By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- By rights he should be well into middle age, but James Bond turns 21 (movies, that is) here with a new look and a fresh start.
Double-0-seven can't compete with Tarzan or Godzilla for screen outings, but neither of these worthies can match him for consistency.
His escapades stretch back to the Cuban Missile Crisis and span nine U.S. presidents, notwithstanding a six-year moratorium after the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the toppling of Timothy Dalton).
Judging by the box office returns for the last film, he's lost little of his appeal; the dire "Die Another Day" made $432 million worldwide.
The changing of the guard has become a significant element in the long-term sustainability of the franchise, and the most compelling reason to see "Casino Royale" is obviously to check out Bond Mark VI, Daniel Craig.
Breathe easy -- he passes the test with flying colors.
And you need not read too much into an early crack about the short life expectancy of the double 0s, since he's already signed on for two more films.
Well established in the UK for dramatic roles in "Mother" and "Enduring Love," Craig may be more familiar to American audiences for his supporting turns in "Munich," "Infamous" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Blond, muscular and pugnacious, he is closer to Sean Connery's working-class insolence than his smarmier successors. This is a utilitarian, back-to-basics Bond, a "blunt instrument," as M (Judi Dench) puts it (echoing Bond author Ian Fleming), stripped of the knowing smirk and salacious wink.
Which is not to say Craig's Bond isn't cocky -- that's his designated character flaw -- but the rough edges haven't been shaved off yet.
"Shaken or stirred?" inquires a barman.
"Do I look like I give a damn?" Bond shoots back.
It's appropriate the vehicle for this relaunch should be Fleming's first novel. "Casino Royale" was filmed as a spoof in 1967, but it's no more inherently ridiculous than any of the others, and the (quite faithful) new version leans over backward to play down the series' more decadent accoutrements: the girls, the gadgets and the gizmos (though not, alas, the product placement).
Although bad guy Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) has acquired the baroque habit of crying blood, he's a banker looking for profit, not a megalomaniac thirsting for world domination.
Too bad for him Bond foils a plan to blow up a prototype super-sized airliner at Miami airport (the second of the film's big three action set-pieces). After taking a bath at the stock market, Le Chiffre organizes a multimillion-dollar private poker tournament to win back his dodgy clients' money.
The British Treasury stakes Bond to the tune of $10 million, but sends Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) along to keep tabs on the taxpayers' investment. Given Le Chiffre's glaringly obvious "tell," it seems like a good bet.
And speaking of tells, there's no way of knowing for sure which parts of the script belong to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (veterans of the last two Brosnan Bonds) and which were glossed by the seemingly ubiquitous Paul Haggis ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby"), but the old-school romantic sparring between Vesper and Bond has the double Oscar winner's fingerprints all over it: both for the gallant stab at sophisticated repartee and the earnest attempts to invest these fantasy figures with psychological depth.
He even pokes around for some vestige of dormant humanity in the disquietingly professional killer.
This Bond bleeds and bruises, though he also gives as good as he gets. Then he goes sappy on us -- another lesson to be learned over time (144 minutes of it). In this fourth act the movie finally overplays its hand.
Despite Green's spirited performance, the plot stops dead in its tracks for a spot of lethargic and unconvincing R & R. When the expected twist finally arrives, the climactic showdown in a Venetian townhouse doesn't muster the emotional wallop exacted by "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" in similar circumstances.
Still, there's clearly life in the old dog yet. Bond may or may not be relevant in the New World Disorder, but against all odds he remains a potent figure.
Consider: As usual, the filmmakers serve their best up front. It's a high-wire chase scene starting in a construction site and ending with a shoot-'em-up in an (unnamed) embassy. The bit is an uproarious demonstration of sheer reckless endeavor. No introductions are necessary. Who else could it be?
"Casino Royale" runs 144 minutes and is rated PG-13. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
Daniel Craig assumes James Bond's license to kill in "Casino Royale."
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