'Casino Royale' strips the Bond franchise down to its bare essentials

I wanted to put a pillow over his face. To end it for what was left of his own dignity. Because it's hard to see someone you love become so humiliated.

But now I'm glad they didn't euthanize James Bond, because "Casino Royale" is the best movie of the series in almost 40 years. Keep your wallet holstered for a second, though, and reflect on their long decline, on how they'd become increasingly tired, silly, overblown, cliché-ridden copies of copies. Remember that the "Bourne" flicks almost finished the hit job that Austin Powers had started on the perfect Cold War spy who made no sense in the 21st century.

To sum up: Expectations were low. So when a bartender asks if he'd like his martini shaken or stirred and the new, pissed-off Bond answers, "Do I look like I give a damn?" I think I let out some sort of involuntary hoot.

This is a "Royale" without the cheese, a stripped-down, brutal relaunch of the character in the spirit of "Batman Begins" that's light on gadgets and quips, and starts as he's just gotten his double-0 license to kill from Her Majesty's Secret Service. Also, as you may have heard if you live anywhere with electricity, controversial new Bond Daniel Craig replaces Pierce Brosnan.

Ian Fleming's 1953 "Casino Royale" — his first Bond novel — became a wacky, star-studded train-wreck of a movie comedy in 1967, not to mention an unwatchable American TV drama in 1954 — starring Barry Nelson as "Jimmy" Bond. This one honors the basics of the skeletal 144-page book with some necessary padding and updates — and yes, an infamous genital torture scene.

After a mad, hair-raising chase that fails to bring down an African terrorist, the freshly-minted 007 is in hot water with "M" (Judi Dench). She considers him an embarrassment and a "blunt instrument," so reckless and egotistical that she questions the wisdom of promoting him.

Bond's first major nemesis: not a mad genius bent on world destruction/domination/extortion, but the terrorist's banker, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Le Chiffre has a scarred eye that sometimes weeps blood tears, and a gambling habit that's lost his clients' money in bad stock market bets. When he goes to a high-stakes French poker game to recoup his losses, Bond — the best card player in the service — goes there to break him.

Chemistry almost occurs when Bond meets his government money-woman, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). She verbally spars with the cocky agent on a train ride and later decides there's not enough room in an elevator for the two of them and his ego. Green made a strong impression in Bernardo Bertolucci's 2003 "The Dreamers" and is as beautiful as any Bond girl, but she doesn't come close to having the spark of her predecessors Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore) or Diana Rigg (Countess Tracy).

Since this isn't your typical formulaic Bond run-through, that's enough plot revealed. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Patrick Wade were responsible for the moronic "Die Another Day" in 2002, so Oscar-winner "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby" scribe Paul Haggis must have injected the class here.

On to Craig: Fans roughed him up when he landed the gig, but he merits the benefit of the doubt. He's an odd, tough kind of handsome vastly different from the male-model looks of Brosnan. Craig doesn't show the suaveness of earlier Bonds, but this is meant to be 007 before he's fully formed. The fact is, by the time Brosnan uttered his last "Bond, James Bond," it induced the same kind of cringes as Dr. Angus ("You're cheesy!") in the Burger King commercials. When Craig says the words at the end of "Casino Royale," it feels earned and righteous.

Craig is by far the most physical Bond, and the action is admirably furious. This Bond tries really hard. He gets cut and bleeds and has emotions like the literary Bond — who fell in love more than once. He's less self-assured (for Bond, not regular humans), checking out his new dinner jacket in a mirror and congratulating himself after Vesper laughs at one of his cracks. We've never seen Bond dabbing at a wound in the bathroom before.

A note to the filmmakers, though: James Bond is not a decathlete. An early chase after an athletic "free-running" bomb-maker that winds up at dizzying heights becomes Warner-Bros.-esque. Likewise, a climactic set piece involving a sinking building in Venice is just too much for the vibe they're going for. Purists will grumble that the centerpiece card game is changed from baccarat to Texas hold 'em. But the real problem is that director Martin Campbell fails to deliver tension in the hard-to-follow match. A couple of explanations from a character on the side are laughable attempts to compensate.

Still, the adventure is reinvigorating enough that I hope they'll give the same treatment to other Fleming novels — such as "Moonraker," a missile-aimed-at-London thriller that bears no resemblance to the space-comedy film. The new guy's rough around the edges, but let's keep his license renewed a while longer.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Casino Royale" opens midnight tonight. With Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench and Jeffrey Wright. Directed by Martin Campbell from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis. 144 minutes. Rated PG-13 for scenes of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity. Several theaters.