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‘Casino Royale’ takes a gamble

“Gimme a martini,” demands a flustered James Bond.

“Shaken or stirred?” asks the barman.

“Do I look like I care?” Bond snaps back.

It’s hardly what we’ve come to expect from the debonair super spy – but, then again, ‘Casino Royale’ is hardly what we’ve come to expect from the 007 franchise.

The physics-defying stunts are, instead, gritty, almost plausible action sequences. There’s no explosive toothpaste or invisible car. And the smarmy, indestructible hero with the cheesy one-liners is now a mere mortal, who hurts, bleeds and messes up – badly.

What was once a comic book is now real, or something vaguely resembling it; the tuxedoes, Aston Martins, vodka cocktails, postcard locations and girls are all still there.

But the message remains clear: Her Majesty’s finest has Jason Bourne firmly in his sights. And the amnesiac assassin had better watch his back – the Bond producers have got 007’s makeover right, just about.

They tried it before with the misguided ‘Licence to Kill’ but were let down by a botched script and a star (Timothy ‘rat boy’ Dalton) who thought that scowling was the way to look rugged, yet sensitive. No such problems this time in the acting department – Daniel Craig is a revelation. Blowing his detractors away with a fiery performance that’s parts brash arrogance, impulsive hothead, spoilt child, heartless cad, insecure loner and sensitive confidante, the actor effortlessly transforms the character we’ve grown to know over 40 years.

It helps that the story takes MI6’s finest back to the beginning of his career – when he wasn’t quite so fine. A “blunt instrument”, in the words of M (Judi Dench as the only familiar face), his lack of skills is obvious as he makes his first kill, bludgeoning a thug in a dank public toilet.

The film’s opening scene, it sets the tone for a darker, more physical and violent experience, captured with grainy guerrilla-style camera work that, during a particularly brutal torture scene, literally hits you where it hurts.

But, as its title implies, there’s more to this story than running, jumping, fighting and shooting. There’s also poker – a whole lot of it. Granted, the focal point of the piece is a high-stakes card tournament organised by the resident villain Le Chiffre, but there’s only so much dealing, bluffing and calling you can take before the tedium sets in. Looks of concentration from Bond and the villainous banker with an axe to grind don’t do much to up the ante either, and it’s here that ‘Casino Royale’ fails to cash in its chips.

Director Martin Campbell (who also directed ‘Goldeneye’) is far more comfortable shooting action and the screenwriters (who include ‘Traffic’ Oscar winner Paul Haggis) literally lose the plot as they struggle to work the poker playing into a story that’s already overly long and convoluted. Not even a ravishing Eva Green, as Vesper Lynd, spices up the card play – but elsewhere, she easily kills off the cliches of the dumb, awestruck bimbo whose dialogue is limited to “oooh James”.

Lynd, an investment banker, is the first Bond Girl with some substance – and Green tackles the character with as much vigour as Craig does his. For once, we actually care what happens to them. Their initial meeting, particularly, is handled with aplomb, derailed only by a rather corny moment of product placement – one of several that threaten to undermine the film’s intended credibility.

‘Casino Royale’, like Craig’s Bond, is clearly flawed. But, like Craig’s Bond, it’s captivating.

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