MOVIE REVIEW- Best yet: 'Casino Royale' tops old Bonds

It takes balls to tamper with a formula while it's still working. The four films with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond grossed a total of nearly $1.5 billion worldwide, with the last being by far the most successful. Hollywood's usual practice is to make the next movie as much like the last as possible.

Instead they've made a lot of changes, though not as many as it would first appear, in Casino Royale, the second film from Ian Fleming's first 007 novel. The first, which wasn't part of the official franchise, was a 1967 spoof that featured several actors (Peter Sellers, David Niven, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, etc.) playing some form of Bond.

The new Casino Royale stars Daniel Craig as the one and only James Bond, but the filmmakers hedge their bets and tweak him as they go along so everyone gets the Bond they want at least part of the time. He doesn't turn into Sellers or Andress, but he goes from grittier than Sean Connery to suaver than Pierce Brosnan and more sensitive than anybody. He's blond (James Blond) but is usually lit so his hair looks darker.

Directed by Martin Campbell, who brought Brosnan to Bond in Goldeneye but most recently screwed up Beyond Borders and The Legend of Zorro, Casino Royale announces a new beginning (although it's set in the present and Judi Dench is still M, Bond's boss) by opening with a black-and-white sequence that shows how Bond earned his license to kill, i.e., double-0 status.

Craig's Bond is a scrappy streetfighter who's not afraid to get his hands dirty, an orphan who worked his way up to wealth and sophistication. He's not afraid to get blood on the tux he doesn't wear all that often. Although I still would have preferred Clive Owen, I have to admit I erred in saying Craig was all wrong for the role.

The animated credit sequence, to a lame song by Chris Cornell that's a far cry from the days when Bond themes always made the top ten, is all about violence without a hint of sex. Where are the bikinis?

Then comes a doozy of an action sequence in Madagascar, an exciting, physics-defying chase that explains the credit for "free running stunts." It ends with Bond shooting an apparently unarmed man in front of security cameras. The image is soon all over the tabloids and the Internet, embarrassing MI6.

Bond makes nice, but not too nice, with M, who tells him they're "trying to find out how a whole network of armed terrorists is financed." We already know, because we've seen Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who literally cries blood, in Uganda, taking money from a dictator to invest for him.

007 has an interlude in the Bahamas, where he plays cards with bombmaker Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), winning his cash, his car and his wife. He follows Dimitrios to Miami, where there's another terrific action sequence as our hero tries to keep a new plane, the largest ever built, from being blown up.

That's Act One, and it's pretty much downhill from there. Act Two is set at Casino Royale in Montenegro (did the Bond films invent globalization?), where Le Chiffre is trying to win back the money he lost on the airplane fiasco in a $150 million poker game. Britain backs Bond with the $10 million it costs to enter but sends along an accountant to protect their investment and decide whether to advance him another $5 million if he needs it.

At last we know it's a Bond film because the accountant is the lovely Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and they engage in the usual pre-sexual banter, though without the usual double-entendres. At least she gets him into a tux before he gets her out of her clothes. There's another action sequence during a break, but it's nothing compared to the earlier ones.

The third act involves torture and mutilation, but when a traditional Bond film would be ending, this one moves to Venice for a romantic fourth act and a surprising fifth. Each lets you see at least one more side of Bond, giving Craig a chance to show his range but making the character almost seem to suffer from multiple personality disorder.

Jeffrey Wright is introduced as the CIA's Felix Leiter, who doesn't have much to do but could return in future installments. 

Making the villain an investment banker instead of someone out for world domination (if you want to rule the world today, you buy it) isn't very sexy but makes sense; recent Bond villains have been absurd to the point of turning the movies into self-parodies.

For all its faults, Casino Royale is the best Bond film in a long time, possibly decades. If the next one takes its template from the first hour of this one, they can go on forever.