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MOVIE REVIEW

"Casino Royale'': Bond series pulls an ace in Daniel Craig

Casino Royale
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis, based on the novel
by Ian Fleming
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 144 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity)

The new James Bond is quick and muscular, and there is nothing remotely camp about him. He doesn't wink; in fact, I'm not sure he even blinks. Where other men might athletically sail through a narrow window opening during a chase scene, he prefers to plow through the wall. He's a strapping brute -- young, untested, rough around the edges -- and he is magnificent. Let the purists squawk: In Daniel Craig, the Bond franchise has finally found a 007 whose cruel charisma rivals that of Sean Connery.

Based on the first of Ian Fleming's novels, "Casino Royale" is an origin story, and it wants very much to be this year's "Batman Begins" -- a movie that resets the clock to zero and tells the tale with new and becoming leanness. We're present at the start of things: Bond gets his first Aston Martin here, is fitted for his first tuxedo, briefly considers whether one's martini should be shaken or stirred. (His response is priceless and in keeping with the movie's no-nonsense tone).

Other ritual aspects of the 007 mythos are missing -- there's no Q with his lethal widgets, no Miss Moneypenny, no cat-stroking villain contemplating the vaporization of South America by satellite. Frankly, "Casino Royale" is better off without them. If you miss the old cliches, consider whether, after 21 Bond films and countless parodies, your response is simply Pavlovian.

After a brief, gritty black-and-white opening in which the young spy earns his two kills and ascends to double-0 status, "Casino Royale" sets Bond on the trail of a mysterious bombing network. (The film is set in the modern day, and while it's topical, it's smart enough to steer clear of politics.) A gasp-inducing action sequence sends the hero after a bomber through the streets and among the construction cranes of the capital city of Madagascar, ending in an international incident that proves how much this young man still has to learn.

"You need to take your ego out of the equation," scolds M (Judi Dench), the head of the MI6 British spy agency, to the man she calls a "blunt instrument," and this film is the story of how James Bond gains gravitas -- how he becomes, in essence, the man we know from the Fleming novels and early films like "Dr. No" and "From Russia with Love."

So while there are "Bond girls," and Craig's 007 is appreciative of their bodaciousness, there's too much on his plate to ogle and conquer.

The Madagascar bomber's cellphone leads to a middleman in the Bahamas, who leads to an epicene European financier named Le Chiffre (Danish leading man Mads Mikkelsen), who makes his fortune shorting airline stocks after terrorist attacks he helps engineer. Behind Le Chiffre is a shadowy universe of bigger players; for once, a Bond movie acknowledges that the real world contains people scarier and grayer than Dr. Evil-style madmen.

In an effort to bankrupt Le Chiffre and leave him at the mercy of his associates -- nasty pieces of work like the machete-wielding Ugandan "freedom fighter" played by Isaach de Bankole -- MI6 sends Bond and fellow agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, of Bertolucci's "The Dreamers") to Montenegro for a high-stakes, invitation-only gambling tournament. Bowing to current fashion (and wanting the audience to better follow the bluffing), the producers of "Casino Royale" have replaced the Baccarat of the original novel with Texas Hold 'Em, familiar from a thousand cable shows.

The gambit works even as it instantly dates the film; the inclusion of a pretty dire rock anthem by Soundgarden/Audioslave leader Chris Cornell over the opening credits is another misstep. The director is Martin Campbell, who made the 1995 Bond film "GoldenEye," the two recent "Zorro" movies, and the laughable Angelina Jolie sudser "Beyond Borders"; in his journeyman hands, "Casino Royale" is a stylish, wholly enjoyable piece of work that lacks the organic zing a visionary director, like Christopher Nolan on "Batman Begins," can bring to the party.

It hardly matters, though, because Craig is so good. If he's a newcomer to American mass audiences, followers of British film know the actor from gangster movies like "Layer Cake" and dramas such as "Enduring Love" and "The Mother"; he made an impression as one of the Israeli assassins in "Munich" and gave startling life to killer Perry Smith in the recent "Infamous."

No slight to Connery, Timothy Dalton, or Pierce Brosnan, but there's something to be said for casting an actor of depth and creative daring as Bond. Craig hardly overplays the role, but he gives us proof of the young 007's arrogance and immaturity, shows him tempered by mistakes, and even lets him fall in love with believable reluctance followed by commitment.

(Green, for her part, keeps elegant pace.) Then a few things occur from which the James Bond we know finally emerges: wiser, harder, locked, loaded. With barely a sign of strain, Craig delivers what we least expected: a portrait of the artist as a young spy.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. His blog can be found at boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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