CASINO ROYALE introduces JAMES BOND before he holds his license to kill. But Bond is no less dangerous, and with two professional assassinations in quick succession, he is elevated to "00" status. "M" (Judi Dench), head of the British Secret Service, sends the newly-promoted 007 on his first mission that takes him to Madagascar, the Bahamas and eventually leads him to Montenegro to face Le Chiffre, a ruthless financier under threat from his terrorist clientele, who is attempting to restore his funds in a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale. "M" places Bond under the watchful eye of the Treasury official Vesper Lynd. At first skeptical of what value Vesper can provide, Bond's interest in her deepens as they brave danger together. Le Chiffre's cunning and cruelty come to bear on them both in a way Bond could never imagine, and he learns his most important lesson: Trust no one.
The most successful invigoration of a cinematic franchise since Batman Begins, Casino Royale
offers a new Bond identity. Based on the Ian Fleming novel that introduced Agent 007 into a Cold War world, Casino Royale
is the most brutal and viscerally exciting James Bond film since Sean Connery left Her Majesty's Secret Service. Meet the new Bond; not the same as the old Bond. Daniel Craig gives a galvanizing performance as the freshly minted double-0 agent. Suave, yes, but also a "blunt instrument," reckless, and possessed with an ego that compromises his judgment during his first mission to root out the mastermind behind an operation that funds international terrorists. In classic Bond film tradition, his global itinerary takes him to far-flung locales, including Uganda, Madagascar, the Bahamas (that's more like it), and Montenegro, where he is pitted against his nemesis in a poker game, with hundreds of millions in the pot. The stakes get even higher when Bond lets down his "armor" and falls in love with Vesper (Eva Green), the ravishing banker's representative fronting him the money.
For longtime fans of the franchise, Casino Royale offers some retro kicks. Bond wins his iconic Astin-Martin at the gaming table, and when a bartender asks if he wants his martini "shaken or stirred," he disdainfully replies, "Do I look like I give a damn?" There's no Moneypenny or "Q," but Dame Judi Dench is back as the exasperated M, who one senses, admires Bond's "bloody cheek." A Bond film is only as good as its villain, and Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre, who weeps blood, is a sinister dandy. From its punishing violence and virtuoso action sequences to its romance, Casino Royale is a Bond film that, in the words of one character, makes you feel it, particularly during an excruciating torture sequence. Double-0s, Bond observes early on, "have a short life expectancy." But with Craig, there is new life in the old franchise yet, as well as genuine anticipation for the next one when, at last, the signature James Bond theme kicks in following the best last line ever in any Bond film. To quote Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, now I know what I've been faking all these years. --Donald Liebenson
Stills from Casino Royale (click for larger image)