*** (out of four)
I have been a fan of Daniel Craig since 2002’s “Road to Perdition.” In that film, Craig played the son of an Irish mob boss (Paul Newman) who craved his father’s approval more than anything because his dad treated Tom Hanks’ character more like a son. To prove himself, Craig’s character killed Hanks’ wife and son and then had to go in hiding so he wouldn’t be murdered himself.
What distinguished Craig in his major American role was that he appeared very tough but was really scared on the inside. The viewer got to see him kill mercilessly but later cower under Daddy’s gaze and start blubbering like a baby to save himself.
Since then, Craig has made a career of playing characters who are tough as nails, most notably in last summer’s British gangster movie “Layer Cake,” and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” in which he played an assassin for the Mossad.
There has been Internet chatter this year on what kind of James Bond Craig would make, and “Casino Royale” should put any doubters in their place. Craig brings a cold, steely resolve to the character that makes it all seem fresh. Pretty remarkable for a movie franchise 44 years old.
“Casino Royale” has Bond playing in a high-stakes poker game against someone who funds terrorist militias in Africa. Bond happens to be very good at poker, so he is sent to win the money. He is warned, though, that if he loses, the British government will have directly funded terrorism.
“Casino Royale” introduces us to the young James Bond. It’s not really an origin story, but he’s new to the job and we do see Bond learn a few things about his chosen profession along the way. When he falls in love, we can scarcely believe it because Bond doesn’t fall in love right? Well, this Bond may be clever, but he’s still human. Although he may act invincible, he still has emotions and hasn’t learned to keep them at bay yet. Craig pulls off the balance between Bond’s relentless killer instincts and his vulnerability beautifully.
Early in the film, there is a fantastic scene where Bond chases someone over a construction site, leaping from beam to beam. The sense of danger never lets up. After that, there are surprisingly few action sequences, but you hardly notice because the director, Martin Campbell, manages to wring tension out of almost every scene. Even sitting at a table playing cards seems exciting.
The film’s other merits are great supporting performances from Judi Dench, Jeffery Wright and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the poker-playing villain with a tear duct problem. Every now and then, a drop of blood trickles out of his eye. The gorgeous Eva Green (“Kingdom of Heaven”) plays a very in-control Bond girl and does a wonderful job.
Although James Bond has been a family moviegoing tradition for decades (despite always having a large amount of sexual innuendo), parents might want to be a bit wary with this one. Some of its violence is pretty graphic and one of the set pieces is a torture scene.
“Casino Royale” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.