The more things change, the more they stay the same. For all the talk of the James Bond franchise going back to basics with Casino Royale - returning to Ian Fleming's first 007 book, previously filmed in 1967 for a joke; casting Daniel Craig as a much tougher breed of secret agent - it was unlikely to abandon the formula that has raked in so much money over the years. What this solid, mostly uninspired entry offers is more proof that as far as the Bond movies are concerned, the man in the tuxedo is far less important than the tuxedo (or the institution of Bond) itself.
Double-O-phobes and Bond-sceptics will be left with the usual thoughts: that a truly radical overhaul of this series would require new producers (Bond has always had Broccoli in his teeth, or perhaps it's the other way round), a serious rethink of the character, and a director with a personality to impose upon this most rigid of movie frameworks. (Or just someone capable of bringing these modern-day Bonds in under two hours and twenty minutes; much of Casino Royale is spent plodding around the globe in pursuit of people for Bond to chase.) For years now, Quentin Tarantino has been pestering MGM to let him direct a Bond movie, and - even as someone ambivalent towards Tarantino - I have to ask: how cowardly a film producer do you have to be to turn down Tarantino in favour of the man behind The Legend of Zorro?
The first thing to say about Casino Royale is that Daniel Craig is, contra all those nay-sayers, one of its strengths: his performance is the closest we get to a rethink of the character. Craig's predecessor Pierce Brosnan, a good Bond undermined by below-par material, scrubbed up rather too well for the role. Craig, by contrast, sweats. He bleeds. He has furrows in his brow, bags under his eyes and scars all over the shop; his Bond never lets you forget that international espionage, and particularly the business of killing for one's country, is dirty work. He gets a series of scenes of self-actualisation (drowning a man in a sink) or self-realisation (confronting the killer he's become) in bathrooms never afforded to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan (who were too busy checking their lapels in the mirror), and endures a torture scene that goes even further than the one in Korea at the opening of Die Another Day.
Around Craig - and breaking a run of American and Asian guest stars (Teri Hatcher, Michelle Yeoh, Halle Berry, even Denise Richards, for heaven's sake) designed to bump up this most British of franchises' international box-office - we have a Eurocentric Bond, which is no bad thing for those of us who consider From Russia with Love (Connery, Lotte Lenya, Daniela Bianchi) the best 007 of all time. Casino Royale's key spots are filled by less familiar, more interesting faces and varyingly impenetrable accents, even as it jets off to Nassau, Miami and Madagascar.
Alongside Giancarlo Giannini as Bond's contact in Montenegro and Isaach de Bankolé, fresh from Lars von Trier's Manderlay, in the post-PC role of a machine-wielding Ugandan general, the weirdly beautiful Eva Green - part Swedish, part French, part head girl, part vamp - is a very unconventional choice of Bond girl. The always terrific Mads Mikkelsen is chief villain Le Chiffre, a lacquered gambler defined as much by his weaknesses (asthma, an eye that drips blood) as by his tyrannic strength, attempting to fix the global stock markets. (Another example of how Bond always boils down to money. Green's Vesper Lind, an incongruously foxy accountant, puts its best when she remarks "even accountants have imagination", but this is an accountant's wet dream.)
The formula is established well enough by now not to forget its usual quota of pleasures. Daniel Kleinman's opening credit sequences are increasingly more imaginative than the films themselves (the Bond theme, by Chris Cornell, late of grunge rockers Soundgarden, isn't bad), and the Broccolis have the money to recruit the best stunt team in the business, which is why the CGI action in Die Another Day was such a travesty of the Bond ethos. They've learnt from those virtual mistakes, and the opening and closing set-pieces (parkour in Africa, and collapsible townhouse in Venice, respectively) are first-class examples of hands-on action cinema.
Still, director Martin Campbell (who made Goldeneye, the 90s Bond "relaunch", before the Zorro movies) hasn't quite got the best out of these promising elements; everyone here is constrained by the idea of what a modern Bond movie ought to be (rather than what it could be), as though they're wearing dinner jackets two sizes too small. Between its action tentpoles, the stuntmen and women have nothing very much to do while Campbell fails to mine any significant tension from games of high-stakes poker. You'd think, given the explosion of online poker rooms and the popularity of televised games on shows like C4's Late Night Poker, Campbell might have done his homework; but no, this Casino is just people sitting around a table pushing piles of chips into the middle.
The character of Bond, written as a middle-aged man's fantasy and still today a hero for middle-management saddos everywhere, continues to have it too easy: he'd be more fun, and certainly more likable, if he didn't know champagnes by name, had no luck with cards and women alike, and didn't drive - even when giving somebody a lift home - as though he were already involved in a high-speed pursuit. But that's the character, and no-one's likely to change that until we get Rob Schneider as 007 in James Bond: International Gigolo. Though far from the disaster some feared, the arrival of Daniel Craig as Bond finally generates all the excitement and controversy one might experience upon learning the head of a corporate trading house is to be replaced by a new man. In every sense, it's business as usual.
Casino Royale is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.