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Winning Hand 

Make a James Bond movie and they will come. The series has brought in something close to $4 billion over the past four decades, and although the formula -- beautiful women, fast cars, blazing guns, huge explosions, massive body counts, snappy one-liners (some of them blatantly sexist) -- has become kind of tired, hell, there's always room for another story of our favorite British agent, no matter who's playing him.

And a wise choice it was to bestow honors on British actor Daniel Craig, whose most notable roles have been as Paul Newman's maniacal son in Road to Perdition, a nameless criminal in Layer Cake, one of the Israeli killers in Munich and most recently as Perry Smith in Infamous. Now he is James Bond, and if my intuition is on the mark, he will eventually be named the best James Bond.

While it's almost inconceivable to overthrow Sean Connery as ruler of the roost, Craig has it all over Connery when it comes to realizing the character from the Ian Fleming books. Craig plays him darker, nastier, colder, more determined, more prepared to do his duty for queen and country. In reintroducing the character for contemporary audiences (and for us die-hard fans), Bond is initially seen -- in a gritty black and white segment -- as just another agent trying to get ahead. He doesn't yet have his Double O status.

In Fleming's first Bond book -- Casino Royale -- readers are told how he earned it: by taking out a Japanese cipher expert and a Norwegian double agent.

"For those two jobs, I was awarded a Double O number in the Service," says Bond in the book. "A Double O number means that you've had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job."

The film doesn't do much explaining. Instead, it bluntly shows a similar circumstance. And you know, right away, that Craig is going to play Bond as a rough and tough and dirty character who does what he feels he has to do.

By the time it switches into color (which really shows off Craig's blue Steve McQueen eyes), the film has also switched into kick-ass gear. Till now, the opening action sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me was the series' most memorable -- if only because of its cleverness and audacity -- with Bond skiing off a cliff to get away from certain death and parachuting to safety. Casino Royale ups the ante, not with any absurd stunt shot, but with a riveting, thrilling, heart-pounding, and exhausting foot chase that covers a lot of territory, scales great heights, and is very physical. I came close to shouting and applauding at the end of it.

Yet it's only an appetizer. Sticking fairly close to the Fleming book -- something which hasn't been done in a Bond film since Goldfinger -- the film traces the story of Bond's assignment to out-gamble the villainous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, last seen as Tristan in King Arthur). A slimy, cold-blooded banker to terrorists, Le Chiffre loses some money belonging to worse guys than him, and now he's desperate to win it back before they come after him. If Bond can beat him at the poker table in Casino Royale, Le Chiffre will most probably be eliminated by his enemies, saving the queen the price of a bullet.

So the gambling scenes go on -- poker has replaced the book's baccarat because that more nuanced game is relatively unknown in America -- and, to be honest, they take up a little too much of the film's time. But there's plenty more to grab viewers -- for instance, the "free running stunts" of the type seen at the beginning, leaving everyone breathless. And in the Bond tradition, there's a wild array of international locales, including Prague, Madagascar, Nassau, Miami and Montenegro.

Then there are the Bond girls, two in this case: the gorgeous Solange (Caterina Murino), the wife of one villain and, with more of a spotlight on her, the severe-looking Vesper (Eva Green), the British agent assigned to keep an eye on Bond's hefty gambling stake.

It's with Green that Craig shares his best straight-ahead acting scenes. Their talky first meeting consists of a wonderful series of barbs back and forth. It's a sprightly and funny segment of two strong personalities butting heads with civility.

This, along with a cocky Bond going up against his no-nonsense boss, M (Judi Dench), create the only light moments in the film, which has a marked grimness to it -- just like the early Fleming novels from which the movie series strayed.

Anyone wondering about the book's infamous torture scene of a helpless, naked Bond will be happy the filmmakers have given it all the justice it deserves. They'll also want to know that at least the men in the audience will be squirming in their seats watching it.

Casino Royale
(Dont miss this film)
Rated PG-13
Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Daniel Craig, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench and Eva Green

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