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Bond begins 

A darker, bloodier 007

Casino Royale opens like an old-school film noir, in black-and-white, with the quintessential member of Her Majesty's Secret Service skulking in the shadows.

Bond has gone dark, very dark in this latest 007 installment, which marks a return to an original Ian Fleming novel as its literary source.

Casino Royale imagines Bond as a fallible, heavy-bleeding real man before becoming the campy, debonair legend of the Bond series. This time, the sunny European resorts and posh casino culture are steeped in a new sort of post-Sept. 11 angst typified by one of the freakiest 007 set pieces yet, involving a nude Bond and genital torture. Like Christian Bale's back-storied Caped Crusader in Batman Begins, movie heroes these days reflect an audience unwillingness to buy the pumped-up action heroes or suave leads of previous eras. And this latest, more human Bond is a welcome reflection of the darker times we live in, as well as a needed spin on a hidebound genre whose conventions certainly could use some tweaking in the post-Austin Powers age.

Though Bond fans will find the requisite car chases and high-flying stunts, in the film's second act there are uncharacteristic surprises, including the kind of romantic, meaningful relationship whose outcome explains the cavalier, ironic Bond mystique to come. Bond always had his problems, what with the Russian super-villains and a host of stateless criminal mongrels. But this Bond's got a whole new bag -- not even hooking up until the film is practically over and hardly bothering to eyeball-fondle the succession of dishy hotel receptionists dangled before him.

Gone are the debonair, smirking himbos of old -- the über-butch original Sean Connery, and the parade of cosmopolitan pretty boys who followed in his wake (George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan).

Because Casino Royale (published in 1953) was the first book in Fleming's spy-novel series, with GoldenEye director Martin Campbell returning to the helm, we meet Bond on his first mission, and tasting his first kills, all providing an appropriate entry point for a new Bond.

As the latest Bond incarnation, scrappy Daniel Craig -- eyes of Windex, body by Soloflex -- has a tough-guy bearing closest to Connery but a nearly imperceptible sense of humor and a world-weariness more reminiscent of Steve McQueen than the quip-dishing lady-killers of yore.

Not that Campbell's revisionist Bond breaks entirely new ground. Casino Royale boasts the usual semi-ludicrous plotline folderol about international terrorists. Bond's chief nemesis: an Albanian super-stinker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who comes accessorized with an asthma inhaler and a milky eyeball that cries bloody tears.

It's not until Bond heads to chic Montenegro for an international poker tournament where he hopes to keep the cash purse away from terrorist-financier Le Chiffre that Casino Royale settles into a groove. The film's better, second half boasts not only the more psychologically interesting cat-and-mouse card game but also an increasingly complex Bond character. On the train to Montenegro, he bonds with a fellow hottie with a tragic childhood: Vesper Lynd (the always-earthy Eva Green), who gives Bond some human traction and substance amid all the fight scenes and ever-changing scenery.

After noticing his "perfectly formed ass" -- a sassy observation even from a Bond babe -- Vesper has her man hook, line and sinker. There is some requisite romantic sparring before the pair turns into soulmates. In a real departure from the Teflon Bond tradition, he comforts Vesper with some sensitive finger-sucking and emotional availability. Viewers may suspect this is a very different Bond early on in Casino Royale when the original International Man of Mystery's first car scene is inside a Ford. But it is in the lovesick scenes with Vesper that Bond delivers something unprecedented: a fallible Bond.

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