WEB EXTRA: “Casino Royale”

Until now, the best James Bond movie of the last 10 years was “Der James Bond Blumen” (“The Flowers of James Bond”), a little known German film from 2002. It’s about a German James Bond trying to save the world from an evil mastermind named Herr Dr Sven. It was shot at my friend Rob Miller’s house, James Bond was played by Shawn Sterbinsky, and it was directed by me. I also played several guards who were killed, as well as Sven’s grandfather who is later revealed to be James Bond’s mother (don’t ask). And while it’s hard to concede this, I must admit that “Casino Royale” does my junior year German class better.

The first of creator Ian Fleming’s Bond novels has finally been brought to screen by EON Productions, the company responsible for almost every other Bond film. Don’t confuse this for a remake of 1967’s “Casino Royale,” a spy spoof starring Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This version takes itself as seriously as a 007 film should (which is to say that there is room for some self-referential parody). It’s as good a Bond as “GoldenEye,” which was easily the best of the Pierce Brosnan films, and in fact shares its director, Martin Campbell.

After several less-than-stellar Bond outings, the Brosnan era came to an end, and Daniel Craig (“Munich”) has inherited the license to kill. Despite initial skepticism at the casting – he’s too blonde, not handsome enough – Craig performs admirably, never shaken nor stirred, rather appearing quite comfortable in his tuxedo, with silenced Walther-PPK in hand. I neglected my duties as a critic by not staying through the credits, never finding out what “James Bond will return in…” but let’s hope Craig is here to stay.

In a way Craig has been granted the opportunity, as Christian Bale had for “Batman Begins,” to light a fire under a stagnant franchise. “Casino Royale” begins, even, with a James Bond who has yet to achieve the rank of double-O agent, which is only given to MI-6’s (the British Secret Service’s) most elite. And he demonstrates his inexperience from his first mission, an acrobatic escapade that results in Bond blowing up an embassy – and some harsh words from M, his boss (still played by Dame Judi Dench) in light of the public humiliation he’s brought upon MI-6.

But it’s a learning experience for 007, and “Casino Royale” chronicles him figuring out his trademark drink, getting acquainted with his Aston Martin speedster, and figuring out how he can have sex with any woman he wants without either emotional or physical consequence. He gets to lose his Bond-girl virginity to Vesper Lynd (sexy and talented Eva Green, “The Dreamers”), as they infiltrate an extremely high-stakes poker game to bankrupt asthmatic playboy scoundrel and terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen). It’s great to have a Bond Girl who can act, and make an adequate verbal sparring partner for Craig. Their conversations explain things about the James Bond character that we’ve all known for years but the Bond on the screen is only finding out for the first time, and make for great exchanges.

It wouldn’t be a Bond film without globetrotting, and true to form “Casino Royale” takes us from (newly sovereign as of this year) Montenegro where the film’s eponymous casino is located, and spans continents with high-octane sequences in Madagascar, Miami, and Venice. The stunts are rendered realistic thanks to Craig’s physique – he is the buffest Bond to date – and the sometime adolescent awkwardness that the new double-O agent is going through while he learns the ropes.

The “new” Bond is more grounded in reality, more sober than it’s predecessors, and hopefully this will set a precedent for sequels. I do hope, however, that future films will break from this one in several respects: please find a theme song less lame than Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name,” and please make room for beloved secretary Moneypenny and gadget-guru “Q” (er, well, at least bring John Cleese back as “R”). Despite this, Bond fans will not be disappointed. With all due respect to Pierce Brosnan and Shawn Sterbinsky, the Bond.James Bond, we’ve been waiting for, is finally back.

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