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 18, 2006

When Pierce Brosnan announced he was stepping down from the role of James Bond, speculation about who would next inhabit 007’s natty threads immediately kicked into high gear. If you were an actor with a Q score higher than 25, your name was probably thrown into the mix along with the likes of Clive Owen, Hugh Jackman, and *shudder* Orlando Bloom. The casting process went on for so long – and with so many red herrings dropped by Eon Productions and casting agents alike – that people seriously started questioning whether or not the world really needed another Bond movie. Not only was the character himself an anachronistic throwback to a bygone era where leading men did unwise things like smoke cigarettes and have unprotected sex, but he’d become increasingly goofy, relying more and more on one-liners and gimmickry.

The solution? Restart the franchise by filming an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel and hire a largely unknown actor (Daniel Craig, best known for “Layer Cake” and as a member of the Mossad hit squad in “Munich”). In this installment (the 21st Bond movie), Bond has just obtained his “00” designation (having committed the requisite two murders) and his first assignment from MI6 involves bankrupting banker-to-the-terrorists Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a high stakes poker game held at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. Le Chiffre needs the $150 million pot to recoup losses resulting, not so coincidentally, from Bond’s action. If Bond wins, Le Chiffre’s organization is ruined. If Le Chiffre wins, well, one assumes the entire Western hemisphere will be vaporized in a nuclear holocaust. Obviously, this would be bad.

As in every other Bond film, there are fast cars (the 2007 Aston Martin DBS and Ford Mondeo), exotic locales (Italy, the Bahamas, the Czech Republic), and an implacable enemy. Mikkelsen gives Le Chiffre a reptilian quality, though he’s far from indestructible (a welcome change from pas Bond villains). There are also beautiful women. This time around, Caterina Murino portrays a henchman’s wife (Bond prefers his women married), while Eva Green plays treasury agent Vesper Lynd, assigned to keep tabs on 007 and the government’s stake money. Lynd manages something we suspect few if any women have succeeded at; cracking Bond’s detached exterior. Green is also played as an almost equal partner and not a caricature…another welcome departure from recent Bond tradition, although one wonders if there’s a codicil in her contract requiring her to wear raccoon-style eye makeup in every movie.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: “Casino Royale” is the best Bond movie since “Live and Let Die” – easily surpassing the majority of Roger Moore’s output and all of the Brosnan films, some of which weren’t that bad (“Goldeneye,” at least) – and Daniel Craig is the best 007 since Sean Connery. Where Moore and Brosnan were overly suave and urbane, Craig is a brutal, more reckless Bond. He’s a much more fearsome opponent than his predecessors – except maybe Timothy Dalton, who never got a fraction of the studio support his fellows did, or Connery – because you actually get the feeling he could legitimately kick the s**t out of you. Unlike Brosnan, Moore, or Lazenby, who prevailed simply because they were the Good Guys

This isn’t to say he’s perfect. Bond makes rookie mistakes, thanks to a surfeit of arrogance and a healthy amount of naïveté (the latter leading to some rather…unfortunate consequences). And it isn’t to say the movie is, either. It’s structurally identical to every other Bond flick out there, and it runs a good 20 minutes longer than it needs to. Purists will also decry the use of Texas Hold’em instead of baccarat, but as a marketing decision it makes perfect sense. Maybe 10,000 people in the world know how to play baccarat, and none of them are going to waste their valuable millionaire time watching this movie.

Besides, the action set pieces are top notch – especially an early chase scene through a Madagascar construction site – and Craig brings new depth to a character even the most die-hard of Bond fans (among whom I count myself a member) had long ago written off as hopelessly one-dimensional. Here’s a 007 we pull for not simply because he’s on our side, but because for the first time in many moons he seems like a real person, susceptible to fear and love as well as anger. His exchanges with Le Chiffre are priceless, especially one in which Bond finds himself at what would appear to be a distinct physical disadvantage.

In Craig, Eon has found a Bond they can safely hang a franchise on. I encouraged the naysayers to give the guy a chance when he was cast, and I echo that sentiment now. Yeah, he’s blonde and looks more like a street brawler than a sophisticated secret agent, get over it. He’s the best thing to happen to this franchise since Harold Sakata first flung his hat, and “Casino Royale” is quite possibly the best action movie of the year.

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