ZIYA US SALAM
CASINO ROYALE (PVR Priya, Shiela and other Delhi theatres)
Is this the greatest gamble that the James Bond producers have taken since the first film hit the silver screen way back in 1967?
Bond is there. So is his espionage ability. The girl is there too. And the action keeps the world's most famous secret agent company. Yes, Bond is still recognised, feared and hailed wherever there is light and sunshine, electricity and water. How then is Martin Campbell's film "Casino Royale" the biggest gamble ever undertaken in the series, now into the 20th celluloid version?
The gamble begins with the hero, Daniel Craig, who plays James Bond for the first time. The sixth leading man of the 40-year-old saga, he lacks the intensity of Pierce Brosnan. And is, to put it politely, not exactly in Sean Connery's league.
But he is handsome with very international features: all muscles, no flesh, gaunt look, lean, mean and hungry. If he is not as intense as Brosnan, he is thankfully not as glum.
And he actually manages to show his romantic side, a stolen moment here, a longing glance there. Bond and romance? Yes, that is a gamble!
The second gamble comes with the heroine, Eva Green, who gets rid of the Bond girls' in-your-face sexuality. Hers is a simmering sensuality that grows on the patient viewer. Not the one with desperate curves, thunder thighs, clinging swimming costumes, she remains suggestively covered.
She does not fire guns, nor is she dripping wet. The oomph is replaced by soft appeal. She remains a vulnerable enchantress. Isn't that a gamble too!
Is that the last chance Campell took with "Casino Royale"?
No. Far, far from it. The biggest risk comes from the scaling down of the action, the virtual go-by to the famous car-chase scenes. And a serious paring down of special effects.
They still make an impact when called upon, but it is not an overriding presence. The film breathes, lives without them.
So does that mean that the new James Bond is just a man with bones, no flesh; a girl with sobriety but no sexuality, and a tame film that is never going to thrill those who love their cinema fast furious?
No, again. And thank God for that. The new Bond retains all the characteristics of yore.
He still packs a punch. His wallop still carries the enemies a mile. He is still ruthless, and menacing too. And failure is foreign to him. His half invitation still has the heroine feeling weak and helpless.
There is just that little difference. The guns boom, the shots never miss the target. But the action is more human, less mechanical. Yes, it is gut-wrenching, particularly those torture scenes. But it is all done in a manner we have got accustomed to in those Jackie Chan-Lee films from Hong Kong.
So there is a lot of use of quick reflexes, the thundering shot, the freestyle kicks. Blood oozes as the hero gets hurt or is stupefied by the rivals.
But the dazzling special effects are used only at the beginning and the climax: in the famous building crash and the long chases in Uganda and Madagascar.
The realistic touch is all thanks to Paul Haggis who had given us "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" not long ago. He joins Neal Purvis and Robert Wade to keep the film reined in. So the new Bond is special yet human. He gets hurt. He feels the pain. He retaliates.
The story? Well, Ian Fleming's novel is given a dash of immediacy: this time the money is in the hands of an evil man who will use all the bucks to fund terrorist activities.
And Bond is the one who can save us all. Going by his impeccable record, the future of humanity - at least on the silver screen - is secure. Never mind if Bond is supposed to outwit his rivals at a casino first!
Yes, the new Bond is interesting enough. Craig, last seen in "Munich", is stylish, suave.
He is not conventional, and that might just work out in his favour.
He is brooding, yet when he smiles he makes you smile with him. He carries no swagger, just a purposeful stride.
And Green is so different. She is more Indian in her ways than any Bond girl: she whimpers, sighs, smiles in a manner so delectable. She does not need to shed clothes to appeal to men. She does not have to take to guns to score a point either.
And Judi Dench is quietly efficient as Bond's boss, the lady who controls him yet gives him that much leeway to work on his own. She underplays her characters. That is quite an achievement for somebody with a long theatre background.
Whether you prefer Hindi - the film has been released with almost a dozen prints in the language - or English, get ready for Bond. James Bond. Different but commanding. And charismatic as ever.