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      Casino Royale Review

      Casino Royale poster

      Casino Royale

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      For a long time now, the James Bond franchise has been operating with a license to overkill. That license has been revoked by "Casino Royale." It doesn't even feel like a Bond film as we have come to expect them, in their numbing, increasingly gadget-dependent gigantism. No death rays from space this time. No invisible car. For once, most of the laws of physics are given due respect.

      A renewed sense of engagement informs director Martin Campbell's tough, absorbing adaptation of the 1953 Ian Fleming novel, the one that started the whole 007 business. Daniel Craig is just right in the role, which has been rethought in ways that connect with the Bond Fleming actually wrote - not in terms of physical appearance, but in terms of charismatic heartlessness with a hint of a soul underneath.

      Along with his bullet-shaped frame and unlikely azure eyes, Craig brings an emotional volatility to the role that is both recognizably human and just plain more interesting than his recent predecessors. He's easily the best Bond since Sean Connery. Not since "The Spy Who Loved Me" nearly 30 years ago - a wholly different, larky sort of entertainment, the highlight of the Roger Moore smirk era - has a 007 movie been worth talking about beyond matters of scenery, however you define it.

      One hesitates to call "Casino Royale" a spy bash for grown-ups, because Fleming's vicious imperialist-bastard worldview always had a bully-boy adolescent streak to it. But with "Casino Royale," you don't get the nagging feeling that screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and rewrite man Paul Haggis ("Crash") preoccupied themselves with demographics, or getting the kids in to see it, or even the idea of topping themselves with each new location. (The locations range from the Czech Republic to the Bahamas to Venice.) The action can get pretty harsh, but there's hardly a scene that overstays its welcome.

      This isn't one of those Bond entries in which hundreds of extras get mowed down every other set piece. The violence is rapid and personal, and a key torture sequence - an assault on Bond's scrotum, straight out of Fleming - relates more to Abu Ghraib than the comparatively ticklish scene in "Goldfinger" in which Gert Frobe threatens Bond's gents with a laser.

      How much real-world anguish can this franchise handle? It's a question hanging over every frame of "Casino Royale," and the answer is, "about this much." The screenplay is set in the present day, trading the novel's Russian Communist baddies for an Albanian funder of international terrorism. Bond is a hot-tempered newbie in this outing, only lately having earned his hallowed double-0 status.

      On the trail of terrorist loan shark Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Bond botches an assignment in Uganda early on in the picture. It's worth it for the audience: The first extended action sequence in "Casino Royale" has Bond racing, on foot, in pursuit of a bomb maker played by Sebastien Foucan. Foucan's an ace practitioner of "parkour," also known as "free running." As he darts, leaps and bounds all around a construction site with Bond on his tail, the sequence builds beautifully. Its kinetic exuberance announces that this will not be a Bond film dominated by fireballs (though there are a few) or double-entendres (one or two, unlike the several million littering the worst of the Moore and Pierce Brosnan outings).

      Under the watchful eye of M (Judi Dench) and aided by a fellow operative (Giancarlo Giannini), Bond arrives in Montenegro with British Treasury functionary Vesper Lynd by his side. There, in the swank hotel and gaming establishment of the title, he squares off against Le Chiffre in a multimillion-dollar poker game. (It was baccarat in the book.) Daringly, director Campbell keeps this marathon casino sequence front and center, although attempted assassinations and a poisoning make it a poker game with a difference.

      Another difference: The romance between Bond and Lynd, played by French actress Eva Green, is taken very seriously. Green's an intriguing choice for the role, and she and Craig share some bracing, tersely flirtatious exchanges before and after the big game. At times, though, Green seems ever-so-slightly out of it, in her wide-eyed way, as if trying to remember what her dialogue coach told her about sounding British.

      "Casino Royale" is not perfect. It's longish. The opening-credits sequence is truly lame. Yet in the same way "Batman Begins" offered up a creation myth for a deathless folk hero, this film erases the excess and bombast of the last generation of Bond-going. Eleven years ago director Campbell made "GoldenEye," the first of the Brosnan Bond pictures. "Casino Royale" trumps it every which way.

      "Casino Royale"

      Directed by Martin Campbell; screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis; cinematography by Phil Meheux; edited by Stuart Baird; production design by Peter Lamont; music by David Arnold; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 2:24. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense scenes of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity).

      James Bond - Daniel Craig

      Vesper Lynd - Eva Green

      Le Chiffre - Mads Mikkelsen

      M - Judi Dench

      Mathis - Giancarlo Giannini

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