At the screening of Casino Royale, the 21st James Bond film, the aisles were patrolled by menacing heavies equipped with night-vision goggles. It was like something out of . . . well, out of a James Bond film. Forget preventing piracy: their real brief was to eject anyone caught enjoying themselves excessively. This latest Bond film has nothing in common with the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale, and exhibits little of the jokiness of the official series, which once prized gags as much as guns. This is a serious, even downbeat, endeavour. It begins in black and white. It contains graphic violence. And there are no gadgets, though Bond does throw a pistol at someone. But it's hardly up there with the jet-powered backpack.
In this pared-down revamp, the plot is as lean as the new leading man, Daniel Craig, and the entire story revolves around money. No fleets of submarines or plans for world domination - just money. Bond is pursuing Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a private banker to the world's terrorists. Le Chiffre has carelessly blown his clients' funds on a stock-market gamble and is out to recoup the cash before they demand his limbs in lieu of payment. To this end, he sets up a multimillion-dollar poker game that he must contrive to win. If Bond can leave him penniless at the poker table, Le Chiffre will have no choice but to seek refuge from his terrorist pursuers by turning informer for MI6. At least, that's the plan.
Some delightfully kitsch touches intrude on the dourness of Casino Royale. One scene has Bond emerging from the ocean, in trunks so tight they could be tattoos, to watch a raven-haired beauty riding a white horse along the beach; you half expect Duran Duran to wander into shot. Then there is the sultry music that plays whenever a woman appears on screen, just in case we hadn't noticed her in, say, that low-cut, red silk number. And Le Chiffre, with his significant facial scars, upholds the fine tradition of Bond villains - he weeps tears of blood and uses an asthma inhaler. All right, so the inhaler isn't that evil. But Le Chiffre does devise a torture for Bond that involves stripping him naked, tying him to a chair with the seat ripped out and then doing something unspeakable to his genitals. Bond takes this punishment remarkably well - as he attended public school, it must seem like old times.
Ever since Roger Moore was released from his contract when it emerged that he had been clinically dead since 1979, the Bond series has flirted with grittiness. In The World Is Not Enough (1999), for instance, Bond shot a woman at point blank range and didn't even have the decency to deliver a light-hearted quip afterwards. It's all in keeping with Ian Fleming's conception of his hero as a sadistic brute, and Craig brings the character even closer to those origins. He does such a convincing job of uncovering the stalactite that Bond has in place of a heart that there should be no need for the film to keep telling us what a cad he is. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the accountant who accompanies Bond to Casino Royale to bankroll his poker game, calls him a "cold bastard". His perpetually disapproving boss, M (Judi Dench), says: "I would ask you to remain emotionally detached, but I don't think that's your problem." We don't need these reminders when Craig says it all, and more, with a mere glance.
The film allows him to commit all manner of beastly acts; by the time the opening credits begin, he has already drowned an adversary in a sink. But that's not half as cruel as one look from those arctic blue eyes. The most chilling moment in the film has nothing to do with Le Chiffre: it's the impassive expression that Bond wears as he watches the woman who was caressing him the night before being zipped into a body-bag. You can see him mentally crossing out her name in his little black book, for ever. It's a characteristic touch in a film that strips most of the glamour and escapism from Bond, but remains the truest and toughest instalment yet.
Pick of the week
Breaking and Entering (15)
dir: Anthony Minghella
Love and loss in London. Great stunts, too. No, really.
37 Uses for a Dead Sheep
dir: Ben Hopkins
Wry drama-documentary about the Pamir-Kirghiz tribe in eastern Turkey.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG)
dir: Henry Selick
Warped kiddie horror, re-released in non-migraine-inducing 3D.