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Casino Royale dispenses with the gadgets and self-parody to bring us Daniel Craig, the best James Bond since the 1960s

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Casino Royale opens Friday throughout the Triangle

Daniel Craig climbs his way to superstardom in Casino Royale, the best James Bond film since the 1960s - PHOTO BY JAY MAIDMENT
  • Photo by Jay Maidment
  • Daniel Craig climbs his way to superstardom in Casino Royale, the best James Bond film since the 1960s

By happy happenstance, I encountered Casino Royale, the new—and sensationally successful—James Bond film on Election Day, a coincidence that led to politically tinged musings on why this four-and-a-half-decade-old spy fantasia remains cinema's most durable franchise.

Is it not that Bond is that rare thing: a hero who magically combines deep appeals to both Republican and Democratic psychologies? A Cold Warrior with as few moral scruples and as much lethal intent as Dick Cheney, he also exhibits a taste for sensual delectation equal to Bill Clinton's.

Jean-Luc Godard once described European kids of the 1960s as the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. By the same logic, Ian Fleming's master spy might be described as the love child of John Foster Dulles and Hugh Hefner—or J. Edgar Hoover and John F. Kennedy.

"You can't have it both ways," the saying goes. But the Bond series seems to exist to prove that, in celluloid dreams at least, you can. You can have a foreign policy built on force majeure and the deadliest technology imaginable, alongside a domestic policy of dry martinis and curvaceous blondes.

If James Bond ran for president (which he might, if he weren't fictional and British), is there any icon this side of Oprah who could stop him?

Yet this extraordinary bipartisan magnetism has it downside. For just as the Bond character seems to require equal measures of steel and silk, so do the movies that contain him. That is, their essential formula demands a careful balancing of ingredients, and too often in recent years, the key calibration has been off: where punch was needed, panache was offered—or vice versa.

Of course, the whole franchise might have chugged on for another half-century without any crucial improvements, since, by all evidence, not even Count Dracula is as commercially indestructible as Agent 007. Yet the felicitous news this week is that Bond has been retooled, and to wonderful effect: By my reckoning (and I suspect this judgment will be widely shared by moviegoers and critics alike), Casino Royale is the best Bond film since the '60s. And new star (soon to be superstar) Daniel Craig proves himself the first Bond comparable in charisma and sexual charge to Sean Connery's great original.

The coup here is, truly, a one-two punch. Craig's cool, supremely confident Bond debut leads the assault. But no less important is the shrewd way the Bond franchise-holders have chosen to reinvent their icon. As if stripping off several layers of paint and barnacles from a once-sleek ocean liner, they reveal the clean lines of what was once a beautifully engineered pop-art invention.

Most indicative of what's been stripped away is the non-appearance in this film of the character Q, who would regularly pop up late in the first reel of every Bond adventure to show the superhero his new arsenal of high-tech weapons. Surely, Q's appeal to the 14-year-old gadget lover in every viewer was elemental, yet somehow over the years it came to seem that James Bond was the accessory to his lethal toys rather than the other way round, didn't it? Jettisoning all the gadgetry was a smart way of instantly extricating 007 from the cocoon of special effects and cutesy hardware that was making him seem more and more cartoon-like.

Casino Royale, published in 1953, was the first Fleming novel in which Bond appeared. It was adapted into a Bond spoof starring Peter Sellers and David Niven in 1967, the only film in the Bond canon that condescends to its hero. For decades the rights to that title were inaccessible to the organization of Albert R. Broccoli, producer of most of the Bond movies. Having acquired the rights, the filmmakers not only give us the last movie based on an original Fleming title (albeit one used previously), they also take us back to Bond's beginnings, when he was still new enough to seem more vulnerable than invincible.

Back-to-beginnings doesn't mean a return to 1953. It does mean, though, that we start out watching Bond earn his 00 status (license to kill) in a nocturnal confrontation shown in Cold War-style black and white and set in the Czech Republic, a serviceable stand-in for the grimly forbidding Soviet Bloc of From Russia with Love-era Bond.

From there, we're off to Africa and an elaborate, all-on-foot chase scene that does two important things at once. First, it establishes that this Bond film, while no less exciting and ingeniously mounted than any previous one, takes place in the world of flesh, blood and sweat, not an airbrushed realm of fanciful weaponry. Secondly, in clearly showing Craig himself performing lots of the difficult stunt work, the movie announces that the actor's performance—and indeed, his entire embodiment of Bond—will be one of intense physicality.

The critical blend in Bond movies is the balance between fantasy and reality, and after drifting almost inevitably toward the unreal, the formula here wisely and productively shifts back toward the recognizable, the palpable. Yet the fantasy elements of Bond aren't dispensed with—which would leave us in John LeCarré territory, no?—but merely reined-in.

Witness that the story soon jumps to the Bahamas, a typically glamorous (and, in fact, previously utilized) Bond locale where 007's gambling skills win him a classic 1964 Aston Martin. This cheeky automotive nod to Bond's past invokes the era when machinery and fantasy became inextricably entwined; yet the sleek roadster is finally just a car, albeit a very beautiful and fast one, not a miniature tank.

Granted, Bond lacks an Evil Empire to do battle with. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, perhaps no villain will ever suit our hero so well, and in Casino Royale Bond must contend not with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. but with the rather vague and all-purpose specter of "terrorism." Yet even here there's an upgrade. Because rather than extravagant caricatures that have comprised the recent ranks of Bond villainy, the new film's chief baddie, a thin, malevolent chap called Le Chiffre (nicely played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), might've stepped out of a 1950s French gangster movie.

Italian vamp Caterina Murino, on top as the modern Bond woman - PHOTO BY JAY MAIDMENT

The movie's dramatic crux transpires in that eponymous casino, formerly in France but now in Montenegro, where Le Chiffre organizes a high-stakes card game that, if he wins, will fund various terrorist enterprises worldwide. In Fleming's day, the game of choice was Chemin de Fer. Now it's poker, a game understood by people who don't play cards in dinner jackets—as Bond, of course, continues to do.

Centering the climactic action around a card game—a battle of wills and skills rather than gadgets—is another way the movie, which was directed by Martin Campbell, keeps itself attached to the real world. But more notable by far is that Bond's companion at the gaming table is Vesper Lynd (French actress Eva Green), arguably the most interesting romantic partner the venturesome spy has encountered.

However radical it may sound, Casino Royale contains no Bond girls of the usual sort. Vesper is a treasury agent in charge of the funds that will back Bond's gambling, and from the first time they talk, on the train into Montenegro, it's clear that their relationship will be more serious and complex than Bond movies usually allow for. In fact, he falls in love with her—an episode that supposedly explains why Bond in his subsequent escapades became more cavalier and detached regarding women.

Rendering Bond in love obviously requires more than superficial aplomb, and that's one reason that Daniel Craig's presence is so welcome. Craig isn't simply the sexiest, most physical actor to inhabit the role since the early days—blond, blue-eyed and bulked-up, he's like a slightly more simian Steve McQueen—he is also, by any yardstick, clearly the most talented actor to play 007 since Connery.

Watching Craig perform, it's almost like you're seeing the character of James Bond reborn—or maybe I should say rescued. Among those responsible for this small miracle, surely a portion of credit must go to Mike Meyers' Austin Powers, a parody that made blatant how close to self-parody the real Bond was verging. As if awakened by this comic clarion call, the Broccoli team has made their super-spy real again: a dangerous operative in a treacherous world. It's a brilliant return to form.

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