After a typically exciting pre-credits sequence, Casino Royale -- like almost all James Bond films before it -- employs the tried-and-true image guaranteed to raise the pulses of Bond fans all across the globe. The dapper agent strolls into the frame, whirls around and fires directly at the circular camera eye while the classic 007 theme plays on the soundtrack. Only... Where’s the music? Monty Norman’s familiar riff does show up during the end credits, but it’s conspicuously missing from the beginning. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson insisted that the franchise would largely be starting from scratch with this, the 21st film, but let’s face it: Not employing that beloved tune was a serious miscalculation. Fortunately, it’s about the only one. In most other respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years -- it’s just a shade away from being worthy enough to breathe the rarefied air of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and the criminally underrated For Your Eyes Only. It easily swats aside the Pierce Brosnan Bond flicks, while new star Daniel Craig vies with Timothy Dalton for second place as the screen’s best 007 (it’s doubtful Sean Connery will ever relinquish the gold). Casino Royale was actually the first Bond book penned by Ian Fleming, so it’s fitting that it serves as the source material for this refashioning of the series. Basically, this new film wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted by M (Judi Dench, the only holdover from the Brosnan years) to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. Bond’s first mission of import is to enter a poker tournament being held in Montenegro’s Casino Royale, where he’s to prevent Eurotrash villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a personal financier of the world’s terrorist organizations, from emerging victorious and collecting the sizable pot. Aiding him in his assignment is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a treasury agent who proves to be Bond’s match in the verbal sparring department. The character of Vesper Lynd -- one of the sharpest women in the Bond oeuvre -- is just one of the many pleasing touches on view in this slam-bang chapter. The most notable differences can be found in the secret agent himself: As intensely played by Craig, this James Bond isn’t a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he’s just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we’re used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero.
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