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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006

Licensed to thrill

The 007 series is surely the grandaddy of all franchise movies, having churned out an astonishing 21 flicks since its debut with "Dr. No" in 1962. Think about it: How many other pop-culture artifacts from that year are still alive and thriving? (Well, The Stones, but I guess that depends on your definition of "alive.")

Casino Royale Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Daniel Craig in "Casino Royale"

Director: Martin Campbell
Running time: 144 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 1, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Every decade or so, the nay-sayers gather up steam and proclaim, once again, that the James Bond series is on its last legs, that the times have passed it by, that they're flogging a dead horse, blah-blah-blah. The reaction of the series' producers has usually been: hire a new star to play 007, round up some even more beautiful Bond girls, scout a bunch of new exotic locations -- and stay the course. History has usually proven them to be correct, and the latest Bond film, "Casino Royale," is no exception -- it shot right to the top of box offices worldwide, and, I would add, deservedly so.

"Casino Royale" marks a return to the roots of the series. This was the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, and it's the only one never to have been done straight on the big screen -- 1967's "Casino Royale" was a madcap parody of the secret-agent genre that starred David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. And yet, despite all the escalation in special effects and impossible stunts in the Bond films over the years (sometimes to the point of ludicrousness -- remember "Moonraker?"), this "Casino Royale" remains remarkably faithful to Fleming's novel -- with its focus on gambling, glamour and torture -- and attempts to present a grittier, more "real-world" Bond.

This critic, to be honest, had his doubts that the series could feel fresh after all this time, and even greater doubts that the new actor playing 007, Daniel Craig, could make the role his own, even if you put him in a tux. Happily, I was wrong on all counts.

The series announces its intentions with a prologue, shot in grainy black and white, that depicts the two kills that earned Bond his "license to kill," the so-called "double-O" agent status with Britain's secret service, MI6. The first is frantic and brutal, and showcases a side of Bond not glimpsed before. Unfortunately, the cut from this scene to the stylized, psychedelic 1960s-style credits sequence (featuring a truly awful theme song by Chris "Whiny" Cornell of Audio-slave) is extremely awkward, and will leave you thinking that the filmmakers have gone all Tarantino, unable to decide upon mood or tone.

Don't get up for a drink, though, because shortly after this underwhelming opening comes a good, old-fashioned chase scene, one guy running after another, with Bond pursuing a suspected terrorist bomber in Madagascar, culminating in a breathless leaping and diving sequence atop a construction site. The pacing is positively frenetic, and rivals the best the series has ever done. Then they top it by having Bond pursue his man inside an embassy, which results in dozens of armed goons emptying their clips at him. In other words, classic Bond.

The plot concerns an evil genius named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, disconcertingly cold and clammy) who acts as a private banker to the world's terrorists. When a plot to manipulate stock prices through a well-placed bombing is foiled by 007, Le Chiffre finds himself threatened by an African rebel group to whom he owes more than $100 million. A mathematical genius, Le Chiffre organizes a high-stakes poker game to win back his losses from a group of wealthy gamblers. MI6 places Bond among them, to defeat Le Chiffre at the table . . . or otherwise.

Accompanying Bond is the MI6 operative Vesper Lynd, who controls the finances of the operation. Played by Eva Green (who established her sex appeal in "The Dreamers"), Vesper is the kind of Bond girl we get once in a blue moon: sharp, smart, and utterly resistant to 007's charms.

"Having just met you, I wouldn't go so far as to call you a cold-hearted bastard," she tells Bond, "but it wouldn't be a stretch."

This, of course, is just the stuff to make Bond fall for her, hard.

Craig, who's already impressively played hard-boiled types this year in both "Munich" and "Layer Cake," manages to bring an impressive emotional depth to what, in the hands of people like Roger Moore, had become essentially a cartoon character. Craig also brings a thugishness to the character that's refreshing, showing that a license to kill is bestowed because he can kill people, not because he knows which fork to use with his salad.

There are scenes here where he looks like the Bonds of yore, like when a terrorist's babe-a-licious moll crawls all over him and purrs "You like married women?" to which Bond replies: "It keeps things simple." But then there are scenes that are like nothing you've ever seen in a 007 film before, particularly involving his relationship with Vesper, and I won't ruin them here. The ending is something else entirely, and a mood this series has rarely struck.

At the end of the day, though, what people want from a 007 flick are some suave repartee, some astounding action and sex appeal (but never, God forbid, sex). "Casino Royale" delivers on all counts, and this is probably by far the best popcorn movie you'll see this year.

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