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Fragile Bond.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of Bond movies, since, however good the Connery (and Lazenby) years were, the James Bond franchise has been in a state of ignominious disrepair for, lo, decades now. From the heights of Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond films long ago lapsed into self-parody, and became less about hard-edged cloak-and-dagger supersleuthing and more about rinky-dink deus-ex-machina gadgetry and ribald puns aimed at teenagers. (Ok, some of the early Moore flicks are decent, such as The Man with the Golden Gun, and I remember liking Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only and A View to a Kill when I was a kid. But having seen FYEO again recently, kids were pretty much their target audience by then.) So, I’m happy to say that Casino Royale, a.k.a. Bond Begins, is one of the best Bond movies in decades, easily eclipsing any of the abysmal Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan flicks. What’s more, there’s nary an explosive ballpoint pen or invisible car in sight. Instead, Bond’s gotten back to basics: Casino Royale is the first Bond film in ages driven by character rather than stereotype. It’s like meeting England’s most famous spy all over again.

Not to say this isn’t a Bond film. Within the first ten minutes we’ve already traveled to Prague, Uganda, and Madagascar to witness various scenes of espionage and intrigue. And, however realistic Casino Royale is to the usual Bond drek (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, etc. etc.), it’s still set in the Bond-verse, where guns go “click” at exceedingly appropriate times and choice parking spaces are always available in front of scenic villas and vistas. Nevertheless, Casino Royale plays it downbeat more than most — Here, the recently minted 00, with the aid of beautiful accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), must defeat the sinister LeChiffre (a memorable Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of terrorism in over his head, in a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em (?!) in Montenegro. (The switch from baccarat to poker is, alas, a mistake — For one, you half-expect Bond to be playing paunchy guys wearing ironic trucker hats, not tuxedo’ed supervillains. For another, the poker hands get increasingly ridiculous. I don’t want to give the game away, but it doesn’t speak to Bond’s savvy as a poker player to have him win with the hands he’s given.)

Still, Casino Royale succeeds in no small part because of Daniel Craig’s fine, layered perfomance as 007. Unlike the cartoon Bond of Moore-through-Brosnan, Bond here actually seems something close to a human being. As Craig plays him, he’s an arrogant bruiser with a ruthless streak, a guy — unlike any Bond since Connery — you could actually see bedding someone one minute and killing them the next. (Exhibit A: The scene with the knife, after the bad beat. Have we ever seen Bond this murderous?) Moreover, Bond not only endures here some of the agonies regularly inflicted on him in the books (but rarely in the movies), he also is given compelling reason (in an admittedly slow-paced third act) for his later remorseless womanizing, as following the book and its memorable last line. I’ve written before that I’d rather see another Bourne than another Bond. Well, with Craig at the wheel of Bond’s Aston Martin, I hereby rescind that statement…Welcome back, 007. (I’ll admit to being partial to Craig, tho’ — not only for Layer Cake, but because the world’s long past due for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bond. Our kind hasn’t exhibited this sort of badassery on film since poor Steve McQueen died and Newman/Redford got old. Ok, you could make a case for Tyler Durden, but generally we’ve been relegated to Zabka-ness for the past three decades.)

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