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"Casino Royale" wants to have it three ways, and succeeds impressively at two.
First of all, it asks us to accept yet another actor as James Bond. Well, Daniel Craig isn't merely acceptable, he's formidable. His Bond is at least the equal of the best ones before him, and beats all of them in sheer intensity. He became a certified movie star as soon as the movie opened. He makes physicality exciting, stirrings of tenderness affecting and emotional detachment interesting -- which is lucky, because his Bond starts out as a stone killer.
This latest edition of the franchise, directed by Martin Campbell, asks to be seen as a prequel. Much like "Batman Begins," it goes back to Ian Fleming's first novel to discover who James Bond was before he became the debonair -- and ultimately self-parodying -- womanizer, adventurer and mixologist of the 20 previous films. The scheme is ambitious, and the psychologizing pays off with surprising clarity. We see a "blunt instrument," as his superior M describes him, an angry candidate for lifelong thugdom, grow into a fearless yet sensitive operative who is willing, at least once, to shed the armor that protects his heart.
But the production also wants to wow us as a sequel, a thoroughly modern James Bond epic that drops many of the franchise's shopworn trademarks--the hot Bond girls, the lurid villains, the exuberant technology--in favor of startlingly violent action, serial brutality, a chilling interlude of torture and a struggle against shadowy international terrorists. It's The Spy Who Came In From the Warmth. I'm sure the calculation's a shrewd one for contemporary audiences addicted to mayhem and uncomfortable with irony. But still, a venerable Fleming plot from an earlier time has been epoxied--Bonded, if you will --to a new era with mixed results.
One result is anachronism. This James is much younger, but M is played once again by the not-younger Judi Dench (who's terrific as always, so what the hell). The extravagant villains of yore have given way to a cipher named Le Chiffre. He's a banker who channels money to the world's terrorists, and he exudes mournful menace but not a lot more.
The movie is much too long, and not just because of several endings, one of which is literally breathtaking. There's an extended confrontation at its center--a high-stakes poker game in which Bond must beat Le Chiffre to defeat the terrorist network -- and it not only slows the pace but trivializes the very present reality of terrorism: If only al Qaeda could be done in by a full house. That's the paradox here. The film's a fantasy, but one that touches on a real-world threat of unavoidable immediacy. The plot of Fleming's 1953 novel rang pleasantly false because the bad guys were members of SMERSH. More than half a century later, the terrorists of "Casino Royale" are neither SMERSHies nor radical Islamists – they're just nobodies with no distinguishing characteristics or ideologies. That may facilitate the movie's global marketing, but it does diminish the drama.
What deepens the drama is the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd, a lissome, mostly cool British Treasury official played superbly by Eva Green. Vesper has been assigned to deliver Bond's poker stake and to make sure he plays his hands responsibly. For a while things go badly for them--and for us; their comparison of crippled childhoods is awfully glib. But Vesper holds the hand that will win Bond's love, and make him the man he had already, in those 20 previous films, come to be.
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