New Bond savors his license to kill

"Casino Royale" unveils Daniel Craig as the new James Bond and, excepting Sean Connery, he's the best.

I remember thinking when I saw the invisible car in "Die Another Day" that the franchise had run its course. It's one thing for Bond to operate in a dangerous world, but a fantasyland?

The new film, based on Ian Fleming's first 007 book, gets back to basics, and then some. Although the novel has been updated – SMERSH has morphed into a terrorist cartel, Chemin de Fer is now Texas hold 'em poker, and so on – it's still about how Bond debuted as Bond.

His first mission pits him against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), banker to the world's terrorists. As Bond villains go, Le Chiffre is extremely low-key. You'd have to go back to Joseph Wiseman's "Dr. No" to find a bad guy with so much ice water in his veins.

You'd also have to go back to "Dr. No" to see such a cold-blooded Bond. The Connery who played Bond in that film and in "From Russia With Love" had a masklike countenance and an edge of cruelty. Craig is even more brutal. He's feral and takes a grim satisfaction in his body counts.

Craig makes you aware of something that the Bond series, in its pursuit of steamy sex and cartoon action, quickly lost sight of: 007 is a killer. That's what he's licensed to do.

I must admit I miss somewhat the old debonair clichés. When Bond Girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the gorgeous Treasury official who delivers Bond's stake in a poker duel with Le Chiffre, asks him if he ever minds offing his enemies, he responds that he wouldn't be very good at his job if he did. It's a bit of a shock to hear this – kind of like hearing Superman say he enjoys splattering bad guys.

Further evidence of a paradigm shift: Bond falls in love with the Bond Girl. What's more, she is highly intelligent and never appears with her clothes off. In fact, Bond is the one who appears most often in the buff; in one scene which must surely be an in-joke, he rises up from the sea like Ursula Andress in "Dr. No."

The Bond character came of age in a cold war era that, for thriller purposes, has outlived its usefulness. By bringing "Casino Royale" into the age of global terrorism, director Martin Campbell and his team risk turning the Bond franchise into a real-world fright show instead of an escape hatch for our action fantasies.

There was something comforting about "Dr. No" and "Goldfinger" and the rest. Their villainy was not of this world. Le Chiffre hits closer to home. Despite his typical Bond villain deformity – when he's nervous, his left eye drips tears of blood – he's not really a fun bad guy.

I don't mean to make "Casino Royale" sound like Dostoevsky. It has its share of thrilling set pieces, including its first, in the streets of Madagascar, where Bond races after a bomber. It's significant that this high-speed scene, which utilizes parkour, the forward-motion martial art made popular in the French thriller "District 13," does not involve any elaborate gadgetry or computer enhancements. It's just one man stalking another.

But in the end, that man is still Bond – James Bond – and he's all the better for being all too human. Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content, and nudity.

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