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Blonde on Bond 

New 007 kicks off holiday film season

CASINO ROYALE
***1/2
DIRECTED BY Martin Campbell
STARS Daniel Craig, Eva Green

After a typically exciting pre-credits sequence, Casino Royale -- like almost all James Bond films before it -- employs the tried-and-true image guaranteed to raise the pulses of Bond fans all across the globe. The dapper agent strolls into the frame, whirls around and fires directly at the circular camera eye while the classic 007 theme plays on the soundtrack. Only ...

Where's the music? Monty Norman's familiar riff does show up during the end credits, but it's conspicuously missing from the beginning. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson insisted that the franchise would largely be starting from scratch with this, the 21st film, but let's face it: Not employing that beloved tune was a serious miscalculation.

Fortunately, it's about the only one. In most other respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years -- it's just a shade away from being worthy enough to breathe the rarefied air of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and the criminally underrated For Your Eyes Only. It easily swats aside the Pierce Brosnan Bond flicks, while new star Daniel Craig vies with Timothy Dalton for second place as the screen's best 007 (it's doubtful Sean Connery will ever relinquish the gold).

Casino Royale was actually the first Bond book penned by Ian Fleming, so it's fitting that it serves as the source material for this refashioning of the series. (The previous Casino Royale picture was a feeble 1967 spoof starring Peter Sellers, David Niven and Woody Allen.) Basically, this new film wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted by M (Judi Dench, the only holdover from the Brosnan years) to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. Bond's first mission of import is to enter a poker tournament being held in Montenegro's Casino Royale, where he's to prevent Eurotrash villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a personal financier of the world's terrorist organizations, from emerging victorious and collecting the sizable pot. Aiding him in his assignment is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a treasury agent who proves to be Bond's match in the verbal sparring department.

The character of Vesper Lynd -- one of the sharpest women in the Bond oeuvre -- is just one of the many pleasing touches on view in this slam-bang chapter. The most notable differences can be found in the secret agent himself: As intensely played by Craig, this James Bond isn't a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he's just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we're used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero.

Forsaking the special effects that ended up dominating the series (too often, it was hard to differentiate a Brosnan Bond from a video game), Casino Royale relies more on stunt work and mano-a-mano skirmishes, confrontations that are up close and personal. This results in a couple of terrific action scenes, one involving a foot chase across a construction site. Even the more staid sequences, such as the actual poker tournament, crackle with a level of excitement missing from most of the recent installments.

Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, "Do I really look like I give a damn?" Blasphemous? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating.

BOBBY
**
DIRECTED BY Emilio Estevez
STARS Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone

If Robert Altman had been dropped on his head as a toddler, Bobby is the sort of movie he might have ended up making instead of the likes of Nashville and The Player. Writer-director Emilio Estevez has clearly adopted Altman's MO for this ambitious effort that's only tangentially about Robert F. Kennedy -- we get the all-star cast, the overlapping dialogue, the furtive glances at the ever-changing American landscape -- but despite a few scattered scenes worth preserving, the overall picture is shallow, tedious and ultimately insignificant.

When I first heard about Bobby way back when, I presumed it would be a biopic about the man, and I experienced a sudden panic attack upon scanning the cast list and realizing that Estevez might have been insane enough to hand Ashton Kutcher the title role. Instead, Estevez's Bobby is like Oliver Stone's JFK in that it doesn't focus on the man as much as it focuses on the events surrounding his death (Bobby primarily appears in newsreel footage and is played by an unknown, filmed from behind, during the assassination sequence). But all comparisons end there: For all its fast and loose playing with the facts, JFK was a remarkable movie that, except for some tepid domestic scenes between the Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek characters, exclusively focused on the Kennedy legacy and how his death impacted a nation. Bobby, on the other hand, is as much about Robert Kennedy as Stone's World Trade Center was about 9/11 -- it uses a national tragedy as a springboard for a more generic Hollywood product.

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