Warm-blooded 007 for '006

    We’ve grown accustomed to all the Bond cliches: the high-tech gadgets, the “”fully loaded”” cars, the buxom women of dubious reputation and, of course, those cheesy puns. This time around, they’re not stirred, not shaken, but blown to bits — the film’s few gadgets have real purpose, the women exist on a human scale and Bond actually bleeds.

    Daniel Craig (“”Munich””) is certainly the James Bond of the 21st century. With audiences craving character-driven action films such as “”Batman Begins”” and the “”Spider Man”” franchise, it’s not surprising that Bond would make the shift over as well. And what a shift it is.

    After receiving double-0 status and following a breathtaking “”free-running”” chase in Africa — arguably the best action scene this year — Bond is assigned to trace the money trail of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a high-class financier to global terrorists. This mission leads him to the Casino Royale in Montenegro, where he must face off with Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game. Needless to say, this serves as a setup for staple action sequences and some surprisingly intriguing card play.

    The premise seems worthy, but every Bond aficionado has wondered for months: Can a blonde Hollywood outcast fully fill the shoes of his role’s legendary predecessors?

    Not only does Craig fill these shoes, he wears a completely different pair. For the first time in the franchise, we see Ian Fleming’s James Bond — a tough, terse, sometimes brutal, egotistical man who takes his job seriously. He thinks and reacts with cold calculation and flamboyant arrogance, whether squaring off with Le Chiffre at the poker table or conversing with Bond girl Vesper Lynd (aptly played by Eva Green), a scene to which he even adds a hint of romantic sweetness.

    Most 007 films have focused heavily on the plot — often involving some sort of bomb — and the gimmicks. But “”Casino Royale”” is about Bond the man. For the first time, we learn of his psychology and philosophy, as he acts less like a cartoon superhero and more like a human who lives in our all-too-real world. His choices have consequences — ones he doesn’t always foresee.

    “”Royale”” also takes the prize for best-looking film in the franchise. Yes, it does include the exotic locales of the Bahamas, Prague, Montenegro and Venice, but it is also utilizes black and white like never before, among the frame’s shifting palette of colors and lighting. When Bond is poisoned by one of Le Chiffre’s cronies, the changes in both natural and artificial light help send the audience into a similar state of disarray and delusion. Director Martin Campbell shows the audience inside 007’s Rubik’s cube of a mind, telling the story through character movement rather than supplying information in simplified exposition.

    The film does suffer from an almost-too-long running time, pushing two and a half hours and dragging through a few slow periods, but the stylistic pace changes make “”Royale”” the best Bond film since Campbell’s “”Goldeneye”” and Craig the most realistic since Timothy Dalton wore the tuxedo in the late 1980s. Bond is brought down to eye level, speaking in less formal language and exhibiting more emotion — granted, with explosions, shoot-outs and car chases behind. But 007 has finally gained something he has long evaded: his own humanity.

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