The Bond franchise wasn't dying. While Bond's Q rating had peaked in the 1960s with Goldfinger and Thunderball, the four recent Pierce Brosnan films were the highest-grossing of the series, and Brosnan's box office popularity showed no real signs of softening. Yet there was something increasingly antiquated about the character, made all the more obvious by slick, innovative spy films like The Bourne Identity that ran circles around preposterous Bond gadgetry like space-based laser cannons and invisible cars.
With Casino Royale, an updated adaptation of author Ian Fleming's first 007 tale, director Martin Campbell went back to the beginning. Bond was reborn. (Or at least re-Bourne, with a better, stronger, faster action hero.) Craig is different from Bonds we've seen before; he's a smug pug with the cold, ruthless eyes of a killer. With gleeful brutality, the actor finally delivers a Bond we might fear.
Yet you could argue that a Bond film has never been as female-friendly. There's plenty of flesh in Royale, but it's mostly Craig's. He even has his own Ursula Andress moment, emerging from the Bahamian surf in full beefcake mode. (''I tried on quite a few pairs of swimming trunks,'' admits Craig in a candid doc chronicling the highs and lows of ''Becoming Bond.'' ''What was I thinking?'') And M may as well stand for Mother, considering the schoolmarm scoldings Bond's boss (Judi Dench) hurls at him; meanwhile, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the treasury official who gives as good as she gets, breaks through Bond's steely shell to steal his heart.
It's tempting to call Lynd a new breed of Bond girl, but let's not get carried away. After all, the most unintentionally amusing part of the updated 2002 AMC special Bond Girls Are Forever, included in this two-disc set, is hearing Luciana Paluzzi (1965's Thunderball), Lois Chiles (1979's Moonraker), and others echo Carey Lowell (1989's Licence to Kill) when she says, ''[My character is] a Bond girl, but she's different from all the Bond girls.'' Sure. Of course she is.
Still, this film clicks best when Lynd is playfully jousting with 007 and it's a good thing, since Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a gambling terrorist financier who literally cries blood, is the least formidable Bond villain ever. Mikkelsen's expression of menace during the momentum-killing poker games (''A proverbial nightmare,'' Campbell calls them) could easily be confused for chronic indigestion. Perhaps this is for the best, since it forces the film's focus rightfully back on the Bond/Lynd dynamic, which reveals more insight into 007 than the previous 20 films combined. B+