Having made the requisite two kills, James Bond is promoted to double-oh status and dispatched to Africa to ... well, it's not quite clear, but something goes wrong at a match between a cobra and mongoose, and we're off and running, literally. Martin Campbell's actioner Casino Royale is an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, yet it presumes we know who Bond is, and what he's up to. (Virtually the only resemblance this version bears to the eponymous 1967 spoof is that each features a card game.) Nearly an hour goes by before we get any hint of the thin plot.
Bond's boss, M (Judi Dench), sighs early on, "I miss the Cold War" -- and so must many screenwriters. The devious Soviet masterminds of the original story have been modernized into vague terrorist financiers. When villains burst on the scene selling stocks short for the benefit of nameless, causeless Ugandan "freedom fighters," I missed the Cold War too.
But I digress. Bond's assignment is to whip Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a dull villain with one intriguing physical defect, during a card game. (It's something like -- if Bond loses, then the terrorists win ... lots of money.) At his side is another British agent and accountant, the tart-tongued and brainy Vesper (Eva Green).
Part of the fun of the Bond series has been the fantasy that being a spy is a dripping-with-sophisticated-money sort of occupation. Yet much of Casino Royale appears to be an awkward updating of the beloved-Bond-of-yore with clunky contemporary everyman twists. Yet there's no excuse for switching the story's central card game from baccarat to Texas Hold 'Em. Bond shows up in a hand-tailored dinner jacket; the dealer for this $150 million game is apparently on loan from the Golden Nugget in Laughlin, and sports shirtsleeves and a card-patterned vest.
While my attention strayed occasionally in this overly long adventure, I enjoyed Daniel Craig as Bond. His craggy looks, rough edges and tendency to get physical fast suggested a Bond in formation, a man still new to the job who hadn't quite refined his street strengths with savoir faire. As for the Bond girls -- fans need not look here. The only bathing suit eye-candy you get is from Craig. Unclothed, he looks smashing wet, bloodied or mid-torture (even the villain notes approvingly that he's in good shape).
Typically, there's much globe-hopping, though Campbell never steps back to let the locations breathe. As for action, a lot of slow and disconnected scenes separate the film's two best sequences: a parkour-styled chase that has the bad guy and Bond scrambling up a construction site to dizzying heights, and a closing shoot-out in Venice that's as cool to watch as it is ludicrous. That's more like it.
Starts Fri., Nov. 17.