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Film review: ‘Casino Royale’ is a sure bet

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CASINO ROYALE — *** — Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench; rated PG-13 (violence, gore, torture, brief sex, brief drugs, profanity, vulgarity, brief partial nudity).

When you think about it, saying that "Casino Royale" is the best James Bond film in quite a while is not much of a compliment.

With the exception of a few selected sequences, the Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton 007 adventures were mediocre at best. And the less said about the later-period Roger Moore films the better. ...

But thankfully, the first film with Daniel Craig as Bond does have the more serious, earnest tone of the earliest Sean Connery films, which means less tomfoolery and silliness, and more action.

This back-to-the-basics adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel attempts to show what turned the secret agent into a "blunt weapon" of the British MI-6 agency, as it is put by his boss, M (Judi Dench).

Bond is actually on thin ice after botching an assignment. But M nevertheless entrusts him with another important mission — to stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a gambler who supplies funds for terrorists. To do so, Bond will have to beat Le Chiffre at a high-stakes game of Texas Holdem Poker, while his every move is observed by an overanxious British government accountant named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, from "Kingdom of Heaven").

Some of the plotting — courtesy of two veteran Bond scribes and Paul Haggis — is a little convoluted, and those who aren't poker aficionados may be confused by some of the gambling aspects. Also, the film appears to come to a sudden, unexpected end, only to restart quite abruptly.

Despite those missteps, however, director Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye") does bring a grittiness to this adventure that may remind some of the "Bourne Identity" movies. And a dazzling early sequence using urban martial-arts combat techniques is breathtaking.

As for the initially controversial Craig, he acquits himself quite nicely. He's convincing physically and actually warms up when the story requires it (especially in the final third or so).

In fact, it's pretty much Craig's film. Most of the supporting performers — including Giancarlo Giannini and, as CIA agent Felix Leiter, Jeffrey Wright — are consigned to second- or third-fiddle status.

"Casino Royale" is rated PG-13 for strong scenes of action violence (shootings, beatings, hand-to-hand combat, vehicular violence, explosive mayhem and violence against women), some gore, a scene of torture and interrogation, a couple of brief sex scenes, brief drug content (use of a hypodermic, as well as a poisoning), scattered profanity, some suggestive language, and brief, partial male nudity. Running time: 144 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com