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Casino Royale (2006)

The arrival of Casino Royale in 2006 marked several "firsts" for the James Bond film series, among them that it joined two other movies of the same title to become the most-filmed 007 property. Serious Bond buffs know that Casino Royale was the British secret agent's first appearance, both on the page and in dramatic form — not on the big screen, but in a 1954 CBS-TV production starring the little-known Barry Nelson as Bond (with Peter Lorre as the villain Le Chiffre). But the television debut also set off the most notable schism in 007 history — when Ian Fleming later sold the bulk of his book rights to EON Productions, he was unable to include Royale in the deal, which eventually led to Columbia's 1967 spoof Casino Royale starring David Niven. But — thanks to a complicated legal scenario between Sony/Columbia and MGM — by 2005 Casino Royale wound up where most would say it always belonged: In the EON stable, which is still under the direction of producer Albert R. Broccoli's family. Having not adapted an original Fleming work since The Living Daylights in 1987, Eon quickly announced Royale to be their next production. Pierce Brosnan's departure from the role made the story even more appealing, since it was Fleming's first 007 novel, and thus ideal for introducing a new James Bond to the world. After a lengthy casting search, 37-year-old Daniel Craig was selected as the latest man from MI6, but he wasn't the only novelty — the third rendition of Casino Royale offers a James Bond without clever gadgets, or even the distinctive theme music at any point during the action. And after the excesses of several films in the series, some would say that a re-imagining was long overdue.

Casino Royale opens with British secret agent James Bond hunting down a bomb-making cartel in Madagascar — he fails to bring in his quarry, but he does find an interesting code-word on a cell phone: "ellipsis." However, upon returning to London, Bond discovers that his Madagascar mission doesn't sit well with his immediate superior, 'M' (Judi Dench), thanks to his violation of a foreign embassy, which earned international headlines. 'M' recently promoted Bond to "double-0" status, granting him a license to kill, but the newly-minted 007 now considers himself working without higher support. Following a new lead to the Bahamas, Bond trails weapons dealer Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), where he manages the neat trick of winning the man's car in a card bet and seducing his wife (Caterina Murino). However, Bond soon learns that Dimitrios is connected to a lethal plot in the United States — a plot that connects him to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a powerful banker for global terrorism. Short on cash (thanks in part to Bond's doing), Le Chiffre puts together a $150 million poker game in Montenegro, where MI6 hopes to bankrupt him for good. The only problem is that James Bond is the best card player in the service, leaving 'M' with little choice but to send him to the Casino Royale, with the government's money overseen by Treasury official Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

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Thanks to the growing popularity of card-games, Casino Royale has a strong second act — indeed, Fleming's debut novel earned praise for his ability to describe a game of baccarat, and while it's little surprise that the stakes are now played over no-limit Texas hold'em (the poker variant made famous in Rounders), fans are given the opportunity to see James Bond in one of his most natural elements: the elegant, somewhat debauched circles of European high society. Nonetheless, Bond is an outsider here, as he is virtually everywhere — it's hard to imagine 007 with a well-cultivated home life or several close friends, and Casino Royale does a good job of reminding us that James Bond is a bit of a head-case. He's reckless, and at times it seems as if he simply doesn't think he has a lot to lose — the sort of man who, by his very nature, is attracted to (and recruited by) intelligence services. He's not a loose cannon, not by any means. Rather, he's more like a useful, resourceful shotgun blast, when pointed in the right direction. Casino Royale is directed by Martin Campbell, who also oversaw another Bond debut with Goldeneye (1995), arguably Pierce Brosnan's best turn, and another film that hinted at Bond's essentially antisocial character. But with Casino Royale, Campbell oversees several exciting set-pieces without the need for Bond's typical accouterments. It's something more than a matinee this time, much more similar to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2004), which focused on Bruce Wayne rather than his alter-ego, which by that point had become so mythic that the character was no longer suitable for the intimate requirements of drama. Royale doesn't delve too much into Bond's past: We learn that he is an orphan and surmise much for ourselves; we see that he's not a sophisticate, but that he plays one superbly. 'M' considers him to be little more than a "blunt instrument," and for once we wonder if that hurts when he hears it. But he appears a cipher to us, because he's a professional at it, and rarely will anyone see more than one facet of the man at a time. Casino Royale's willingness to upend the 007 mythos — which has seen all manner of silliness over the years — may mark the most important transition in the history of the franchise. It also may come to be regarded as one of the best Bonds ever, given a few more years. For now, it's simply enough to ensure that 007 fans will want to see Daniel Craig as their favorite spy again, and then perhaps again.

Sony's two-disc Special Edition DVD release of Casino Royale offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Disc One offers the feature film, while extras on Disc Two include the featurettes "Becoming Bond" (26 min.), "James Bond: For Real" (23 min.), the TV special "Bond Girls Are Forever" hosted by Maryam d'Abo (50 min.), a Chris Cornell music video, and trailers for other Sony theatrical titles. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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