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Casino Royale

Casino Royale

In recent years, James Bond has become the clunkiest of film franchises. Dragged down by the accumulated weight of gadgets a lack of real wit, it has devolved into little more than the most prominent operation of Her Majesty's Product Placement Service. Likewise, Ian Fleming's signature antihero has fallen far from Sean Connery's iconic turns as the dangerously masculine superspy to the smugly effete portrayals affected by rom com light weight Pierce Brosnan.

Casino Royale sets out to do for Bond what Batman Begins did for the Dark Knight - returning the darkness and ambiguity that made the early films (and the James Bond character) so intriguing, and it succeeds admirably with a back-to-basics approach.

Those 'basics' start with a return to the source material. For the first time in years, the opening credits make use of the magical phrase "Based on the novel by Ian Fleming." Indeed, the source is the original Bond novel - a fitting choice for a film that seeks to reimagine the entire franchise.

The plot centers on a high stakes card game (Texas hold 'em in a nod to the current poker craze) where blood-weeping banker-to-international terrorists Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is trying to win back millions in clients' money he lost in an investment scheme before his clients can find out and kill him. Newly minted Double-O agent Bond (Daniel Craig), the best poker player in Her Majesty's Secret Service, is sent to the Casino Royale with the backing of the British treasury to make sure Le Chiffre busts out. Bond's mission is complicated by the presence of treasury agent Vesper Lynde (Eva Green) - beautiful, intelligent and seemingly immune to his considerable charms - who is in charge of the purse strings and none too confident in Bond's abilities.

The writing and direction are vastly improved when compared to recent entries. Gone are the excessive gadgetry and most of the smarmy self-referrentiality (and most of the inside jokes here slyly subvert series clichés, rather than reinforcing them) that dragged down recent Bond flicks. The back-to-basics approach includes a return to classic Bond formula of beautifully shot exotic locales, impressive stunt work (the free running chase scene that opens the film is the best action sequence you’ll see this year), and stylish direction with special attention to gesture and detail (even showing the scabs and bruises on Bond’s hands when he returns to the table after brutally beating two would-be assassins to death in a stairwell brawl). The dialogue, too, has a dark and morbid turn not seen since the early Connery films. A pre-credit sequence detailing James Bond’s rise to Double-O status is particularly black – Bond’s quips have a sadistic edge, blurring the line between heroism and villainy. That isn’t to say that Casino Royale is a perfect film. Eye aside, Le Chiffre is a rather bloodless villain who never seems terribly threatening, and Vesper Lynde undergoes a major shift in outlook with little in the film to explain her behavior. Additionally, at a fairly hefty 141 minutes, there’s definitely some narrative fat that could have been edited out.

The biggest improvement is in the development of Bond’s character. He emerges in Casino Royale as a much more primal figure than we are used to seeing. When Daniel Craig was cast for the role, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Too short, too blonde, the naysayers said. The worries were misplaced, however, as Craig turns in a superb performance. His Bond is very much in the mould of Fleming's literary creation – brutal, amoral, predatory and impulsively violent, a sociopath redeemed (or perhaps not) only by the righteousness of his cause. Craig brings an overpowering physicality (bulging muscles more than compensating for the lack of height) that is offset by his emotional vulnerability: he's a decidedly thuggish rake, but not an invincible one. For the first time, the series has given us a new Bond that doesn't need to stand in Sean Connery's shadow, and Casino Royale is easily the best entry in the series since the 60s.