*Casino Royale (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
The stylized opening credits sequence is there, though the departure from Maurice Binder's writhing silhouettes is more pronounced. There's still a ruthless villain with odd character quirks, but instead of creating elaborate death machines, he mocks the idea of them. And there's an agent with a license to kill, only he's remarkably short on pun-filled quips.
It's all just familiar enough, and yet it can't help but make you wonder: What have they done to James Bond?
Once upon a time, those who ran valuable movie franchises never dared rock the boat. They preached continuity and familiarity. But with recent screen vehicles for Batman and Superman literally erasing events from earlier films, it began to seem that studios were trusting innovative storytelling as a means of overcoming franchise inertia. And if that meant pretending some things never happened or risking the wrath of continuity nerds by casting a blue-eyed actor well, so be it.
Casino Royale joins the "franchise reboot" trend, and it proves more invigorating than any Bond adventure in years. Here we find Bond (Daniel Craig) freshly promoted to double-0 status though, within a matter of days, his reckless style already has M (Judi Dench) questioning her own judgment.
Ostensibly on leave after nearly causing an international incident, Bond continues to follow the trail of a thwarted bomb-maker that leads him to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of global terrorist organizations. And, of course, James is certain he can bring him down, whether in a fistfight or at the poker table.
In a lot of little ways, director Martin Campbell (who also directed Pierce Brosnan's first Bond outing, GoldenEye) and the trio of screenwriters stay true to the formula that has survived for 40 years. The stunt sequences are impressive; the plot hops from continent to continent, showing off locales in Africa, Italy and Montenegro; and, well, what would Bond be without his women?
There is, however, a more viscerally brutal edge. This Bond dishes out plenty of punishment, and he absorbs plenty, too. He's battered, poisoned, shot with a nail gun, sliced and in one memorably uncomfortable sequence whacked with a blunt instrument on a part of his anatomy that we're accustomed to seeing him use for more pleasurable purposes.
This Bond is a soldier, but, more to the point, this Bond is a person, not just a tuxedo holding a gun and swilling vodka martinis. Craig's interpretation allows for Bond's hubris to get the better of him at times his alpha-male swagger is taken to a sometimes self-defeating extreme. He seduces not through suave come-ons but through sheer animal ferocity and when the plot finds his icy demeanor melting a bit, there's a surprisingly real sense of humanity bubbling beneath the genre trappings.
Still, Campbell and company don't quite trust that they can abandon the Bond template completely, and the result is something that gets way too busy in the final hour of this 2-hour-long picture.
Yet Casino Royale does something unexpected: It makes a James Bond movie feel like more than a cash cow. By emphasizing Bond as a character rather than as a caricature, the makers have delivered something that folds into the series' history, yet isn't paralyzed by it.
What have they done to James Bond? They've allowed him to breathe again.