Casino Royale

“In the old days if an agent made this kind of mess they had the decency to defect,” spits an exacerbated M as she heads off to do some damage control over Bond’s latest mission-turned-fiasco. “I miss the cold war.” So do I, or at least I do as far as 007 movies go. Ever since the Soviet standoff came to a close James Bond has been in something of a slow tail spin. Someone finally pulled the plug and decided to go with a clean slate for MI6’s sexiest spy. The gamble was enormous, but in the end it pays off… big time.

This seems to be the time for re-inventions and fresh starts. Superman returned and Batman began again. Bond has done the same and this cinematic breath of fresh air is sweeter than Moneypenny’s perfume. The movie opens with Bond fulfilling his final requirement to be considered for Double-O agent status: two kills in the line of duty (apparently you have to kill a few times before you can be issued the license). It’s a gritty beginning to a gritty film, but it sets an exciting pace that doesn’t stop until the credits begin to roll.

James (Daniel Craig) gets a rough start at his new position in the spy business, making all kinds of brutish, testosterone-driven choices and ego motivated mistakes. He spends his first missions wreaking all sorts of unnecessary havoc to get the job done, causing undue international embarrassment for the British government and generally pissing off a short-tempered M (Dame Judi Dench). These aren’t the usual lighthearted exasperations we’re used to between the agent and commanding officer. She’s ready to cut his career prematurely short if he doesn’t get his attitude under control.

Following the usual trail of fancy cars and gorgeous women, Bond’s investigations lead him to unwittingly thwart a master money-making scheme of one of the world’s most notorious (and untouchable) terrorist bankrollers, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). In a desperate effort to quickly make the money back before his lethal financiers decide to kill him, LeChiffre, a brilliant poker player, hosts a high stakes tournament. To prevent LeChiffre from regaining his funds, MI6 sends their best player, Bond, to the table. Partnered with the beautiful and brilliant agency accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), whose job it is to cover the high price of Bond’s buy-in to the game, 007 takes on the mission that will painfully sculpt him into the savvy spy we’ve come know.

There’s no question this is the darkest of the Bond films. The levity-packed action sequences, pop-culture gimmicks and ridiculously over-acted villains that have become the recent hallmarks of Bond movies have been stripped away. Director Martin Campbell and his team of writers (including dialogue genius Paul Haggis) have replaced all that with a smart and witty script and a stylish cinematography that has been missing from the franchise since the days of Sean Connery. Devilishly destructive action sequences that seem to last forever (in this case, a good thing) are a frequent occurrence, though not quite frequent enough in the last third of the film. Much like his main character’s skills, Campbell keeps things raw, including one of the most agonizing drowning sequences I’ve ever seen. Fans of the book “Casino Royale” might also be surprised to see one of the cruelest torture scenes ever put on paper brought to life on the screen. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. Brace yourselves guys, you’ll be feeling this one all the way home.

Fans of the Bond flicks and the general 007 narrative will have the chance for some extra fun. Haggis and company have littered the film with all sorts of clever nods and allusions to movies and stories past. What’s missing, though, are the iconic elements that make Bond who he is. Some begin to materialize along the way, but especially painful are moments when you almost instinctually expect a classic Bond line that never gets delivered. Campbell dwells on those just long enough to let you know the omission is intentional. This is a movie about the agent going through the fire and coming into his own. To drive that point home the director rewards you with the not-so-subtle revelation that, in the end, the man we know as Bond has arrived.

Craig is exactly the kind of person needed to play the struggling secret agent who hasn’t yet found his footing. The movie represents the most character development that Bond has ever seen and the actor plays to perfection each revelation, mistake and lesson that the agent-in-the-rough experiences. The question now is whether or not he can handle the mantle of the cool, collected, suave spy that finally emerges at the end of the film. I’m dubious, but Craig has more than earned the right to prove himself. Of course, he’ll get his chance. With contract already in hand for the next film, the producers aren’t afraid to flash the familiar “James Bond Will Return” at the tail end of the credits. Here’s hoping this franchise revival has generated enough steam to see Bond through for another lifetime of films.