Casino Royale (2006)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 11/17/06
Director: Martin Campbell
Music: David Arnold
Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, Caterina Murino

Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale" finally makes it to the big screen as a legitimate part of the James Bond canon, exploring Bond's career at MI6 before achieving his Double-O status. In spirit it's a prequel, but continuity gets put through the wringer and more than anything it feels like Danjaq has just hit the restart button on the entire franchise. Or perhaps more precisely, they've left the James Bond formula and timeline intact, but replaced the James Bond character with another super agent who's moving his way up through the ranks. The fact that this character is played by newcomer Daniel Craig makes the proceedings even more jarring and disconcerting, much like George Lazenby's turn in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969). "Casino Royale" takes us back to Bond's roots as an MI6 hitman who is on his first mission as Agent 007, monitoring and tracking down international terrorists. The mission goes horribly wrong, invoking the wrath of M (series veteran Judi Dench) and forcing Bond to go into hiding. On his own, he finds some crucial evidence and manages to foil a related terrorist attack, which helps heal the wounds at MI6 and ultimately gets him placed in a high stakes poker game with the film's villain, Le Chiffre (creepy Mads Mikkelsen). Interestingly, the climactic casino showdown takes place at the film's mid-point, and the movie incredulously keeps going for another full hour.

First of all, it's great to see the series get back to basics and not rely on all of the absurdity that prevailed in Pierce Brosnan's last two outings. While a lot of digital trickery and gratuitously blatant wirework is employed, it's primarily a physical action film with lots of guns, fists, and explosions. The film's opening set piece is an exhilarating and exhausting chase scene that was obviously inspired by the superb "Banlieue 13" (2004). This immediately sets the tone of the film as well as the tone of Craig's Bond character, who is more of a rough-and-tough brawler in the vein of Sean Connery. He's a loose cannon who lacks the suave sophistication of Roger Moore and doesn't exhibit the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of Brosnan. Craig has some big shoes to fill and he does an admirable job, even if his Bond has been reinvented to be a cold hearted bastard. My only real complaints with Craig are that he has a really skinny butt and I don't like the shape of his mouth, but those are purely aesthetic observations. Bond's love interest in the film is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who might actually be very pretty underneath all of the hideous makeup that she's painted with. CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) also makes his debut appearance as a friend to the cause.

All in all, "Casino Royale" is a good old fashioned balls-out action film, and I hope the Bond franchise continues in this direction. The action scenes are exciting and well staged, and it may be the first time that second unit director Alexander Witt actually focuses on the action instead of around it. While the film is just as awkward and disconcerting as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," like that film it's also a high point as well as a defining moment in the series. The big question now is, where does the series go from here? Does it jump back into previously established continuity with M, Q, and Moneypenny, or does it forge a brand new path? Ultimately, the box office returns will tell...