When Daniel Craig was announced as the sixth man to play Ian Fleming's James Bond in the motion-picture "Casino Royale," many Bond aficionados were concerned that the blond-haired "Munich" star would be too soft, or too pretty, to deliver the sophistication and sex appeal of the legendary secret agent.
Luckily, in "Casino Royale" Craig succeeded and — as only Bond can do — left the audience shaken and stirred.
The 21st installment of the world's longest-running movie series is nothing like its predecessors. At times, "Casino Royale" hardly feels like the Bond movie viewers have come to expect over the past 10 years. Departing from convention, the film strips away the high-tech gadgetry: no invisible cars, no satellites made of diamonds and nothing that would defy logic or physics.
Instead, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade take Bond back to the way Fleming originally imagined him back in the 1950s. For this reason, "Casino Royale" stays true to the book, showing Bond as a raw, egotistical and back-to-basics agent.
With "Casino Royale" giving Bond an overhaul, producers couldn't have picked a better director than Martin Campbell, who reinvigorated the franchise with Pierce Brosnan and 1995's "Goldeneye." This time around, Campbell throws the glamour and improbabilities to the curb. Gone are the tongue-in-cheek one-liners of the Roger Moore era and pretty boy looks of Pierce Brosnan. Instead, "Royale" focuses on action and character, with a younger, tougher James Bond (Craig) struggling to complete his first major mission.
The movie begins by turning back the clock to the beginning of Bond's career, seeing how he secured his "00" status. The teaser is dark and eerie, filled with flashbacks and intense fights. Soon after, the action shifts from the grainy black-and-white Prague winter to the searing heat of Madagascar, where Craig participates in one of the most intense action sequences a Bond film has ever seen, a chain of events that builds brilliantly and pushes the audience to the edge of their seats.
On the trail of terrorist loan shark Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Bond's first mission requires him to travel to Montenegro with British Treasury functionary Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) at his side. There, in the luxurious Casino Royale Hotel and Casino, he squares off against Le Chiffre in a multi-million-dollar poker game, needing to beat Le Chiffre and empty his bankroll. Although the card game is front and center, Campbell deviates from the gambling sequence, adding layers and side plots to make the poker game's stakes even higher.
Although the film is based on the first of Ian Fleming's 007 novels written in 1953, Craig plays the part of James Bond like it was written specifically for him. Fleming described the character not in terms of physical appearance, but in terms of charismatic heartlessness with a hint of a soul underneath. Craig is Ian Fleming's 007 — a professional killing machine, a charming, cold-hearted secret agent serving queen and country with a taste for fast cars, faster women, and luxuries like Bollinger Champagne and Bulga Caviar. Simply put, Craig is the first actor to really nail 007's characteristics since the early years of Sean Connery.
However, the biggest surprise of the movie was Eva Green, who delivers a masterful performance in the role of Vesper Lynd. Green is hardly the typical Bond-girl eye-candy, like previous Bond girls Britt Ekland, Tanya Roberts and Denise Richards, who took more away from the movie than they added to it. Green brings personality, depth and striking beauty that melts the heart of the secret agent, something few Bond girls have ever done.
Still, other members of the supporting cast make key contributions to a well-rounded ensemble. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen delivers a superb portrayal of Le Chiffre, playing the ultimate sinister, frightening Bond villain. Not only is Le Chiffre's character dark, he is also human, struggling with his own villains in the film. Dame Judi Dench also returns in her role as M. She offers the audience a certain understanding and depth of Bond's character, frequently questioning her decision to make Bond a double-0.
The movie isn't perfect. The main plot takes too long to get rolling — 144 minutes is dangerously long for a Bond movie — the theme song is catchy but out of place, and portions of the plot leave the audience confused.
However, the movie is all about Craig and his performance in the role, as he performs a side of Bond that fans aren't at all used to seeing from their beloved hero. Craig is beaten, battered and tortured, with his face receiving the brunt of the blows. While this would never happen with Brosnan or Connery in the role, Craig uses the opportunity to show that this is a new Bond — a secret agent who's more concerned with his job than his appearance.
"Casino Royale" erases all the over-the-top antics and posturing of the past decade. With the help of Campbell, Daniel Craig has taken Bond to a whole new level and to a whole new generation. More importantly, not once did his performance leave room for anyone to comment on the color of his hair.
Grade: 4 out of 5.