Casino Royale

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The most successful and long-lived character in movie history gets a makeover and a restart in “Casino Royale,” and it’s all for the better. This is the best James Bond film in at least 17 years, and Daniel Craig might be the best 007 … ever.

I know, I know, it’s sacrilege to suggest anyone is better than Sean Connery/Roger Moore/whoever you think was best. But Craig is more dangerous, more menacing, and more convincing than his predecessors. The recent Bond films have been self-parodies, with groan-worthy one-liners and increasingly absurd action sequences that threatened to turn the whole thing into a cartoon. “Casino Royale” returns to the gritty, intense feel of Ian Fleming’s novels and positions Bond not as a winking, womanizing old dinosaur but as a cool, brooding hero — Batman, without the cape.

It is a prequel of sorts, returning to Bond’s first mission (though, in the tradition of the series, it’s set in the present and more or less pretends the other films didn’t happen). A pre-titles black-and-white sequence, shot like a film noir and liable to induce giddy goosebumps with its sheer coolness, shows Bond attaining his Double-0 status — and then, after the credits, he almost blows it in a highly public shoot-out in Madagascar.

His MI6 handler, M (Judi Dench), is already weary of his antics. “In the old days, if an agent did something that embarrassing, he’d at least have the good sense to defect,” she complains to an underling. “[Expletive], I miss the Cold War.” Bond must prove himself a capable agent by learning to keep his emotions out of his work. There’s a reason an agent must have two kills on his record, not just one, before becoming Double-0: Anybody can take one life. Taking two shows you can do it consistently.

Bond’s mission involves pursuing a villain called Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), whose bizarre Bond Villain Physical Attribute(TM) is that he cries tears of blood. Le Chiffre works as a financial adviser to terrorists (yeah, it doesn’t sound very scary to me, either), investing their money in the stock market or, when the mood strikes him, trying to double it by playing high-stakes poker with it.

That mood strikes him midway through “Casino Royale,” when he organizes a tournament at the titular gambling hall, located in scenic Montenegro (it’s next to Serbia and Bosnia; book your tickets now!). M sets Bond up with a British treasury hottie named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) who grants Bond $10 million of playing money. The idea is that he’ll be so good at cards, he’ll clean Le Chiffre’s out. If he loses, of course, then the British government has contributed $10 million to terrorism. So, um, try not to lose.

It’s here that the film, directed by Martin Campbell (“GoldenEye”) and written by 007 veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with input from Paul Haggis, loses steam. The first hour is as good as any Bond film before it, alive with action and energy. The second hour is bogged down by the seemingly endless poker tournament, which occasionally breaks up for a few hours to give the players time to eat, shower, and, at least in Bond’s case, get into fights and stave off assassination attempts. When you have to keep taking breaks from something in order to insert some action scenes into your action movie, maybe that’s a sign that the thing you’re taking breaks from should be drastically shortened.

Overall, though, my complaints about the film are few. From the breathless chase scene through an under-construction high-rise in the opening minutes to the destruction of a different building at the end, the movie mostly remains potent and sure-footed. It’s sly and funny when necessary, harrowing and violent when the situation calls for it. If there are characters and sequences that seem irrelevant to the basic story, I’ll overlook them.

We see more of Bond’s psychology than normal, too — not so much that he becomes introspective and talkative, but enough to appreciate his situation as a man who has to repress many of his natural feelings for the sake of his job. Craig handles the action, the humor, and the drama perfectly. If his performance doesn’t quiet the naysayers who said he was too soft to play Bond, they’re not paying attention.

B+ (2 hrs., 24 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some partial nudity and mild sexuality, some fairly strong violence including torture.)

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