"Do I look like I give a damn?" Daniel Craig's James Bond says when a bartender asks him whether he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred. But Craig's Bond clearly gives a damn in Casino Royale, Martin Campbell's action-packed, romance-laden contribution to the world's most successful movie franchise. You may not be able to see it in his face - a pug's mug that, though handsome in a man's-man kind of way, looks like someone went after it with a baseball bat. And you may not be able to hear it in his voice - a low, surly growl that, though eloquent in a British-accent kind of way, sounds like he's been chewing on rocks. But actions speak louder than words, and the eyes are the windows to the soul. And Craig's eyes are so crystal clear that you can see all the way to the bottom. We don't have to be told this guy is prepared to go to the ends of the earth to get his man...and his woman.
Although Pierce Brosnan was still making the cash registers sing, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson decided to reboot the series, go all the way back to Ian Fleming's very first Bond novel. And the result is a grittier, moodier Bond - "a blunt instrument," as Judi Dench's M describes him early on. The movie opens with the two hits that will qualify Bond for double-O status, and one of them is so brutal you wonder whether he didn't sign up for Her Majesty's Secret Service specifically in order to take advantage of its license to kill. Then, after a title song that won't be remembered past next Tuesday ("You Know My Name," by Chris Cornell), we're plopped down in the middle of a cobra-mongoose fight in Mbale, Uganda, where ensues a chase on foot that will be remembered as long as images are projected on screens. Like Bond himself, Campbell has some killer-diller moves.
And just when you think he's about to run out of them, he comes up with some more. Craig may be the most athletic of all the men who've played Bond, and he does a lot of acting with his body - a body that, I might point out, looks equally good in or out of clothes. (This time, it's Craig, not Ursula Andress, who emerges, wet with desire, from the ocean's lapping waves.) When he runs after a speeding automobile, you can actually imagine him catching up to it. And when Bond pulls off one of his stunts, like hanging from the side of a fuel truck about to blow sky high, you can see the cuts and bruises that result from such heroic tomfoolery. If Roger Moore had had to put himself through this kind of stuff, he'd have wound up in a truss. But Craig makes it part of the character - Bond as a diamond in the rough that may never sparkle like Brosnan did. Suavity isn't this Bond's strong suit. Ruthless efficiency is.
Speaking of strong suits, Casino Royale pits him against a gentleman named Le Ciffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a winner-takes-all game of Texas Hold 'Em. Unlike the villains of the past, who wanted to take over the world, Le Ciffre wants what Dr. Evil, adjusting for inflation, would refer to as "one hundred meeeellion dollars." Perhaps he can then afford to repair his left eyeball, which literally sheds tears of blood - a poker tell to rival cursing under one's breath. But the game, which luxuriously stretches over a number of scenes, as if the movie suddenly had all the time in the world, manages to generate a fair amount of tension, despite a deck of cards that appears to consist mostly of aces. By this time, we've also met Vesper (Eva Green), the most beautiful CPA in the world. An employee of the British government, she's responsible for keeping Bond in cash. He would have taken her for free, of course.
Vesper? That's no name for a Bond girl. And the fact is, there aren't any of those Bond girls around. But Craig and Green get something going that we really haven't seen since George Lazenby's Bond went so far as to tie the knot in Her Majesty's Secret Service - a genuine love story. Their scenes together have the playful banter of a vintage romantic comedy, and Vesper brings out the tenderness in Bond, the chewy center that he's been trying to build a shell around. Through their witty probing of each other's defenses, we learn more about Bond's past - the Oxford education, but without the aristocratic background that usually bequeaths such an education - in 40 seconds than we've learned in 40 years. And we have absolutely no trouble understanding why Bond falls in love with her. She's beautiful, intelligent, sexy, crafty and awfully good with numbers - in short, a worthy opponent.
As for Le Ciffre, he's no Goldfinger, but he'll do. And when he finally lays his hands on Bond, in a torture scene that gets right to the meat of the matter - actually, to the beans part of frank-and-beans - he seems almost overqualified for the job. When Goldfinger had a laser beam heading toward Bond's phallic symbol, the scene was played for tongue-in-cheek laughs. Here, it's played for tears - bloody tears. And you have to wonder whether, despite how well this movie is put together, it's really the way to go. What, other than quality, sets it apart from all the other high-octane action films out there? Isn't it just XXX for adults? There are no gadgets in Casino Royale, to speak of, nor any Q to demonstrate them. What's a Bond film without Q? "Christ, I miss the Cold War," M says early on, acknowledging Bond's salad days. I know just how she feels. I miss both the Cold War and the smirk with which Bond waged it.